January 8, 2013
Thoughts on “The Last Refuge”

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.

November 18, 2012
America, Politics, and Yemen

Note: Unfortunately, this post likely will not mark a regular return to blog posting.  I will try to post semi-regularly, as time constraints allow.

As the dust settles from the presidential election and the fallout in Washington over the Petraeus scandal, questions arise about what the next few years of American politics will mean for Yemen (as well as, of course, other countries around the world).  A number of articles and video segments have recently covered various aspects of this broad question:

To accompany all of these articles, two recent videos bring to light the discussion about American political maneuvering and Yemen’s future: a Brookings Institute-sponsored discussion on Yemen (which I’ll admit I haven’t watched yet), and a Huffington Post roundtable on intelligence, inspired by Foust’s article.

So what do the last couple of weeks in American politics mean for Yemen?  Probably very little – or, that is to say, probably very little that’s different from the past few years.

The overwhelming result of the national election is that the status quo held.  Congress largely returned the same members to Washington, and Obama was re-elected.  While there will certainly be a new head of the CIA, and allegedly new heads of the State and Defense departments, what we’re likely to see in the next four years is a renewal of the focus on “smart power” in fighting terrorism.  This is encouraged by what some have called the “Biden Doctrine,” based on Vice President Biden’s focus on narrow counterterrorism efforts like using special operations forces, launching cruise missiles, and initiating drone strikes.  It is probably bolstered as well by the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.

As Sharqieh points out, Yemeni President Hadi strongly emphasized counterterrorism efforts in a cable congratulating Obama for his re-election.  The status quo hasn’t changed all that much in Yemen, either, in the transition from Saleh to Hadi.  There have been shakeups, to be sure, but the primary basis of the relationship between the U.S. and Yemen remains the battle against terrorism.  (As Foust pointed out in the HuffPo video, the U.S. does give a lot of money to Yemen for reasons other than terrorism.  The application of American policies in Yemen shows a strong focus on counterterrorism, however.)

Potentially, changes at the CIA could affect American policy in Yemen.  A de-militarization of the Agency, for example, could mean fewer drone strikes.  A greater focus on HUMINT would have a number of benefits, among which could be more accurate strikes and/or raids.  A shared understanding of the goals for Yemen and other countries, incorporated by the broad spread of American agencies involved with national security and foreign policy, could achieve a focused end state towards which to strive.  (This point was eloquently stated by Heather Hurlburt in the HuffPo discussion.)  Whether or not any of these will happen is anyone’s guess.  Whether or not any of them will happen in the very near future is doubtful.

A major point of discussion in the debate about the future of intelligence and national security concerns the role of terrorism in the overall threat picture, and particularly the role of al-Qaeda.  Some have argued, as Jeremy Scahill does in the HuffPo discussion, that the focus on terrorism is disproportionate given the other national security threats to the U.S.  The challenge for achieving the right balance on terrorism is two-fold: international terrorism is quite diffuse, begging a “needle-in-the-haystack” allusion, and the political climate requires absolute success.  Guiding both points is the truism that “We have to be successful 100% of the time; they only have to be successful once.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that so much money and manpower is devoted to fighting terrorism.  Whether accurate or not, the widespread belief is that the U.S. will not soon find itself slugging it out with an equally large foe; a Cold War-esque U.S. vs. U.S.S.R style fight is not the major concern.  Moreover, while foreign militaries undoubtedly use guile and subterfuge to mask their capabilities and intentions, the structured nature of such potential adversaries differs significantly from the de-centralized framework of terrorist threats.  To put it bluntly, it takes more effort to catch people when they aren’t in uniform and can blend in with the population.

Additionally, while some advocate an Israeli-style resiliency to terrorism in the U.S., noting that we can’t be successful every time, the current political climate is such that failure to defeat terrorist attacks – at least in the homeland – is probably a deal killer for most politicians.  It might not single-handedly end careers, but it certainly won’t help them.  Therefore, those in power must work from a position of perceived strength.

