In December 2009, a would-be terrorist boarded a plane for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. While the explosive failed to properly ignite and the man was arrested upon landing, the ensuing investigation revealed the bomb in question had been made by al-Qaida leaders in Yemen.
This attempted act of terrorism heralded both the small Arabian country's re-emergence into the international consciousness as a refuge for al-Qaida and the ascendance of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), developments that have grown only more pronounced since.
According to Gregory Johnsen, a journalist who has covered Yemen and Islamic insurgency in the Middle East extensively, al-Qaida's presence has tripled in size within Yemen over the past three years. Johnsen charts this growing influence on the country in his new book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia.
Al-Qaida's approach to gain support in Yemen has been to pit the country's interests against those of the West, particularly the United States.
"The argument that AQAP has been making for the past several years has been that just like Iraq and just like Afghanistan, Yemen, too, is a legitimate theater of jihad," Johnsen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That is, Yemen is under attack from a Western military force and therefore all Yemenis need to group together, need to fall under al-Qaida's banner and fight back in self-defense."
This argument, says Johnsen, has been at least partly buoyed lately by U.S. drone attacks in Yemen. The attacks have targeted al-Qaida leaders and other militants, but the civilian casualties have been significant.
The deaths of women, children and non-al-Qaida tribesmen have radicalized many Yemenis who might not otherwise support al-Qaida's terrorist agenda, and led to questions regarding the effectiveness of on-the-ground U.S. intelligence. The civilian casualties, says Johnsen, are "exacerbating the problem and expanding the organization."
On changes felt in Yemeni daily life after the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh
"The one thing that I think I know is that the rules of the game have changed within Yemen. So, it used to be the case when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power and, for all his flaws and all the negative aspects of his regime and there were many, people who knew the rules of the game and they knew what to expect: If they did X, Y would be a result, whereas now, with the breakdown of law and order, with the different factions that have resulted after the uprising and the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, I don't think anyone really knows the rules of the game within Yemen and, I think, that makes everyone uncertain. I know it makes me uneasy, and many of the Yemenis I spoke with had the same sense of uneasiness."
On why the geography of Yemen is favored by al-Qaida
"The title of the book takes ... what is purported to be a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. This is at the very beginning of Islam. It looked as though the Muslims, who were outnumbered at the time, were about to be slaughtered and Muhammad gathered everyone together, his followers together, in the desert and gave them what some believe to be his last words before battle. And he essentially said, 'When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen' because Yemen then, just like Yemen today, was a place of very diverse geography, a place of wild, very rugged mountains, a place where small groups of men could easily go and hide. And of course with Muhammad they turned out not to need that refuge, whereas al-Qaida today, after really suffering a lot of losses in Afghanistan, certainly needs the refuge that the geography of Yemen provides, as well as a broken government within Yemen that has really opened up a lot of space for an organization like al-Qaida to operate."
On the assassination of Osama bin Laden
"One of the things that we've seen is that Osama bin Laden, contrary to much of what we were being told by security officials, ... was actually in pretty close contact with a lot of different organizations, whether it was the branch in Yemen or other branches ... whether or not he actually had control, I think, is a bit debatable, but he was certainly writing letters and certainly acting as though he was still the head. The difference, I think, in Yemen is that the individual who's the head of this organization, he's a really short, short guy, very low spoken, very soft voice, he has sort of facial hair that juts out from his face, almost like a billy goat, that this guy who spent so much time with bin Laden these four years as sort of his secretary, his aide-de-camp, he really knew what it was that bin Laden wanted or what he would want and, I think, he's been able to implement that blueprint. And so certainly bin Laden's death was a blow to him personally ... but for the organization itself, the organization, AQAP has had a certain amount of operational independence so that the death of Osama bin Laden didn't affect [it]; so it had much more of an effect on the U.S. psyche than it did on the psyche and the minds of those individuals within Yemen themselves."
On the issues with on-the-ground intelligence gathering in Yemen
"The U.S. soldiers, the U.S. operators that we have are trained particularly well. They are some of the best in the world at what it is that they do, but all of this is dependent upon the human intelligence on the ground and this is where the U.S. seems to do very bad both in the special forces in the shadowy part of the world where they are attempting to collect intelligence for targeting purposes, as well as on the political and on the State Department side where they're attempting to get out and speak with a lot of people and find out what's actually happening on the ground so that they can inform policymakers in Washington. ...
