A tale of many maybes: The bewildered butcher of Yemen

As the relentless heat seared the grounds of Sana’a University in Yemen, the morgue below was frigid. Hidden in the basement, it was empty save for the dead, locked away in their cold steel cabinets. As the world welcomed the new millennium, the morgue was left behind; it was dilapidated, falling apart from inadequate funding and insufficient care. Deep in the old rusty pipes that moaned and hummed from behind the walls, and in the rancid sewers below, lay the dark secret of its sole custodian; morgue assistant Mohammed Adam Omar.

Omar’s tale twists and turns down unexpected paths with nothing but dead ends. His story captured the world’s undivided attention at the time, with conflicting reports by the media compounding the confusion and creating a mythology that played into the fear and superstitions of Arab society.

A self-proclaimed former Sudanese boxing champion, Omar towered menacingly above the female medical students that he had helped in their studies of anatomy in the university’s morgue. Students that he would later confess to murdering.

First, he admitted to raping and killing 50 women around the Arab world, which he later reduced to 16 students only in Yemen, until finally he admitted to, and was ultimately convicted of killing only two students. His trial was rushed, and left far more questions than it answered.

Omar during his trial

Very little is actually known about Omar prior to his life in Yemen, and what we do know is best approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. The Butcher of Yemen (also known as the Sana’a Ripper) had previously worked in Kuwait and Jordan, although he was deported from both countries for reasons that remain unknown to this day. How the 40-something year old (his age was never confirmed and reports varied wildly) came to have this job is itself a mystery, considering that his previous experience was as a janitor of a cemetery in Sudan, and that he was semi-literate.  

His arrest only came after the mother of one of his victims reported her daughter missing to the police and accused Omar of abducting her child, who was on her way to see him when she was never heard from again.

Twenty years after these murders, a confusing mess of facts remain.

Sana’a University

The integrity of Arab journalism at the time was seemingly unable to go beyond rumors and misinformation, which when combined with a typically tight-lipped government response meant that what we know might as well be fiction.

Major publications ran what amounted to little more than unsubstantiated rumors which ranged from the absurd to the macabre. Certain scenarios specifically stand out.

Scenario 1: Omar was a secret agent

In a bizarre turn of events that illustrates just how much truth is stranger than fiction, the officer in charge of the case Colonel Sawadah Omar Al Ayashi accused Omar of being a Mossad agent. The distressed colonel said that the Butcher of Yemen was an Israeli spy since the mid-1970s, operating in several countries throughout the Middle East.

If true, this would make Omar the worst spy in Mossad’s history. For many reasons that are painfully obvious, the likelihood of this being true is so low that it is virtually impossible. This is in fact a fairly common attack in the Middle East, at least informally, used as a means of ostracizing an individual with an unfalsifiable accusation that immediately brands them as “the other”. The Lebanese in particular, masters of dark humor, have a long-running joke that anything that goes wrong, from a busted tire to a leaky pipe, is surely the work of Mossad.

Scenario 2: He bribed professors

Certainly a more plausible explanation for why so many students met with the morgue assistant was that he bribed professors on their behalf. Some media outlets reported that Omar served as a messenger between students and their professors, helping the former cheat on their exams.

Like almost all of these scenarios, mysterious “sources” are cited in the news stories without any evidence whatsoever beyond mere rumors and hearsay.

Scenario 3: Omar filmed the acts of mutilation

On the first day of his trial, Omar, surround by seven court bailiffs, reportedly admitted to filming himself as he mutilated the bodies of his student victims. He was apparently oddly specific about the recording, mentioning that it was done on a VHS of an old religious sermon.

Considering that Omar would soon go on to prove himself a significantly unreliable narrator, and especially since the police never recovered any such tapes, it is exceedingly likely that this was just another one of his boastful embellishments.

Scenario 4: Organized crime rings were the real forces behind the murders

It is not impossible that Omar’s murders were somehow related to an illegal organ trading ring, a prostitution ring, or a wider sex and murder network that included higher-ups in the government. Organized crime rings do exist and their work is as gruesome as it is inane. But considering that there exists no evidence beyond the ramblings of a clearly unstable man facing certain death, it is to unwise to assume that any of these things are true.

What this scenario really reflects is the deep seated paranoia that burrows into the depths of Middle Eastern society. Fueled by a lack of government transparency over virtually everything, society seems to be constantly yearning for a boogie man or some shadowy organization pulling invisible strings to explain away all of their ills and misdeeds. Instead of considering these disturbed individuals as reflections of the inexcusable shortcomings of society, they’re written off as aberrations and anomalies, foreign tumors to be excised.

So what actually happened?

The vile combination of truth, lies and exaggerations posed disturbing questions. How many of these accusations were true? To what extent was he involved? What did he actually do to those students? Were they really only two? Why was the trial so rushed? The misinformation, myth and legend that immediately surrounded the crimes and the criminal make it impossible to know what really happened.

Omar’s trial wasn’t immune to the distortions, which at times reached soap-opera levels of melodrama. Take for instance, the day of his trial wherein one of his alleged victims – that Omar had confessed to raping and killing in great, grisly detail – showed up alive and well in court. 

The fluctuating body count and subsequent recanted confessions were further complicated by the findings of a team of German forensic experts that had flown in to aid in the investigation. After examining the morgue and its sewer, they found over 1,000 remains of mostly men. These remains were not logged into the morgue records, although shockingly, they appeared to be over 50 years old.

The media relished these half-truths and whole-lies, and it seems Omar was enamored by the attention.

Dark Delusions of Grandeur 

Omar took on the role of serial killer with great enthusiasm, and as though straight out of a Hollywood b-movie, he claimed to have been enticed to murder thanks to the beauty of his victims:

“When I see women, and especially beautiful ones, something happens inside me and I can’t resist. Something pushes me to kill and I even enjoy it.”

as told by Omar to a local Yemeni weekly

He added:

“My motive in killing them was to send them to heaven.”


Although he did feel some apparent guilt and longing for salvation, saying:

“I regret what I did and I want to purify myself by turning to God. Executing me would purify me from my sins.”


A Terrible, Troubled Mind

The media whirlwind that followed Omar’s arrest and trial seems to have obscured or overlooked one simple fact; regardless of the details and death toll, he was clearly a deeply troubled person. He even tried to slit his wrists upon his arrest using his glasses but failed when police officers quickly overpowered him.

The dark seeds of his life seem to have taken root early. By his own account, he witnessed the rape of his mother when he was just 7 years old. To make matters worse, he then witnessed his father murder the rapist, chop up his body, and bury his remains in a cattle ranch.

Ultimately, none of this would matter. The courts needed to end the world’s critical attention on Yemen and his trial was uncharacteristically swift because of this.

After the hurried trial that riveted and revolted people around the world, the courts convicted him of the murder of two Sana’a University medical students and he was executed shortly thereafter.

The method of his execution was common to Yemen at the time: three shots to the heart as he lay prostrate on the ground, taking the truth with him.

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