Complicating the fight against terrorism, especially in places like Yemen, is that there are so few people who have a strong grasp of the countries in which we are operating.  (I say this while acknowledging that, by necessity, I can speak only of those who are in the public sphere.  The government’s stable of culturally-proficient analysts aren’t writing open-source articles.)  America lost a great analyst of Yemen when Christopher Boucek died just over a year ago.  Gregory Johnsen is one of the few American experts on Yemen who consistently engages the public sphere.  While there are certainly others who offer good analysis, we simply do not have enough people to provide the context we need for policies in places like Yemen.

Moreover, changing political winds mean that constant analysis is required.  For example, Johnsen has repeatedly pointed out that official estimates for the size of AQAP have risen from 200-300 in late 2009 to more than 1,000 today, possibly as much as 6,000.  This, Johnsen argues, is largely the unintended result of radicalization arising from Yemeni displeasure over American drone strikes.  Now, Johnsen doesn’t assert that Yemeni deaths are the only cause, but a major one.  We also have to factor in potential implications of the Arab Spring (both pro- and anti-government sentiments), Yemeni poverty, and any number of other factors that are often difficult to nail down.  The only way to get a good grasp on the situation is continual observation and analysis.

Unfortunately, too often we simply don’t know what’s going on, and that affects our decision-making.  I would be interested in seeing if there has been a similar growth in jihadist groups in the same timeframe as AQAP has expanded.  As Scahill pointed out in the HuffPo roundtable, we often don’t know what other groups are doing, or even if they exist.  (I was reminded at that point of my dissertation supervisor, who on a U.N.-sponsored fact-finding trip to Palestine came back with a lengthy list of extremist Islamist movements the U.N. had never heard of.)  Is AQAP’s growth self-perpetuating?  That is to say, is AQAP’s post-bin Laden prominence as a dangerous group drawing recruits, making it more dangerous and thus more attractive?  Are we under-estimating the scheming and leadership capabilities of AQAP’s leader and bin Laden deputy Nasir al-Wuhayshi?

Given our lack of knowledge, can we realistically expect anything to change in the near future?  If things get significantly worse, American leadership may seek an alternative to our current approach.  Just what that would look like, I don’t know.  Success in Yemen requires not merely Yemeni involvement but Yemeni leadership of the approach.  Unless something drastic happens to force a change, however, I think we’ll continue to see a piecemeal approach of eliminating one terrorist leader at a time with implicit Yemeni approval, rather than a grand new direction in Yemen.  And if something drastic does happen, I don’t know if anyone knows what to do next.

August 30, 2012
Yemen’s Competing Challenges

Rather than re-writing the lengthy post I had about Yemen’s overlapping challenges (after Tumblr, for no apparent reason, unceremoniously dumped everything but the first word of the post when I went to publish), I’m just going to link to the relevant stories here:

July 30, 2012
The Cost of Hunger

In the past few weeks, the very important story of Yemen’s food crisis has been making the rounds of various news sites.  The pictures accompanying these stories are absolutely heartbreaking (yes, that is a warning about following any of the links below).  The facts are equally horrifying, as related here in a story from Voice of America:

The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that nearly 10 million Yemenis are “food insecure.” They fall into two categories - five million are classified as “severely food insecure,” that is, those who are unable to buy or grow food themselves, and another five million who are “moderately food insecure,” that is, they are at risk of going without food due to rising food prices and the ongoing civil conflict. Combined, they account for 44.5 percent of Yemen’s population of close to 25 million.

Children are particularly vulnerable. The WFP reports that half of Yemen’s children are chronically malnourished and that one out of ten does not live to reach the age of five.

Such emergency levels of chronic malnutrition, according to the WFP, are second globally only to Afghanistan. In its assessment of the situation, the organization characterizes “the picture [as] one of a country on the brink of a disastrous and rapid decline into humanitarian crisis.”  


Jerry Farrell, Save the Children’s country director for Yemen, told VOA that there is a difference between a food crisis and hunger.

“This is not a food crisis. There is plenty of food in the markets, with the exception of Abyan, the scene of recent fighting,” Farrell said. The problem is that people either lack the money to buy food or are unable to travel to markets.  

Many other news organizations have picked up on this devastating situation, including the Guardian, al-Monitor, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times, just to name a few.  