"[T]he Achilles' heel for the United States in Yemen is that too often it just doesn't know what's taking place on the ground. The CIA doesn't know what's taking place, it doesn't know who is in a particular car, it doesn't know who is really a member of al-Qaida. The State Department and diplomats, they're very, very good, very talented people and they tend to know a lot about Yemen but, as we've seen, there are very real security concerns, and the regional security officers often limit their movement and so they can't get out in the country and find out what's taking place. ... So both the CIA and policymakers in Washington tend to be operating more on assumptions than on hard facts. We know that the organization is still bent on attacking the United States and that despite all the defenses that the U.S. has built over the past decade that al-Qaida is still able on different occasions, as we've seen, able to infiltrate those and it's very, very difficult for the U.S. government — whether it's a Republican or Democratic administration — to have a perfect batting average when it comes to preventing terror attacks."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Remember Christmas Day three years ago when the so-called underwear bomber tried to blow up an American passenger plane bound for Detroit from Amsterdam? He was an operative of the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen. Soon after his failed attack, the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaida merged to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
This group is still plotting attacks against the U.S. The Obama administration has been targeting AQAP's leaders with drone strikes in Yemen. My guest, Gregory Johnsen, has written a new book about the rise, fall and resurrection of al-Qaida in Yemen and America's war against it. The book is called "The Last Refuge." Johnsen lived in Yemen as a Fulbright scholar. He writes a blog about Yemen and has written about it in the New York Times, Foreign Policy and Newsweek. He's also lived in Egypt as a Fulbright-Hays fellow and in Jordan as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Gregory Johnsen, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your book ends with an obituary for Sheikh Fahd al-Quso, a Yemeni operative for al-Qaida, and the obituary says - you quote this obituary - and to America we remind them of what our Sheikh Fahd al-Quso, may God have mercy on him, said to you: The war between us will not end, and the coming days are bringing something new.
And you wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that you think leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties have done a poor job of preparing us for the possibility of an attack from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. What do you think they should be preparing us for?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, I think recent history, going back just three years, when of course on Christmas Day al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was able to put a would-be suicide bomber on a plane bound for Detroit. And thankfully for all of us, he was unable to detonate that bomb. And then in 2010, the group attempted to send parcel bombs to the United States.
And of course earlier this year we all remember what's been called underwear bomb 2.0, that an undercover agent working with the Saudis was able to uncover the latest in bomb technology for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So we know that the organization is still bent on attacking the United States, and that, despite all the defenses that the U.S. has built up over the past decade, that al-Qaida is still able on different occasions, as we've seen, able to infiltrate those.
And it's very, very difficult for the U.S. government, whether it's a Republican or Democratic administration, to have a perfect batting average when it comes to preventing terror attacks.
GROSS: Two days after the U.S. ambassador in Libya was killed in Benghazi, a senior Yemeni officer working in the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, which is the capital of Yemen, was killed in an attack. Do you think that that was intended to send a message to the United States? And do you think the sender of that message was affiliated with al-Qaida?
JOHNSEN: That's a very good question. What we have in Yemen right now, particularly since the uprisings in 2011 that eventually overthrew, forced out the former president, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a very mixed and a very murky situation on the ground. I was just in Yemen about a month ago, and it's incredibly difficult to find out who is killing whom.
So there's a lot of different attacks that are taking place, whether it be in the capital, as the one that you refer to was, or whether it's out in the countryside. And so it's difficult without al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula taking credit for the attack, as they have not taken credit for that assassination, to ascertain whether this is a feud that is being played out between different families or between different tribes, or whether in fact this is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that's carrying out attacks on Yemenis who are working with the United States, as they've publicly said that they would do and as they have done in the past.
GROSS: At the risk of asking the obvious, why is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, why is that group pledged to attack us? And are they trying to do things in retribution for specific acts of the United States?
JOHNSEN: Right, so al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, this group that's in Yemen, has its roots in a prison break that happened in February of 2006, when 23 al-Qaida suspects tunneled out of a maximum-security prison in the capital of Yemen, in Sana'a, into a mosque that was right outside the prison wall.
