On Political Books

November/ December 2012 Drone On

It’s probably a matter of when, not if, al-Qaeda in Yemen successfully strikes the U.S. Yet the drone attacks currently keeping the organization at bay are also helping recruit more terrorists. Can you say “no-win situation”?

By Haley Sweetland Edwards

The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Queda, and America’s War in Arabia
by Gregory D. Johnsen
W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pp.


Early last year, wandering through the turbulent carnival of Change Square in Sana’a, Yemen, I found myself sharing a tent with an old jihadi, his tangled beard glowing orange in the filtered afternoon light. He said he’d fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets—the infidels,” he called them, still spitting the word after twenty-five years—and would do it again, no question. But when I raised the topic of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen and the most dangerous of the diffuse terrorist network’s regional organizations, the old jihadi glowered. “Those young men are fighting a different war than we were,” he said, refusing to meet my eye. “It’s on a different scale, for different ends.”

Then, for quite a while, my notes are sparse. The old jihadi and I talked about U.S.-backed drone strikes, and U.S. support for Israel and “the hypocrisy of the West,” until, eventually, we came back around to al-Qaeda. This time, he looked right at me. His generation had fought for Islam so they could “come home and live,” he said. “The young men of al-Qaeda today don’t care about living. For them, fighting is life,” he said. “Go and tell the Americans it’s never going to be over.”

That old jihadi’s chilling prediction emerges as one of the major themes in writer
Gregory D. Johnsen’s excellent new book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. Part modern history, part explanatory narrative, it begins in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s and ends in a smoldering al-Qaeda stronghold in southern Yemen earlier this year. In the intervening quarter century, we watch from the sidelines as Johnsen describes the birth and bloody unification of North and South Yemen in the early ‘90’s and the simultaneous emergence of al-Qaeda in the region, first as a controversial boys’ club for wannabe jihadis, and then as a deadly and increasingly well-oiled global force.

The young men who’ve formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the last fifteen years are indeed, as the old jihadi in Change Square suggested, more fanatical, more uncompromising in their vision of jihad, and broader in the scope of who constitutes their enemies, than ever before. Many of these young men were educated in Yemen’s radical religious schools in the ‘70, ’80s, and ’90s, and had “grown up on stories of the jihad in Afghanistan,” Johnsen writes, “watching grainy videos from the 1980s as they listened to preachers extol the glory of fighting abroad.” By 2006, the generational shift that started at the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan had widened into a schism, with today’s al-Qaeda leaders giving the old guard an ultimatum: either you’re with us in global jihad, or you’re an enemy, too. “It was time for them to pick a side,” Johnsen writes, summarizing a 2006 audiotape by Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s military commander.

In weaving together the emergence of modern al-Qaeda, the increase of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s power, and the sporadic, but persistent, role that the U.S. military, diplomats, and policymakers have played in both, Johnsen moves deftly between decades, continents, and languages. Major events in U.S.-Yemeni relations—like the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, which left seventeen dead, the botched so-called “underwear bomber” attack on an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and the cartridge bombs sent via FedEx and UPS that were intercepted on their way to the U.S. in 2010—act as landmarks upon which the larger narrative hangs. We are treated to vivid, behind-the-scenes accounts of Saleh’s blustery frustration with the U.S.’s seemingly capricious disbursal of aid (leaving Washington after a diplomatic trip in 2005, Saleh “finally lost it, screaming at aides and firing his entire team of economic advisors within minutes of takeoff”); of AQAP’s fitful attempts to strike U.S. targets in its early years (in one botched attack in 2002, a young al-Qaeda operative accidentally, and quite literally, shot himself in the foot); and of the windfalls and bumbling missteps of the U.S.’s ongoing intelligence operations in Yemen’s tribal hinterlands (in May 2010, an American drone accidentally killed the deputy governor of Marib, who shares a last name with an al-Qaeda fighter. “How could this have happened?” an incredulous President Obama exclaimed).

Part of the success of this book lies in the extraordinary detail of the narrative. Johnsen, a PhD candidate at Princeton University and one of the most well-read bloggers and analysts on the subject of Yemen, relies for his research primarily on jihadist forums, al-Qaeda videos, audiotapes, and publications, and Western and Arab journalists’ published interviews and accounts of major events. The result is that while many of Johnsen’s anecdotes are not new or groundbreaking, they do offer contextualization, a glimpse of the larger picture—an invaluable quality, particularly in the story of Yemen, which is almost always parceled out to readers in bite-sized breaking news stories. For those who follow Yemen, the book delivers the same deep satisfaction of seeing a finished $1,000-piece puzzle intact on a table. You may have touched each of those pieces before, but you didn’t see the whole picture until now. You’ll want to open your palms to it, drag your fingers across its seamless grooves.

For example, when the teenage suicide bomber Abdu Muhammad al-Ruhayqah blew himself up in Marib in 2007, killing eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers, the story neither begins nor ends there. Pages before, Johnsen has already introduced us to Ruhayqah, as he is “napping in a grove of fruit trees” before the attack. “Lying on top of a thin blanket with his hair curling around his ears, Ruhayqah looked like a child,” Johnsen writes. Later, we see the explosion captured by an al-Qaeda cameraman, who “watches the smoke tumble upward like a raised fist before dissipating and eventually dispersing,” and we see the investigators spending days “painstakingly collecting body parts.” Later still, we witness the ensuing diplomatic scramble when Saleh, fearful of a backlash from the international community, marshaled his forces and surrounded an al-Qaeda safe house, leaving a “bloody mess of clothes and limbs inside the mud hut”—and in doing so launches a different diplomatic maelstrom, just on the domestic front.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.