Book Review: Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia
THE TELEVISION series Homeland aside, the war on terrorism nowadays excites little interest and even less enthusiasm. The killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki—in addition to more than thirty other key Al Qaeda leaders and over two hundred fighters—have sufficiently diminished the threat of terrorism to a war-weary, economically preoccupied American public. Indeed, during the 2012 presidential campaign the few hortatory declamations from either candidate about the world still being a dangerous place for Americans (Benghazi notwithstanding) fell mostly on deaf ears. The famed British diplomat Sir Robert Vansittart could have been referring to today when he observed of the interwar period eighty years ago, “Left or Right, everybody was for the quiet life.” As the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reported the weekend before the election, “Measured by most relevant statistics, the United States—and the world—have never been safer.” As evidence, he cited the purported fact that more Americans have died since September 11, 2001, from furniture or humongous flat-screen television sets falling on their heads than have been killed by terrorists.
But before we exhale a collective sigh of relief that the threat from Al Qaeda has passed, it would be wise to consider the story told by Gregory D. Johnsen in The Last Refuge. Johnsen—a former Fulbright scholar, Princeton PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies and one-time member of the USAID conflict-assessment team for Yemen—is perhaps this country’s foremost expert on that godforsaken, tribally riven, impoverished land. Indeed, Yemen remains an Al Qaeda stronghold that is surpassed only by Pakistan in terms of both the number of the movement’s terrorists present there and, accordingly, the number of targeted killings executed by U.S. unmanned drone aircraft.
As is already well-known, the remote mountains and isolated wadis of Yemen were not immune to the clarion call to battle issued forth from Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion. Even in the southern Arabian Peninsula’s most distant locales, illiterate, poor desert tribesmen, whose attire and manners likely had changed little since medieval times, emerged from the barren hinterland to travel far from home to do battle in a hitherto unknown but remarkably similar territory of harsh escarpment and blighted geography. There, they defended kith and kin that they had never met but were unalterably connected to by a common creed.Johnsen explains:
Unlike other Arab governments, who publicly supported the jihad while privately discouraging their young men from traveling to Afghanistan, North Yemen, then a separate state, sent scores of its best and brightest. For an entire generation of young Yemenis, a trip to the front lines in Afghanistan became a rite of passage.
Among them was a diminutive, frail-looking twenty-year-old named Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The struggle in Afghanistan was catnip for al-Wuhayshi—a product of one of the thousand or so private religious institutions that Saudi and Egyptian exiles had established in Yemen during the 1980s. These schools taught a literal interpretation of Islam that meshed easily with the theological justifications and scriptural references used by bin Laden and his mentor, the late Abdullah Azzam, among others, to rally Muslims for Afghan jihad. “They were gateway schools,” Johnsen notes, “innocuous on the surface but deadly in retrospect.” Although these schools’ purpose was not to produce terrorists, they nonetheless laid the critical intellectual foundations of a worldview that comported completely with Al Qaeda’s.
Bin Laden spotted al-Wuhayshi soon after he arrived at the movement’s Khaldan training camp near Khost, Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda leader recognized a kindred spirit in the new recruit. Al-Wuhayshi was contemplative and quiet but sharp and ambitious. He was one of the “dangerous dreamers” that T. E. Lawrence, the famed Lawrence of Arabia, had once written about, a man capable of translating dreams into reality and thought into action—“too short to be intimidating and too smart to be wasted,” as Johnsen describes him. Bin Laden appointed al-Wuhayshi his personal secretary and aide-de-camp, positions from which al-Wuhayshi managed the revered sheikh’s schedule and attended to his correspondence. All the while he observed and learned from his master. Together with the other young Yemenis that swelled Al Qaeda’s ranks, al-Wuhayshi and his countrymen would form the nucleus of a new Al Qaeda a decade later.
MEANWHILE, AL-WUHAYSHI was caught up in the inferno that the 9/11 attacks unleashed on Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan. Relentlessly bombed and rocketed, hunted down by capricious warlords and America’s Northern Alliance allies, and pursued by U.S. Special Forces operatives on horseback, al-Wuhayshi fled south with the survivors, hoping to escape into Pakistan and eventually back to Yemen. He fought his way out of Tora Bora and, once in Pakistan, headed for Iran and thence, he thought, home. But al-Wuhayshi was arrested in transit and thrown into an Iranian prison. For two years he brooded and made plans for the vengeance he would wreak on the distant, infidel power he saw as responsible for both his plight and the war on Islam that had destroyed the only true manifestation of sharia law when the Taliban and Al Qaeda had ruled the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Finally, in 2003 al-Wuhayshi returned to Yemen—but in shackles. Extradited from Iran, he now found himself imprisoned in his native land. During the years since al-Wuhayshi had left Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh had drawn increasingly closer to the United States. With America’s invasion of Iraq, young Yemenis again were answering the call to defend another Muslim land just as al-Wuhayshi had answered an identical call in Afghanistan. But instead of the permissive environment that had once facilitated the departure of young mujahideen from Yemen, Saleh was busy thwarting this new exodus. Legislation was pushed through parliament forbidding Yemenis under the age of thirty-five from traveling to either Jordan or Syria without official permission. Hundreds of Yemenis lacking this documentation were thus intercepted before they could cross the border into Saudi Arabia or fly to Amman and Damascus. They were mercilessly thrown into fetid, overcrowded prisons.