And they sort of dusted themselves off very early in the morning, said their morning prayers and then walked out the front door to freedom. The leader of that group is a guy named Nasir al-Wuhayshi. He was Osama bin Laden's aide-de-camp, his assistant for about four years, in the late 1990s, all the way up until the Battle of Tora Bora.
And so what this guy, what Nasir al-Wuhayshi did, is he essentially utilized the blueprint that Osama bin Laden had used to built al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and he laid it onto Yemen, and he built up his organization that way.
About three years later, the organization al-Qaida in Yemen merged with a group of Saudis who came south over the border to form AQAP, or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as we know them. Among those Saudis were several former detainees in Guantanamo Bay, including the deputy commander of the group, Said al Shihri.
So both the commander and the deputy commander are pledged to attack the United States, and in fact for them, carrying out attacks within Yemen is a means to an end, whereas carrying out attacks against the United States is an end in and of itself.
GROSS: What do you mean by that? What's the distinction?
JOHNSEN: Well, the distinction for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is they would like to carry out attacks within Yemen in order to force the Yemeni government to break its alliance with the United States in order to step back. And they're - one of the things that this group has done, which I think is unique to the group, is that it's learned lessons from what previous versions of al-Qaida - the mistakes that previous versions of al-Qaida had made in places like Saudi Arabia or Iraq.
And one of the main lessons that this organization, AQAP, has learned is that killing civilians, particularly Muslim civilian casualties, has a way of turning the population against itself. And so it's very, very careful in all of its public statements and in many of its public attacks to attempt to show that the attacks that it's carrying out against, say, Yemeni solders or the Yemeni government, that they're legitimate attacks according to Islamic law. Whereas for the United States, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula would like nothing better than to sort of lure the U.S. into a trap in Yemen, have some sort of a ground invasion like we saw in Iraq or Afghanistan, where the U.S. would send troops because al-Qaida believes that Yemenis would, sort of, rise up and fight the non-Muslim occupying power in that situation.
And in fact, the argument that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been making for the past several years has been that just like Iraq and just like Afghanistan, Yemen too is a legitimate theater of jihad; that is, Yemen is under attack from a Western military force. And therefore all Yemenis need to group together, need to fall under al-Qaida's banner and fight back in self-defense.
GROSS: Well, the way that Yemen is under attack by a Western force is basically the drone strikes.
JOHNSEN: Right, drone strikes, air strikes and in fact strikes from ships that are off the coast of Yemen. So drones are certainly a part of it, and they're a part that in the U.S. gets the vast majority of the press, and that's what most people talk about. But the U.S. is also using fixed-wing aircraft, and there are documented cases, as well, of U.S. naval ships firing missiles into Yemen.
GROSS: So do you think that our attacks in Yemen against Islamist extremists is actually feeding the ranks of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula by kind of proving their point that they're under attack by the West, and therefore AQAP needs to be supported?
JOHNSEN: Right, what we've seen - again going back, if we, say, take the past three years, on Christmas Day 2009, the day that al-Qaida put this would-be suicide bomber on a plane bound for the United States, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was about two or three hundred individuals.
Now since December of 2009, the U.S. has been carrying out a very active campaign of air and drone strikes against what the U.S. believes to be al-Qaida targets within Yemen. And certainly the United States has killed a number of operatives within the organization.
But in the same amount of time that the U.S. has carried out these strikes over these past three years, we've seen al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula grow, and in fact they've about tripled in size in the past three years. So this is an organization that today is well over 1,000 members.
Now I don't think the only reason for al-Qaida growing so strong so fast is drone strikes. I think there are a lot of other things that come into play. But I think the civilian casualties, particularly the women and children and tribesmen who are not affiliated with al-Qaida, I think that's one of the major reasons that we've seen this rapid growth of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Johnsen. He's the author of the new book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Now, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, is the combining of forces of Islamists from Saudi Arabia and from Yemen. And you had briefly explained about how a prison break in Yemen, in which 23 Islamists escaped and tunneled out, helped lead to the creation of AQAP because some of the people in that group became the leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
How did Saudis and people from Yemen get together to form this group? And what united them?
