The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. By Gregory Johnsen. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012. 352 pp.
Don’t be surprised if Al-Qaeda in Yemen launches attacks against Western targets. It is not a new phenomenon that Yemen is a base for the international terrorist network. And, despite what some may think, nor is the terrorist threat from the country about to disappear. Yemen has long been a refuge for Al-Qaeda when there was nowhere else for the group to turn.
Such is the case made by scholar Gregory Johnsen in his new book on the history of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, The Last Refuge. With a weak central government and tribal sheikhs who distrust authority, Yemen has been a strategic sanctuary for Al-Qaeda almost as long as there have been jihadis fighting alongside their former Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. When the war against the Soviets was winding down in Afghanistan, Bin Laden agreed with Yemeni tribal leader Tareq Al-Fadhli that the next destination for their jihad would be against the socialists in what was then the independent state of South Yemen.
Johnsen outlines a history of both Al-Qaeda central in South Asia and its Yemeni Branch, providing evidence that the former highly influenced the latter, but that Al-Qaeda in Yemen has become more independent from central command in recent years. The history ranges from the late 1980s, when the Yemeni government supported mujahideen returning from the fight in Afghanistan to the government’s crackdown after the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, which started Al-Qaeda’s temporary decline as they “didn’t have the infrastructure or the numbers to make good on” their threats within Yemen. And onto a daring prison escape in 2006 that laid the groundwork for the formation of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the organization whose threat to the West is illustrated by the increase of American drone strikes in Yemen over the past year.
Furthermore, Al Qaeda’s existence in Yemen is tied with the country’s domestic conflicts and the messy agendas of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the 1994 civil war, in which Saleh’s government defeated a rebelling south, Saleh and his loyal generals organized the mujahideen, some of whom would form Al-Qaeda in Yemen, into fighting units against southerners who the jihadis already viewed as godless socialists.
While set on wrecking an uprising of Zaydi Shiites in Yemen’s north known as the Houthi rebellion, Saleh encouraged the establishment of Salafi schools linked with Al-Qaeda in Houthi territory, thus turning his political threat into a sectarian battle. Even during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Yemeni leaders encouraged the country’s young men to travel to Afghanistan to fight, as Johnsen puts it, “sending their best and brightest.”
Despite his initial cooperation, jihadis would find Saleh a capricious ally on whom they could not depend. In the same way that he would cozy up to them when it suited his political goals, Saleh would readily abandon Al-Qaeda as soon as the benefits from doing so were presented to him—usually in the form of American aid money. So, in the years following the Cole bombing, the government arrested the group’s members, used deadly force against them, and allowed the U.S. intelligence services to operate in the country.
Nor was Saleh ever the great ally in the war on terrorism that the U.S. government presented him as at times. The former leader ran hot and cold, even at one point refusing the FBI access to prisoners complicit in the USS Cole bombing.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, the U.S. supported the inept Yemeni security apparatus, which turned into one big corruption machine. When Yemeni security forces actually managed a victory in its fight against Al-Qaeda, it was normally one step forward—incarcerating an Al-Qaeda cell in the far flung east, for example—but then two steps back—shortly after, ten prisoners escaped from the political security prison in Aden, including Al-Qaeda leaders Fahd Al-Qusa and Nasr Al-Wahayshi.
Johnsen writes with incredible detail thanks to a meticulous culling of secondary sources, and the personalities of his protagonists, a mismatched band of jihadis, come alive as they plot and train in the mountains of Yemen. However, this also means that in the areas where secondary sources are slim, gaps remain in the story. Little is said about the group’s incredible ability to attract foreigners to their fight, especially Western converts. There could be more analysis on connections between the Yemeni security forces and Al-Qaeda members, and on the lackluster way in which security forces went after Al-Qaeda in Yemen, especially in 2011 when, for the first time, militants affiliated with the group actually took control of large swaths of territory.
Laura Kasinof is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She has written for the Economist, Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Al Jazeera International, among others. From 2011 to 2012 she reported from Yemen for the New York Times. On Twitter: @kasinof.