It’s difficult to know, though, just where this situation will lead.  There’s certainly an opportunity for the international community to step up and make a difference - and from all accounts, international organizations are working on it.  But it’s hard to know where Yemen will go from here, precisely because there’s just no way to predict what will happen.

I was reminded of this when reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand, about the battle of Little Bighorn.  While I’m not one for saying we can pull random facts from one historical situation and apply them wholesale to another completely different one, Philbrick’s description of the Lakota Sioux’s identity and sustenance crisis going into the mid 1870s struck me as familiar:

From this distance in time, it seems obvious: After more than a century of dramatic, seemingly preordained expansion, the Lakota were about to face inescapable catastrophe when their food source, the buffalo, disappeared.  Not so obvious, especially today, is what a society about to confront such changes is supposed to do about it.

The future is never more important than to a people on the verge of a cataclysm. […] fear of the future can imbue even the most trivial event with overwhelming significance. (p. 31)

I’m not far enough along in Philbrick’s book to know how much emphasis he places on hunger as a motivating factor in the Sioux’s lives.  Moreover, Yemen’s dwindling resources are oil and water (and stability), not bison.  I think it’s fair to say, though, that desperate hunger can lead nowhere good.  

What significance can we place on current events in Yemen?  What events will we look back on to see that we missed their significance in the moment?  And what will be the outcome of those events?

On many levels, I fear to find out.  I fear for what the people of Yemen will find out. 

July 25, 2012
Profiles of AQAP’s leadership

In case you missed it, Gregory Johnsen has a nice piece out in the CTC sentinel profiling four of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

  • Nasir al-Wahayshi
  • Said al-Shihri
  • Qasim al-Raymi
  • Ibrahim Asiri  

Concise and to the point, Johnsen’s article complements some of the backgrounders out there on AQAP, such as the Council on Foreign Relations’ or the National Counterterrorism Center’s.  AEI’s Critical Threats Project put out a good profile about a year ago that covered a lot of the same ground as Johnsen (as well as a lot more on Yemen), but this new piece is both more detailed and more up-to-date.

Two quick thoughts from Johsen’s piece:

  • While de-radicalization certainly has value, Said al-Shihri should be a constant reminder that it’s not guaranteed to work.  As Johnsen writes:

Once back in the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], al-Shihri was required to take part in a rehabilitation program run by the Ministry of the Interior. Less than a year later, in September 2008, Saudi officials decided he no longer posed a threat and he was released. The 35-year-old al-Shihri was offered a wife and a job, but he declined.

Within weeks of his release, al-Shihri organized and led several former Guantanamo Bay detainees over the border to Yemen to rejoin al-Qa`ida.

I think we can draw lessons for future programs from the successes and failures of both Yemen’s and Saudi Arabia’s attempts at de-radicalization.  We have to remember, though, that it’s no magic bullet.

  • We have to know who we’re fighting against if we’re going to win.  It’s always a little surprising to me how often people misconstrue the leadership of AQAP.   Nasir al-Wahayshi is the leader, and has been since the merger.  I don’t doubt that our diplomats, military leaders, and intelligence professionals know this fact.  It would be nice if our media picked up on it, though.  (For those of us who aren’t Arabic speakers, it would also be helpful if we could pick just one way to transliterate his name.  However, given the debate over Qaeda/Qaida and Usama/Osama, I’m not counting on it.) 

July 12, 2012
On the Nature of the Threat

Recently, some news stories and blog posts have me thinking about the nature of the threat emanating from Yemen.  I consistently see Yemen named as one of the top places to fear the rise of terrorism, but there’s not always a lot of good reporting from Yemen. 

By that, I don’t necessarily mean the day-to-day stuff, because there are certainly some good reporters out there who can provide something of a local reaction to, say, an alleged drone strike.  Rather, it’s the big picture that often seems a bit muddled, perhaps because, as Gregory Johnsen recently pointed out on Twitter, many people only seem to pay attention to Yemen when something bad happens.

Given that fact, I thought it might be interesting to speculate on just what threat AQAP poses to the US, along with its affiliated group Ansar al-Shariah (which I often shorten to AS).  Here’s my quick and dirty interpretation of how things stand:

1. AQAP is not an existential threat to the US.  Even al-Qaeda as a whole – or as a conglomeration of groups – isn’t an existential threat, not in the sense that, say, the USSR was during the Cold War. 

