[first published January 30, 2015]
|The Gate to the old section of San'a, the capital of Yemen|
by David Pence
The finest book in recent years on that poorest of Arab states was written by Gregory D. Johnsen.
Here is a review by Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman:
Whether you support or oppose the broader U.S. war on terrorism, you are likely to use Yemen to prove your point. Those who are optimistic about the struggle contend that the Al Qaeda core has taken repeated body blows in Pakistan and decry the seemingly endless expansion of the battlefield to obscure fields of jihad like Mali. For the United States to obsess about remote and chaotic Yemen, they contend, is a mistake. Critics counter that Al Qaeda has metastasized. They often accept that the core in Pakistan is weakened but contend that affiliates like the Yemen-based Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are deadly threats to the United States.
The Obama administration seems to agree with the pessimists, stepping up its drone campaign in Yemen and otherwise putting the country at the center of counterterrorism. Indeed, in contrast to the inherited wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Yemen campaign is very much President Obama’s war. AQAP even announced itself just as Obama came into office. The mix of drone attacks and a light special operations force presence the United States deploys in Yemen may, after the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014, be the model for how the United States fights terrorism in other developing countries.
Yemen (like Mali, for that matter) is a country of mystery to nearly all Americans, including most policymakers and academics. Experts are few and far between, and the chaos and violence of the country make field research difficult. Similarly, the associated force protection limits make it almost impossible for diplomats to mingle and gain country knowledge. Fortunately, Gregory D. Johnsen – a Princeton Ph.D. candidate who studied and worked in Yemen – is helping us fill this void. Johnsen has emerged as perhaps the country’s top expert on Yemen, and his book The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia is a welcome resource on terrorism there and the problems and limits of U.S. policy.
The Last Refuge describes the evolution of Al Qaeda and the U.S. response from a Yemeni point of view. It is clearly written, with many engaging stories and compelling personalities to move along a history that might otherwise be confusing or esoteric. For some events, like the attack on USS Cole in 2000, Yemen is at the center of the story. Yet for others, including the Arab response to the Soviet invasion and even the 9/11 attacks, Yemen or Yemenis play a role, and Johnsen gives familiar tales a distinct twist.
Yemen’s terrorism problem began well before the emergence of AQAP and is far from a simple story. The Yemeni government often encouraged young men to travel to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, with important tribes and mosques often acting on their own as well. Many of these jihadists returned, and in the early 1990s the government of Ali Abdullah Salih used them to undercut their rivals, particularly the Socialists who had long controlled South Yemen. Yet for much of this time the jihadists often acted on their own, going after U.S. and Western targets and otherwise veering from the course the Yemeni government set before them. Not surprisingly, crackdowns and dragnets – when they do come – are often riddled with holes. Further complicating this story, the Yemeni jihadist movement is in near-constant flux, with an “old guard” that fought in Afghanistan and struggled in Yemen in the 1990s now overtaken by a more radical set that often fought in Iraq and is far more hostile to the Yemeni government itself, to say nothing of the United States. So policies that worked at least somewhat for the old set come up short for the new breed.
Johnsen makes clear that Yemeni jihadists, unlike the Arabs hiding out in remote parts of Pakistan, are part and parcel of Yemeni society. Some of these jihadists are from important tribes or have intermarried with leading Yemenis. This creates a counterintelligence problem, as planned counterterrorism operations are often leaked to the targets. Even more important, it makes the Yemeni government hesitant to act, as it would alienate important societal players. From a U.S. point of view, it also means that drone strikes that kill bystanders end up alienating important tribes and voices in Yemen – far more so than a similar campaign in Pakistan. Perhaps most troubling, Yemen in some ways needs a jihadist problem to ensure that the spigots of U.S. aid remain open. As Johnsen acidly contends, “Without Al-Qaeda, Yemen was just one more poor country.”
Johnsen also makes clear that the jihadists, while committed fighters, are hardly supermen. In one 1998 plot, attackers come from the United Kingdom to work jointly with local Yemenis. The newbies, however, drive the wrong way – the British way – around a traffic circle and attract police attention (given my experience with how Yemenis drive, this is a remarkable accomplishment). They flee and get caught after crashing the car. Other raids are otherwise botched in ways large and small, with many lives saved inadvertently.
The Last Refuge has its limits. Written for a popular audience, it is stronger on description than analysis. Though it criticizes U.S. policy toward Yemen, it doesn’t offer much by way of alternative so some difficult questions, like how the United States should handle AQAP if it stops the drone strikes of which Johnsen is so critical, are left unanswered. The ending of the book is strangely flat and abrupt. And perhaps most important, given the emphasis on Yemen, the ignorance of most Americans on this increasingly important country, and Johnsen’s considerable expertise, the book would have benefited from more of a primer on Yemen’s history, society, and politics.