JOHNSEN: That's a great story. So in fact what it is is I think this is a little bit of the success in one place equals a problem in another place. And so if you'll remember in 2003, 2004, there was a very active branch of al-Qaida within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And Muhammad bin Nayef, who was the deputy minister of the interior - he's since been promoted to become the minister of the interior - was very active in combating al-Qaida.
In fact, when you read the Arabic materials that the group in Saudi Arabia was putting out in 2005, they were saying things like there's nowhere for us to go. Even our own families have turned against us. We can't find any refuge. And so what many of these individuals did, including a man named Ibrahim Assiri, who is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's top bomb maker, is they crossed over the border to Yemen. In Assiri's case, it was in 2006.
Later in 2009, we had a number of former Guantanamo Bay detainees who crossed over in either December of 2008 or January 2009. Many of these men had went to this banquet where Said al Shihri, who when he was in Guantanamo Bay the U.S. labeled as a negative leader, had organized this banquet for a lot of people who'd been released through a Saudi rehabilitation program, and he managed to convince a lot of them that they still had a job to do. Their pledge, their allegiance to al-Qaida was still valid, and the place they needed to go to carry this out was across the border to Yemen.
GROSS: So he un-rehabilitated them.
JOHNSEN: Yeah, absolutely. This is a guy who, when you read the documents that the U.S. has released from Guantanamo, they're always very skeptical and very suspicious of him. And yet nevertheless, they turned him over to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia put him through this rehabilitation program. At the end, they asked him if he wanted a wife. He said no.
They asked him if he wanted a job - he said no. They released him to his family, who was supposed to keep an eye on him, and a few months later he ends up in a video that - where he's threatening the U.S. with attacks, a video that comes out right as President Obama's being sworn into office for the first time in January of 2009.
GROSS: Yeah, well, let's talk about that. First of all, the formation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula pretty much coincides with the inauguration of President Obama.
JOHNSEN: Absolutely, in fact there was a young Yemeni journalist, and the leader of AQAP had sort of put out a lot of feelers to different journalists, different Yemeni journalists there in Sana'a. I talked to several of them in researching the book. And basically he did what someone in the West would do: He promised an exclusive interview.
And so he brought this young journalist, a young Yemeni by the name Abdalilah Shaya, he brought him, they blindfolded him, brought him to a secret location, and Shaya recorded this interview with the head of AQAP. And then a few days later, AQAP put together this sort of coming-out video, if you will, in which two Yemenis and two Saudis - both of the Saudis were former Guantanamo Bay detainees - in which they announced their merger, and in the process they also announced, of course, that Guantanamo Bay detainees had joined the organization.
And in fact when the video came out, I was in Princeton, New Jersey, I was reading some of the Arabic transcripts from Islamic jihadi chat rooms. And I was reading this particular one on the day in which President Obama - as I was watching President Obama be inaugurated and sworn into office. And when I read that there was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was now second in command of AQAP, I just knew that the president would be unable to fulfill his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo Bay.
And in fact as we've seen, that's turned out to be the case.
GROSS: How direct an impact do you think that that video had, and the presence of former Gitmo detainees in AQAP - how direct an impact do you think that had on President Obama's inability to follow through on his promise to sign a directive closing Gitmo?
JOHNSEN: Well, I think it was certainly - it certainly had a big impact, but it wasn't the only factor. I mean, we know that there was congressional opposition. There was a lot of individuals in Congress who were very wary about bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees back to their particular state or in closing the prison. There were a number of legal battles.
But certainly I think what the video did is it really put a face and a name to fears of people within the U.S. administration, and that is that people that the United States once had in custody were now free and once again threatening to kill Americans.
GROSS: You say that President Obama had to figure out how to fight a different kind of war. What makes the air strikes and drone attacks in Yemen different than air strikes and drone attacks that we've carried out, say, in Afghanistan?
JOHNSEN: Well, in Afghanistan of course the major difference is that the U.S. has a great number of troops on the ground, whereas in Yemen there certainly seem to be, at least from the press, small teams of U.S. operatives there. How active they are is really hard to say. That's something that the U.S. administration is very quiet about for obvious reasons of national security.