There, these idealistic, would-be holy warriors were inadvertently delivered into the arms of a fledging local branch of Al Qaeda. Al-Wuhayshi had become a jailhouse celebrity, whose personal odyssey and pupilage under bin Laden made him a magnet for a new generation of betrayed, angry jihadis now also thirsting for vengeance. The new recruits gathered around al-Wuhayshi and, according to Johnsen, “found solace and comfort in [his] words. They listened as the al-Qaeda veteran told them they were part of a global war. It’s the Americans, Wihayshi confided. They and their Jewish backers are to blame” for all the travails that had befallen Muslim peoples everywhere.
From memory and bits and pieces of paper, al-Wuhayshi painstakingly mapped the infrastructure for a new Al Qaeda—a regional affiliate that would actively embrace the principles and managerial style of its parent organization but at the same time absorb and learn the lessons from past mistakes and missteps that had undermined the movement and sapped its strength. Their Sanaa prison became a virtual training camp, inculcating in the new franchises’ recruits an ethos of “devotion and sacrifice” honed and perfected in the timelessness and deprivation of Yemen’s prisons. “Using the blueprint he had seen bin Laden perfect in Afghanistan,” Johnsen writes, “Wihayshi built a network that would last.”
In 2006, al-Wuhayshi escaped along with twenty-three followers from the supposedly impregnable maximum-security facility that held them. He immediately began to pursue his dreams for a thriving Al Qaeda organization in Yemen. Described as “methodical and patient,” the still titular leader painstakingly re-created a clone of the Al Qaeda organization he had known in Afghanistan. He selected local emirs who were made personally beholden to him and would be responsible for implementing his battle plan across the country.
Early the following year, al-Wuhayshi was elected head of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Just as bin Laden had done, the new leader required each man to swear a personal oath of allegiance, known as the bay’at, to serve loyally and obediently under him. And, as he had also learned from his mentor, al-Wuhayshi embraced a leadership style of “centralization of decision, decentralization of execution.” In this way, he would likewise define the organization’s mission and determine its strategy—but delegate its execution to his trusted field commanders.
In January 2009, al-Wuhayshi was ready, and the group now calling itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was proclaimed. It released a nineteen-minute video featuring al-Wuhayshi and three other men—Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi who had been released from the American detention facility at Guantánamo Bay only a year before; a fellow Saudi and recently freed Guantánamo detainee named Muhammad al-Awfi; and Qassim al-Raymi, AQAP’s newly appointed military commander. “By God, we are coming,” they promised. “We will bring delight to the eyes of our mothers in Palestine and Gaza. Either we will come to them with the flags of Jihad waving above steeds of war with the determination of our forefathers, or we will die in this cause.”
For the newly elected administration of President Barack Obama, the news could not have come at a worse time. Unbowed and unrepentant, terrorists who only recently had been in American custody were now free and truculently threatening vengeance. Within weeks, one of the president’s signature campaign pledges, and the centerpiece of the new policies he hoped would represent a clear break with his predecessor, would lie shattered. The terrorist-detention facility at Guantánamo Bay would not be closed, nor would its inmates be relocated to prisons in the United States. Equally disquieting was the reversal of what American officials had regarded as one of their key victories and most impressive achievements in eight years of the U.S. war on terrorism. Al Qaeda was back—and with it the prospect of a revived anti-American terrorist campaign.
IT DID not take long for AQAP to attempt to make good on its threat. The experience and expertise that informed the new group, and the lessons learned at bin Laden’s feet by al-Wuhayshi, arguably enabled it to become more dangerous and nimble than any terrorist organization in recent memory. For example, it took core Al Qaeda a full ten years to mount its first major international terrorist operation—the simultaneous suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
AQAP required less than a year to present the United States with the most serious terrorist threat directed against its citizens and interests since September 11, 2001. In August 2009, a twenty-two-year-old Nigerian graduate student with “short black hair and a winning smile” named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen. The son of a wealthy banker and former government official in Abuja and a recent graduate of one of Britain’s most distinguished educational institutions, University College London, Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen to meet Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s chief propagandist. Al-Awlaki, a charismatic, American-born cleric, had acquired considerable notoriety for his violently radical messages, which were widely distributed via cassette tapes, YouTube videos, a variety of extremist Internet sites and e-mail correspondence. Abdulmutallab told al-Awlaki that he wanted to become a jihadi and fight in the struggle AQAP was waging against the infidels. Uncertain how to judge this eager supplicant, al-Awlaki told Abdulmutallab to go off and write an essay for him explaining the reasons he thirsted to be part of AQAP’s jihad. He passed with flying colors and the rest, as they say, is history.