Now, AQAP has the potential to cause us grievous harm.  The old standby is as true of AQAP as it is of any terrorist organization: we have to be successful every time, while they only have to be successful once.  The fact that we’ve gone as long as we have without a successful full-scale terrorist attack on the US homeland is both a testament to our security services and our luck, and a likely indicator that our success can’t hold.  (I know that this is essentially an argument out of nothing, but I think the odds are against us keeping up this pace.) 

AQAP’s best chance of truly defeating us is the goal AQ has long expressly stated: getting us to over-extend and over-spend.  (Potentially, if al-Qaeda and other groups could form the much-vaunted caliphate they could together become an existential threat, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.)

2. AQAP is not focused only on Yemen or only on the US.  In a brief Twitter exchange with Gregory Johnsen and Casey Coombs the other day, I mentioned that “the hallmark of AQAP has been [their] ability to balance near and far attacks on enemies.”  Or as Johnsen stated, a “Mistake many have made is to assume AQAP could only focus on one type of attack - domestic v. international.” 

Christopher Swift commented on this as well in his piece in Bloomberg, To Defeat Al-Qaeda, Win in Yemen.  Swift writes:

As drone strikes have debilitated al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan, its Yemeni affiliate — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — has emerged as the next vanguard of global jihad. But the group has a second, more tangible objective: Yemen itself.


The group is the first al-Qaeda franchise to successfully blend the ideological dictates of global jihad with the practical requirements of local insurgency. 

I think it’s enough to say that AQAP isn’t singularly focused on either Yemen or the US.  They want a safe haven in Yemen, which means defeating their enemies there.  They want to destroy their enemies in the West too, including the US.  They’re going to keep going at both, and have established a fine partner/arm to do so in Ansar al-Shariah, as Swift points out in his article. 

Knowing how to defeat AQAP means knowing not only about AQ central’s and AQAP’s history and justification, but also about Yemen and the cultural goings-on there.

3. AQAP is not going to give up easily.  I don’t fully understand the drone approach to Yemen particularly because it is so integrated into an insurgency movement.  Yes, drones can have a big effect on the group, particularly if we get good intel and good targeting. 

Just knocking off the top leaders isn’t going to cut it, though, because AQAP’s so tied to local issues (it’s not just a cult of personality).  Just whacking the lower-level guys is like trying to plug the hole in the dyke with your finger: it might work for a while, but it’s not going to work forever. 

As long as AQAP is around – and as long as they’re bringing people into the ranks – they’re going to stay on target.  We’ve got to bring all our resources to bear, rather than picking the most risk-averse option.

4. AQAP is collaborative.  We saw this in al-Awlaki (though his role in AQAP is contested).  We’ve seen it both in their connections to AQ central and al-Shabaab.  Now there’s news of AQAP connections in Nigeria:

Sam Rascoff, who teaches law and national security at New York University, sees AQAP’s latest ambitions in Nigeria as all of a piece.

"Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula doesn’t confine its recruitment to Yemen and certainly doesn’t confine its operational vision to the Arabian Peninsula," he says. "They’re an organization with an increasingly global recruitment platform and global ambitions for where they are going to strike, and they see Nigeria as one of the places that will help them get there."

It’s easy to think of each of the AQ affiliates as their own thing, and to some extent they are; al-Qaeda as a single unified brand and organization is no more, if it ever was. 

At the same time, AQAP perhaps more than any other of the franchises is built on the backbone of AQ’s ideology and history.  Al-Wuhayshi and the other leaders of AQAP have every reason to attempt to continue the umbrella organization that is/was/was intended to be al-Qaeda’s front. 

It’s my contention that the AQ groups can be most successful when they can focus on regional issues and recruitment while sharing costs, resources, and loose commonality of purpose with one another (as opposed to trying to operate as a single entity).

5. AQAP is both pragmatic and creative.  I’ve talked at length before about AQAP/AS pragmatism, so I won’t go into detail on that here.  Despite being quite practical, however, they’re also pretty creative. 