But the real difficulty in Yemen is that the U.S. appears, at least from the results of the drone strikes and the air strikes - which is the only thing that people like myself, looking on it from the outside, have to go by - appear to have little human intelligence or little good human intelligence on the ground because too many of these drone strikes seem to be killing the wrong people.
For example this year, the U.S. has carried out, by my best count, anywhere from about 37, 38 to 50 drone or air strikes within Yemen. That's from February 2012 to today. And this is all in an attempt to kill 10 to 15 individuals. So, 38 to 50 strikes in an attempt to kill 10 to 15 individuals whom the United States believes to be plotting against the U.S., against the West.
And I think this tells us one of two things. Either the drone and air strikes aren't as accurate as we're continually being told that they are or that the U.S. is doing something different than just targeting the top 10 or 15 individuals within al-Qaida.
GROSS: What are you thinking when you say that?
JOHNSEN: Well, one of the problems or at least one of the things that I've seen in Yemen is that there's a real difference between strikes that the U.S. carries out, strikes against what are often called high-value targets. So if you'll remember, this is really the second incarnation of al-Qaida in Yemen. The first, the back was really broken in November 2002 when the U.S. carried out a drone strike that killed the then-head of al-Qaida in Yemen, a man named Abu Ali al-Harithi.
The U.S. is still doing some strikes like that, some high-value-target strikes, but the U.S. is also doing what it refers to as signature strikes. These are cases when the U.S. doesn't need to know the identity of individuals on the ground in order to carry out a strike. It only needs to have them fit certain patterns of life.
So for instance, in October of 2011, the U.S. carried out a strike in southern Yemen in which an individual named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed. This is a young guy, he was 16 years old. He had been born in Denver, Colorado, and he was in fact the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, this American cleric that the U.S. had killed a couple weeks earlier.
He was killed. The U.S. said that they were after this particular individual. That individual appears to have survived the strike. And the point being that the U.S. didn't seem to know that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was at the target site, nor in retrospect do they really seem to care. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was an individual that was killed.
And, of course, given what we know about the U.S. counting system, because he was a military-age male, the U.S. doesn't need to classify him as a civilian casualty.
GROSS: That's the way that the United States counts or doesn't count casualties in Yemen, if you're a young man or a man of military age, and you're killed in a strike, you don't count as a civilian?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, this is what we know from a great New York Times piece by Scott Shane and Jo Becker that talked about that. And in fact I think this is a real problem in Yemen, because one of the difficulties and one of the things that I've noticed over the past nearly a decade that I've been traveling to Yemen, is just because someone sounds like al-Qaida and just because someone looks like al-Qaida, doesn't necessarily mean that they are al-Qaida.
And so in Yemen, you have a lot of guys with big beards who talk about Islamic law, who carry a gun, and yet in fact they're not members of al-Qaida. But if the U.S. targets these individuals, as I think has unfortunately been the case, what they do is they widen the circle of individuals, and they push other members, other Yemeni tribesmen into al-Qaida. And, in fact, this is, I think, what is happening in Yemen, which helps to explain why al-Qaida has grown so strong so fast over the past three years, is that the U.S. is actually killing people and forcing others into joining the organization.
GROSS: Gregory Johnsen will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: In Sunday's New York Times, Scott Shane had a piece about how the Obama administration has been accelerating the process of developing explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by drone attacks in Yemen, and in other places as well. And the premise was, in the Obama administration, that if Romney won the election, the Obama administration wanted to leave clear standards and procedures for drone strikes. So I was actually surprised that those standards and procedures weren't already in place.
JOHNSEN: Right. I think what we've seen, and looking at what the U.S. has been doing through the prism of the Yemen as I've been doing, I think what, what comes out and what appears at least, again, from an outsider perspective, is that this is a very much an ad hoc program. We know that the CIA has a drone program that's run in parallel to Joint Special Operations Commander - JSOC's drone program that's run over Yemen. So there's a lot of back-and-forth and it's not at all clear, again, when the U.S. is sort of using high-value targeted strikes or when they're using signature strikes. A lot of this, you know, as an American, a lot of what's worrying to me is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of oversight, and it appears to leave the officials who are making these decisions, it appears to leave it up to them with very little in the form of guidelines or instruction.