However, these are relatively minor critiques: Johnsen has produced a keeper that will enlighten readers of all levels of expertise. Given the book’s timeliness, empirical depth, and narrative ease, The Last Refuge should be read anyone who wants to learn more about Yemen and better understand the perils of the new frontiers of U.S counterterrorism policy.
And here is an except from a review by Andrew Wojtanik, who runs a blog focusing on "the world's forgotten conflicts":
Most counterterrorism wonks know the basic story of al-Qaeda’s rise: the brainchild of a rich and charismatic Saudi (Osama bin Laden) and an Egyptian doctor-cum-theologian and terror organizer (Ayman al-Zawahiri); jihad against the Soviets in 1980s Afghanistan; the move to Sudan; the 1996 and 1998 fatwas; the move back to Afghanistan; the Embassy bombings; 9/11.
What observers are less likely to understand is the story of al-Qaeda’s enigmatic “affiliates.”
It is here where Gregory Johnsen’s excellent narrative of the rise, fall, and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen—arguably the terror network’s most potent affiliate today—fills in some of the gaps. Truly the first full-length book (in English) on the subject, Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia follows the group of al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists who have terrorized Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula from their inception in the early 1990s to today.
Johnsen begins his book appropriately by explaining its title. He writes that tradition says that Muhammad, the central prophet of Islam, proclaimed once in the seventh century: “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.” While Muhammad himself was successful in battle, men and women for centuries to come would heed his valuable advice, fleeing invading armies or powerful tyrants to the remote hills of Yemen: the last refuge of the Middle East.
This theme—of falling, hiding away, and rising again—is woven throughout the book, beginning with the oft-neglected narrative of bin Laden’s powerful hand in establishing an al-Qaeda sanctuary in Yemen in the early 1990s. After the war in Afghanistan, many Yemeni adherents of al-Qaeda returned home (some at the request of bin Laden himself) and fought alongside President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces during a brief civil war in 1994 that drove communism in the country to the grave. But instead of being rewarded for their contributions to a decisive victory, the hardened Islamist fighters were cast away by Saleh’s long-standing government, proscribed as enemies of the state.
The jihadists, focused particularly on expelling Western influence from their homeland, fought back. The increasingly sophisticated and well-organized jihadists stepped up attacks against Saleh’s government (considered kufr: infidels of the faith) and Western targets in Yemen throughout the latter half of the decade.
But al-Qaeda’s strength in Yemen was short-lived. The 2000 USS Cole attack in Aden caught the US’ attention, and 9/11 prompted an American response that aimed to root out al-Qaeda’s presence anywhere and everywhere across the globe. President Saleh signed up to offer his assistance, giving the US a green light to take the fight to Yemen. In 2002, the Bush administration’s first ever documented drone strike killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen, and the regional affiliate virtually disintegrated thereafter. Other prominent jihadists were locked up.
It was not until after February 2006, when 23 terrorists (including several former Guantanamo Bay detainees) escaped prison in Sana’a by digging out à la Shawshank Redemption style, that the modern-day al-Qaeda in Yemen was born. Led by Nasir al-Wihayshi (bin Ladin’s former personal secretary) and Qasim al-Raymi, the Yemeni fighters rebuilt their network and joined up with a smaller group of Saudis to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2008. As Salih’s government was distracted by a recalcitrant conflict in Yemen’s north (the Houthi rebellion), AQAP quickly reconstituted its strength, finding refuge among sympathetic tribes deep in the remote hills of the country’s south, center, and east. From 2008 onwards, the group became a local, regional, and eventually global menace.
In 2013 Mr. Johnsen offered several suggestions for improving our fight against al-Qaeda.
In 2014 the Shiite Houthi tribesmen of the western regions took control of the capital San’a. This brought a violent response from across the border by the new Salman rulers of Saudi Arabia. Such intense aggression had never been mounted against AQAP. A massive bombing camp aimed at the Shiites with technical support from the United States has killed thousands of civilians. The Saudis led by the King’s favorite son and second in line of succession Mohammed bin Salman (b1985) have justified the carnage by labeling the uprising as an Iranian encirclement. An Oct 2016 mapping of the war. The youngest defense minister in the world is currying favor with Wahhabi clerics in his willingness to decimate the neighboring Shiites. He will need their support in the succession fight after his 81 yo father dies.
Here is the audio and transcript of an NPR interview Johnsen did shortly after his book was published. He was back on NPR in April 2015, describing how the recent bombing campaign of Saudi Arabia against the Houthis of Yemen is helping Al Qaeda.
For a closer look at Yemen in geographical context, see our Map on Monday.
For an excellent 50 min documentary on the last decades of British rule(1850-1967) in Aden, see this video.