AQAP has made something of a name for themselves with different ways to incorporate bombs in or around a person’s body.  They’ve got a nuanced approach to air attacks that is both subtle and effective.  Airplanes make easy targets – you’ve got a bunch of people confined in a fragile environment – but there’s different ways to both strike fear and run up the cost of the security environment, and AQAP has been eager to exploit those differing routes. 

Moreover, they’re happy to use foreigners to carry out their attacks, if for no other reason than because it makes it easier to slip the attacker through security.  The Underwear Bomber was Nigerian; the Underwear Bomber 2.0 was apparently British-Saudi; al-Awlaki was Yemeni-American (though there’s nothing I’ve seen personally tying him to specific attacks); and now there’s stories about Norwegian and Vietnamese recruits.  (Of course, this is just a small sample.) 

They’re a wily adversary who can’t be under-rated.  That being said…

6. AQAP – and al-Qaeda is general – is not the be-all-and-end-all of terrorism.  Perhaps it’s because my educational background has included quite of bit on Northern Ireland and the Troubles, but I’ve never quite got the total focus on al-Qaeda.  Yes, they’re a big threat.  Yes, they’ve attacked us directly.  But take a look at the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.  They’re not all AQ-linked, or even Islamist, or even religious. 

Clint Watts makes some excellent points on this in his article What If There Is No Al-Qaeda? Preparing For Future Terrorism that probably warrant further evaluation by some in the field. 

It’s good that we’re keeping up the fight against al-Qaeda, and their active branch in AQAP.  We need to make sure, though, that doing so doesn’t blind us from other enemies.

11:38pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/ZkaTzxPFI75L
(View comments
Filed under: Yemen AQAP threat 
May 31, 2012
Yemen in the News

I finally got around to watching Frontline’s amazing piece on AQAP in Yemen.  If you haven’t watched it yet, you definitely should.  There’s a reason everyone was talking about it Tuesday night.

While there wasn’t a lot of new information in the piece for me, there was something dramatic about seeing it in video rather than reading about it, or even seeing pictures.  At the same time, al-Qaeda seems both more sinister and more approachable.  In fact, while watching the scenes in Jaar, all I could think of was how easy it seemed to approach al-Qaeda members.  (Of course, easy from my couch is very different than easy from south Yemen.)

Of all the things that stand out from the documentary, little is more important than the absolutely necessary involvement of Yemeni tribes in kicking out AQAP.  ”If the millions of tribesmen decide collectively one day that they would like to kick out al Qaeda,” gutsy reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad stated in the conclusion, “it will just disappear.”  (A full transcript is here.)

What I’m seeing lately is that Yemen is in the news more - and I have to think that’s a good thing.  AQAP has been repeatedly described as the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise attacking America.  Beyond that, Yemen’s strategic position means its stability - or lack thereof - can have far-reaching effects.  Plus, discussion about Yemen necessitates discussion about drones, because right now the US doesn’t have a Yemen policy so much as a drone policy in Yemen.  (Case in point on the drone discussion: the much discussed NYT piece on Obama’s kill list.)

There is a downside to Yemen being in the news so much (besides the fact that most of the news is negative); the more Yemen is featured, the more people who know little to nothing about Yemen get to regale us with their punditry.  Fortunately, there’s some really good reporting coming out on Yemen as well.  I’m including some of that in the following links dump of stories from the last couple of weeks.

May 12, 2012
On Our Drone Strategy

Just as George W. Bush may be recalled as the president who tried to fight terrorism by waging war and removing tyrants, Obama may be recalled as the president who sought to rout terrorists through targeted killing from the sky. – James Traub, “Terrorist Fishing in the Yemen

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about drone use – probably unsurprising given the massive number of stories written on drones in recent weeks.  Drones are incredibly troublesome to me, because I can see so much validity to both sides of the argument for and against their use.  (My recent post on drones in Yemen probably reflects that conflict, without really saying anything substantive.)

On the one hand, drones provide an unprecedented level of access to both reconnaissance and “kinetic action” in hard-to-reach places.  Though they cannot replace real eyes on the ground, drones can get places that we would have great difficulty putting actual people.  When people in far places have both the intent and capacity to strike against American citizens, we should do what we can to stop them.