GROSS: And apparently, the U.N. is planning an investigation next year into American drone strikes.
JOHNSEN: Yeah. This is something that we've seen. I think that one of the failures - or at least for me - one of the failures of both the Bush administration and the Obama administration has been to not put in place a legal or an ethical framework for the use of drones. Drones I think are a great piece of technology. They are a piece of technology that groups like al-Qaida do not have. They are something that the U.S. I think can use to great utility, and can use to its advantage but they have to be used judiciously, and I don't think that's what's happening right now, unfortunately.
GROSS: Why is Yemen such a good base for al-Qaida?
JOHNSEN: Right. This has been something - in fact, the title of the book, "The Last Refuge," actually takes its name from what's purported to be a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. This is at the very beginning of Islam. It looked as though the Muslims, who were outnumbered at the time, were about to be slaughtered, and Muhammad gathered everyone together, his followers together in the desert, and he gave them what some believe to be his last words before battle. And he essentially said: When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen. Because Yemen then, just like Yemen today, was a place of very diverse geography, a place of wild, very rugged mountains, a place where small groups of men could easily go and hide. And, of course, with Muhammad that turned out - they turned out not to need that refuge, whereas al-Qaida today, after really suffering a lot of losses in Afghanistan, certainly needs the refuge that the geography of Yemen provides, as well as a broken government within Yemen has really opened up a lot of space for an organization like al-Qaida to operate.
GROSS: One of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's goals is to create an Islamic state, kind of like an al-Qaida state, in the south of Yemen. How much progress have they made toward that?
JOHNSEN: Well, you know, this is a really interesting question. If we would've asked this question about a year ago, we would say that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has made amazing progress, and in fact they established what they call these little emirates in the south. So what al-Qaida did at the time, as they took advantage of all the chaos that was sweeping across the Arab world in 2011, and the breakdown in law and order, the split within the military, the fact that the Yemeni military withdrew from a lot of these places, al-Qaida stepped in and filled that void. So in villages that had never had teachers they've - I know of villages in the south of Yemen that had been petitioning the Yemeni government for years to send teachers. These are very rural parts of Yemen, no paved roads, very difficult to get to, no teachers ever showed up. Al-Qaida comes by, within a couple of weeks there are a bunch of al-Qaida operatives who are there in government-built schools teaching the young boys. And you can only imagine what it is that they're teaching them. Al-Qaida also provided electricity, which the Yemeni government never had. It dug a lot of water wells. It had its own police system, its own court system. Thankfully, the Yemeni government and the new president, an individual by the name of Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has cooperated quite closely with the U.S. government, and in fact, Yemeni ground troops and U.S. air power were sufficient to force al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula out of these emirates. And so earlier this summer, al-Qaida essentially left a bunch of parting letters to villagers saying, we're leaving now because of the pressure, but don't worry. We're going to be back. And what we saw in the summer of this year is al-Qaida sort of receding back and retreating back out of these towns and villages, once more taking refuge in the hills and in the mountains.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Johnsen, and he's the author of the new book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia."
Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Johnsen. He's the author of the new book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia."
You write about how during the Bush administration, the administration got the cooperation of then Yemeni President Saleh to cooperate with, you know, airstrikes against terrorists and presumed terrorists. And got the Yemeni government to cover up the U.S. role in those strikes, so the U.S. wouldn't look like it was actually behind those airstrikes. And so there was like some airstrikes and the Yemeni government told the BBC and the Associated Press that the bomb was actually the bomb that militants were transporting and had accidentally exploded, killing them all.
GROSS: OK. So cover story intact.
GROSS: But then the Bush administration wants to take credit for that attack because it's right before the 2002 midterm elections...
GROSS: ...and people in the Bush administration think it'll be good for the party if the administration can take credit for this. You know, good work in the war on terror. So Paul Wolfowitz, who was then deputy secretary of Defense, goes on CNN and takes credit for those attacks, saying that the Hellfire missile strike was a very successful tactical operation from the U.S. So what kind of position did that put the Yemeni government in after the Yemeni government had, you know, went along with this cover story?
