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Book Review: The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia by Gregory D. Johnsen

Published by WW Norton (2012)
Reviewed by Daniel Byman
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 10:29 AM

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.

(Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and director of research at Brookings’ Saban Center; his most recent book is A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.)

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