Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia is a one-of-a-kind take on the rise, fall, and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Richly detailed, it provides more than just a sequential list of attacks and their perpetrators. Instead, it’s a compelling narrative of al-Qaeda’s development and practice, including the group’s non-violent side. No matter how much you know about al-Qaeda or Yemen, you will no doubt learn something new in the pages of this book.
Johnsen is not content to tell just the story of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the post-2009 amalgam of Yemeni and Saudi al-Qaeda members that is the most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States today. Rather, Johnsen takes the reader back to the beginning, telling the story not only of jihad in Afghanistan and the roles Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden played in that conflict, but also relaying relevant stories from Mohammad’s life in appropriate places. In this way, Johnsen’s obvious knowledge of the Middle East in general and Yemen in particular clearly shows through.
The story is not just about al-Qaeda but also about modern Yemen – the complex, at times nearly incomprehensible to outsiders, deeply complicated country that has been at times a key ally and at others a main threat in the war on terrorism. What sometimes might seems like deviations from the main thrust of the book nearly always return to violent jihad’s role in Yemeni society. To understand the role of jihadists in Yemen’s government, for example, one must know about former Yemeni President Saleh’s use of jihadists in the 1994 Yemeni civil war. That, in turn, takes one back further into the history of Saleh’s precipitous 30-year-plus rule, Yemen’s former division, Cold War politics, and Saudi and Egyptian battles for power in Yemen.
The interwoven tale of Yemen and jihad is told in fine detail, though at times I wondered if the author assumed too much about his readers’ knowledge of Yemen. The complex array of family names and tribal affiliations can confuse even those with a familiarity of the country, and I can’t imagine trying to untangle the web without previous study. I found myself wanting not only the list of key players found at the end of the book, but an organizational diagram showing their relationships to one another as well. Those who have studied Yemen will notice how Johnsen subtly slips in references to overused phrases about the embattled country, such as Saleh’s description of governing as “dancing on the heads of snakes,” the high number of guns per capita, and bin Laden’s “ancestral home” in Hadramawt.
Other reviews have rightly pointed out that Johnsen is a masterful writer. Johnsen’s fondness for literature, which he frequently mentions on Twitter, has clearly influenced his ability to tell a good story. Indeed, at times it seems like you are reading a novel, particularly in Johnsen’s descriptions of some of the major players and regions. Barbara Bodine is not merely a former ambassador to Yemen, for example; she’s a “trim, no-nonsense career diplomat from Missouri” whose “unveiled, angular good looks came as a shock to many in the conservative country” (pp. 59-60). I doubt Yemenis would appreciate as much Johnsen’s colorful descriptions of some areas of their country, including his portrayal of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, looking “more like a garbage dump” than Mohammad’s “paradise of earthly paradises.”
The only problem with this seamless narrative is that when the reader has a question or a quibble about some aspect of the text, it’s difficult to know from where the information came. There are no footnotes in the book, except for an occasional explanatory aside. I did find, to my surprise, that there are endnote references; there’s no indication of that fact in the body of the text. Because these notes are based on phrases from the book rather than in-text notations, narrowing down sources for particular statements is not as easy as in, say, J.M. Berger’s book Jihad Joe, which I recently reviewed.
Most of the time, this lack of notated source material is not a significant issue. For example, most accounts that I have seen of Abdullah Azzam’s assassination included sly references to Osama bin Laden’s potential implication in the bombing. In Johnsen’s telling, bin Laden was surprised by Azzam’s death (p. 17). At times when reading, I simply wanted to know more about the story, such as when Johnsen recounts conversations between al-Qaeda operatives in prison. In others, it seemed like it would have been worthwhile to more clearly substantiate assertions, such as alleged mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo. When there’s a question, it’s nice to be able to quickly and easily source a contention.
The chapter I was most looking forward to reading was chapter 10, the story of Yemen’s de-radicalization program. (This was also the subject of my master’s dissertation.) True to form, Johnsen brought new insights to the story, though to quote John Horgan in reference to a chapter in Berger’s book, Johnsen’s telling was tantalizingly short. I found myself most drawn in by the story of AQAP proper’s formative years, first in prisons and then immediately out of them. Fresh details of al-Wuhayshi’s relationship to bin Laden and the detainees’ machinations to resurrect al Qaeda in Yemen both fleshed out my understanding of the organization and reinforced its pedigree. I was reminded again of how young so many of the important players are. Perhaps most important was Johnsen’s focus on Osama bin Laden’s emphasis on centralization of decision and decentralization of execution. AQAP has finessed this approach to create a dangerous and compartmentalized threat in Yemen. Bin Laden’s leadership philosophy may be too often overlooked both by those who asserted that bin Laden was completely removed from the game prior to his death and those who argued for (one time) total control by al Qaeda Central.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the books is a bit like a train taking off, carefully picking its way through the story at the beginning and hurtling at breakneck speed by the end. The problem with political science, my undergraduate history advisor told me, is that by the time you have figured out what is going on, the situation has changed. Johnsen faces a similar problem in trying to recount the most recent developments in Yemen. The final pages on AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah, while all pertinent, felt at times like a mad rush to assemble all the relevant material in an ever-evolving situation and to capture it in print before things changed once again. (And, perhaps, before the manuscript’s deadline arrived.) Partially because I did not realize there were any endnotes padding out the last pages of the book, I was taken by surprise by the rather abrupt end.
Lest I seem uncharitable, Johnsen surely faced a difficult task compiling the necessary information in an appropriate timeframe. Particularly as a non-Arabic speaker, I am indebted to him for his comprehensive history of the subject. This book is certainly a must-read on Yemen and AQAP, and I expect to read it more than once. Somewhat like Victoria Clark’s book Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, the first reading set the framework for understanding, and subsequent readings will fill out extra or overlooked detail. Both in quality of writing and depth of detail, Johnsen’s book is better than Clark’s, falling somewhere on the scale of complexity between Clark and Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen. Much to Bruce Hoffman’s dismay, Johnsen’s PhD thesis is on the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war, so I doubt we will see a scholarly work or popular book equal to The Last Refuge any time in the near future.