JOHNSEN: Right. I remember this very well. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan at the time that this happened in November 2002. And in fact, this is really the moment where I first had the idea for the book, almost a decade ago. And you're exactly right. There was a cover story in place. There was a U.S. drone strike that took out the head of al-Qaida in Yemen at the time. A Yemen spokesperson told the BBC, the Associated Press, all of the news and wire services that a bomb the militants had been transporting had exploded. And then what we have is a situation where the Yemenis really felt as though they were sold out for domestic U.S. political concerns. So this happens right before the midterm elections. The Bush administration wants to use this to give its congressional allies sort of a leg up to show that the Bush administration is really serious, this is an early victory in the war on terror. And essentially what happens is - I mean, there's a scene in the book in where this Yemeni political official is just screaming at the United States, and he's saying, you know, this is why people really hate to work with you. This is why it's so difficult to work with the United States, is because you take one victory and you attempt to exploit it. And you can't give the enemy; you can't tell the enemy what's going on. And this is really the moment where that initial period of goodwill between President Saleh and then-President George Bush came to an end. It's after this that you see President Saleh being much more cagey about his interactions with members of al-Qaida and assisting the United States. So this is one of those old things that our mothers and our grandmothers used to tell us, sort of penny wise but pound foolish.
GROSS: So let me skip ahead to the bin Laden assassination. What impact do you think that had on - or that it continues to have - on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen?
JOHNSEN: Right. One of the things that we've seen is that Osama bin Laden, contrary to much of what we were being told by security officials, that he was actually in pretty close contact with a lot of different organizations, whether it was the branch in Yemen or other branches, that he was - whether or not he actually had control, I think, is a bit debatable, but he was certainly writing letters and certainly acting as though he was still the head. The difference, I think, in Yemen is that the individual who's the head of this organization - he's a really short, short guy, very low-spoken, very soft voice, he has sort of facial hair that juts out from his face, almost like a billy goat - that this guy who spent so much time with bin Laden these four years as sort of his secretary, his aide-de-camp, he really knew what it was that bin Laden wanted or what he would want and, I think, he's been able to implement that blueprint. And so certainly bin Laden's death was a significant blow to him personally. And I write about this in the book and about sort of his heartfelt eulogy that he gives to his former sheik. But for the organization itself, the organization al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has had a certain amount of operational independence that the death of Osama bin Laden didn't affect. So it had much more of an impact, I think, on the U.S. psyche than it did on the psyche and the minds of those individuals within Yemen themselves.
GROSS: Is bin Laden's death something else for AQAP to avenge?
JOHNSEN: Well, I mean this is a group that has no shortages of slights, perceived slights and everything else that they want to avenge. And so when you read through many of their documents, their claims of responsibility for different attacks, whether it's in Yemen or abroad, this is a group that's always pointing to this person was killed or we do this in revenge of this. And Osama bin Laden's death is certainly one of those things. But if this group didn't have any, they would invent some. They have no shortage of insults and wrongs to redress, at least in their minds.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregory Johnsen. He's the author of the new book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America's War in Arabia." He spent a lot of time in Yemen. He is a former Fulbright fellow who worked in Yemen there.
One of the things you're concerned about is that the CIA you think risks becoming like a version of the Special Forces, as opposed to focusing on intelligence gathering. You're basically afraid that the CIA risks becoming a paramilitary organization. Can you explain your concern?
JOHNSEN: Right. One of the things that I've seen, and I think this has been brought into sharp focus over the past three years as the U.S. has been carrying out these drone and air strikes in Yemen, is that the technology is fantastic, the U.S. soldiers, the U.S. operators that we have are trained particularly well. They're some of the best in the world at what it is that they do. But all of this is dependent upon the human intelligence on the ground, and this is where the U.S. seems to do very bad - both in the Special Forces, in the shadowy part of the world, where they're attempting to collect intelligence for targeting purposes, as well as on the political and on the State Department side, where they're attempting to get out and speak with a lot of people and find out what's actually happening on the ground so that they can inform policymakers in Washington. And I think this has been the real drawback that, or really the Achilles' heel for the United States in Yemen, is that too often it just doesn't know what's taking place on the ground. The CIA doesn't know what's taking place. It doesn't know who is in a particular car. It doesn't know who is really a member of al-Qaida. The State Department and diplomats, they're very, very good, very talented people and they tend to know a lot about Yemen, but as we've seen, there are very real security concerns, and the regional security officers often limit their movement and so they can't get out in the country and find out what's taking place. And so both the CIA and policymakers in Washington tend to be operating more on assumptions than on hard facts. And I think that's really a problem, both for the CIA and for the State Department.