Abdulmutallab went on to become the infamous “underwear bomber” who, on Christmas Day 2009, attempted to detonate an extraordinarily innovative formfitting explosive device molded to his genitalia that was designed to evade airport screening and security. The in-flight suicide attack was foiled when the device initially malfunctioned and alert passengers pounced on, and subdued, Abdulmutallab until the Northwest Airlines flight landed in Detroit.
Al-Awlaki, however, interestingly has only a minor role in Johnsen’s account of AQAP’s ascension to prominence as the world’s most feared terrorist organization. Johnsen argues he was more of a bit player whose status and stature were inflated for a number of reasons—his fluency in English; his close association with a provocative online, English-language magazine called Inspire, published by AQAP; and a misplaced White House obsession. Johnsen is rightly skeptical of al-Awlaki’s rapid transformation into America’s public enemy number two—second only to bin Laden himself. Within weeks of the Christmas plot, he writes, the decision to kill al-Awlaki, an American citizen (as a result of having been born in New Mexico while his father was a graduate student), had become both a priority and official U.S. policy. Johnsen explains how this assessment, advanced by John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, grossly
Oversimplified a complex organization. Al-Qaeda in Yemen had been growing and evolving since 2006, moving from small-scale attacks in Yemen to large ones in Saudi Arabia and the US. More than a brainchild of a single man, the Christmas Day attempt was the natural outgrowth of an increasingly ambitious group that had several former Guantánamo Bay detainees in its ranks.
More disconcerting, this was the group’s second unnervingly ingenious operation. Only three months before, AQAP had narrowly missed assassinating a Saudi deputy minister responsible for counterterrorism with a novel explosive device discretely concealed in the bomber’s rectum. AQAP would go on to develop bombs hidden in printer cartridges and shipped as office supplies via commercial air-freight couriers, as well as what are blandly referred to in military and security circles as “SIIEDs”—surgically implanted improvised explosive devices. As far-fetched as a bomb medically implanted in a human body may sound, it has already been the subject of a serious warning issued by the Transportation Security Administration in the summer of 2011.
Johnsen thus rightly gives more attention to the mastermind behind these devices than to al-Awlaki. Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri is one of terrorism’s rare “evil geniuses” who surface only infrequently but radically change the threat in ways perhaps previously unimaginable. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the brains behind the September 11, 2001, attacks, are two other examples of the (thankfully few) superterrorists that have appeared in recent decades.
Al-Asiri, the son of a Saudi military officer, had been imprisoned in 2004 while attempting to travel to Iraq so that he could join the escalating insurgency there. “Up until that point,” he later recalled, “I didn’t know that the Saudi government was in the service of the crusaders.” He emerged from jail unimpressed and unaffected by Saudi Arabia’s highly vaunted deradicalization program. Instead he was energized and radicalized—determined to apply his expertise in bomb design and construction to furthering the Al Qaeda cause. Indeed, al-Asiri designed the bomb that nearly killed the aforementioned Saudi minister—and sent his beloved younger brother, Abdullah, on that mission.
BIN LADEN once prophesied that his death and eventual martyrdom would produce thousands more Osamas. Although his prediction has yet to be validated, bin Laden’s inspiration and mentorship clearly produced al-Wuhayshi—and, it can be said, the other hard men who gathered around him, enduring abuse and deprivation in Yemen’s prisons, all the while steeling themselves for the battle they knew awaited.
In May 2012, AQAP celebrated the martyrdom of one of its seminal fighters, a jihadi named Fahd al-Quso, who had been implicated in the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole. On the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade since, he was finally tracked down and killed earlier that month in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. “The war between us will not end,” the AQAP statement proclaimed, “and the coming days are bringing something new.” In The Last Refuge, Johnsen provides a useful depiction of how that war began, even if he, regrettably, offers no prediction of how and when it will end. The book relates a compelling story about an implacable and formidable enemy. Although more descriptive than analytical, doubtless written more with a popular audience in mind (not least given the reconstructed quotations that appear from many of the story’s key dramatis personae), one therefore eagerly awaits the publication of Johnsen’s Princeton PhD thesis for a more scholarly treatment of this subject.
It is worth noting that at least one key aspect of The Last Refuge, though, has already been overtaken by events. The book’s title refers to the advice famously given by the Prophet Muhammad to his followers: “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.” In the past year, we have seen the proliferation of new Al Qaeda adherents seeking refuges in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Libya and Syria, among other places—thus ensuring that Yemen won’t be the movement’s last bastion.
*Bruce Hoffman is a contributing editor to The National Interest, a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, and a professor and director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.