GROSS: So you think that President Obama has the chance now in replacing Petraeus - General Petraeus - with appointing somebody who will get things back on track with the CIA, emphasizing intelligence and not paramilitary strikes.
JOHNSEN: Right. I think President Obama has a unique opportunity right now to put someone in the head of the CIA, to nominate someone who's going to do a good job of bringing the CIA back to what it does best - and that's gathering human intelligence and leaving the drone strikes, leaving Joint Special Operations Command to do what it does best.
And I think that when the United States has all its different parts working together, working together in a unified manner and each sort of doing what it is that they're best adept at, most capable of, that is when I think the U.S. is going to start making real progress against al-Qaida in places like Yemen and in other places where we see it popping up.
But when you have all these different organizations, organizations like the CIA, attempting to be sort of a lightweight version of JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, that I think is when we start to get into trouble, as we've seen in Yemen.
GROSS: Isn't part of the reason why some of these operations have come under the umbrella of the CIA to keep them as secretive as possible?
JOHNSEN: I think that's a very good point and that is one that a lot of people have brought up. We don't know much about what's taking place, whether it's through JSOC or whether it's through the CIA. And in fact, as we talked about a little bit earlier, Terry, when we talked about the Yemeni government actually covering for the United States, that's still what we see taking place today.
The reason that people like myself and others don't have an accurate count on the number of strikes that the U.S. has carried out is because most of the time the Yemeni government will say it's actually the Yemeni air force that carried out the strike. Now, we know - and President Hadi has gone on the record as saying the Yemeni air force can't - doesn't have the capabilities to operate at night. So we know any strike that takes place at night is by default a U.S. strike.
But many of the others, the U.S. is silent and the Yemeni government rushes to take credit for. So there's already a great deal that we don't know.
GROSS: Just one more thing about Yemen. It's the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. It's running out of water in a lot of places, and food. So it's a country that's really in trouble, you know, in addition to the trouble that terrorists are causing there. And you suggest you can't address terrorism without also addressing the poverty, the water shortages and so on.
JOHNSEN: Right. And I think this is - the book, you know, sort of tells the story of al-Qaida, of the rise and then the fall and the ultimate resurrection to where the group is today. But there's a lot that's taking place both in the book and on the ground in Yemen that's taking place sort of behind the scenes and sort of in the background.
And these are the things that are affecting Yemenis on a day to day basis. So you know, they're worried about al-Qaida. They're worried about the security situation, of course. But on a daily basis what they really have to suffer with is the continual electrical cuts. When I went to Yemen, one of the things that most - really struck me as I was walking up this street in Sana'a - it's called Jamal Street, but many of my friends often refer to it as the Street of Love because this is where young college women would come to sort of window-shop and the college boys there, they would sort of follow behind them, slalom through the crowds after them to watch them. That's all changed, as with many things in Yemen today. Because now just about every night the electricity is cut and so what once used to be this beautiful street, this Street of Love, where you'd have this sort of clandestine flirting going on, now you just hear the metal thumping of these generators.
The whole street smells like diesel. It's choked with shadows and many of the streets have sort of been torn up as protestors were looking for weapons during the protests in 2011. And so Yemen itself has really changed and it's become - really, there's no other way to put it. Yemen is a broken country. And there are a lot of challenges that are facing it.
And I think what we're seeing right now is that the powers that be in Yemen, they're eager to sort of cannibalize the country for parts, parts for their own personal empire. They don't really care what happens to the country itself. While outsiders like the U.S. and others are only concerned about Yemen from a national security point of view, and so their primary focus is on defeating al-Qaida.
And unfortunately, neither of these really get to bringing Yemen about to the type of solution, the type of sustainable country, that many of us would like to see.
GROSS: Gregory Johnsen, thank you so much for talking with us.
JOHNSEN: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Gregory Johnsen is the author of the new book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.