On the other hand, there are major implications for drones’ ease of use.  Over-reliance on drones – at least for attacks – leads to a physical and (likely) moral separation from killing.  I don’t think we ever want to make killing too easy, even when we’re talking about an enemy that wants to kill us. 

Such reliance on drones might also lead us in directions we would not otherwise go.  In Yemen, for example, we probably would not militarily intervene to such a point that it would even be possible to kill some of the people we have killed in recent months.  We should be incredibly careful about letting technology guide our military strategies.

It is this last point that is probably the most troublesome to me, because I see our leaders taking what is undoubtedly a major technological advance and crafting entire strategies around it.  Terrorist decapitation via drone strikes is not a strategy; it is but one part of it.

Vice President Biden has long been an advocate of a very narrow view of counterterrorism.  An October, 2010 Foreign Policy article described it as an “approach that would focus on killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders with bombs, missiles, and special-operations raids.”  Sound familiar?  The problem is that our military isn’t all drone operators and SEALs, and for good reason.*  For that matter, our approach to counterterrorism isn’t – and shouldn’t be – entirely in the military’s hands.

The approach we have to drone use now – at least in Yemen – is off-putting in part because it seems too one-sided.  Frank Cilluffo and Clint Watts had a back-and-forth with Gregory Johnsen about this very issue about a year ago.  (Cilluffo and Watts’ initial piece; Johnsen’s response; Cilluffo and Watts’ rebuttal.)  Both sides raised some good points.  However, the past few months seemed to have shown a shift toward an almost over-use of drones in Yemen (and elsewhere).

Part of the problem, too, is that the headlines are more easily packaged when we’re killing people.  “Drone strike in Yemen kills senior al-Qaeda leader” – because it’s always a “senior al-Qaeda leader” – sounds much better than “Small steps toward democracy and order in Yemen.”

How do we approach a situation where we are successfully eliminating (at least part of) the terrorist leadership we know, while alienating the populace?  Reports suggest a mixed review of Ambassador Feierstein’s approach in Yemen, no doubt at least in part because there are so many competing forces in Yemen.  Our short-term goals may be undercutting our long-term ones.

Yemen’s chaos makes it easier for al-Qaeda to grow, and for Ansar al-Shariah to offer a pragmatic alternative to the fractured government.  Yemen’s chaos makes it easier for American forces to operate with impunity, but also for us to try to play favorites in a situation that is far from being resolved.

In my previous post, I suggested that we needed more of a Special Forces approach to Yemen.  I didn’t mean we needed a greater reliance on Special Operations Forces, á la the Biden approach.  Rather, I meant that we needed a greater focus on winning hearts and minds; we needed to provide real, practical, and positive solutions along with law enforcement and intelligence aid, and military strikes – which apparently means drones.  And when we use drones, we need to make sure – absolutely sure – that we’re targeting the right people.  Pattern of life activity probably isn’t good enough, least not in a place that so many struggle to understand in the first place.

Without a balanced approach, we’ll either turn the populace against us completely, or we’ll give al-Qaeda an unsuppressed environment for development.  Neither is a good alternative.  But what we’re doing right now isn’t quite cutting it.


* I often joke that the current administration’s fascination with the SEALs might mean they’ll eventually rename all the branches to incorporate SEALs somehow.  Just like the Army gave everyone the beret a few years ago, we could have Green Beret SEALs, Delta Force SEALs, USMC Force Recon SEALs, etc.

April 10, 2012
Fixing Yemen’s Prisons

In the face of increased Islamist militant activity in Yemen, analysts are looking for root causes of radicalization, with a mind to countering it. At least one of these causes appears to be Yemeni jails. “The more AQAP bios I read the more I see a single common denominator,” prominent Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen wrote on Twitter on March 22, “time in a prison in Yemen.”

For the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), this is undoubtedly true. After all, al-Qaeda reasserted itself as a force in Yemen after many who became the core leadership of AQAP escaped from prison in 2006. These escapees included Nasser al-Wahayshi, the emir of AQAP; Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s military commander; Hizam Mujali; and Mohammad Said al-Umdah, among others.

Other members, like deputy emir Said al-Shihri, Uthman al-Ghamdi, and spiritual advisor Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, are former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Fahd al-Quso, a plotter in the USS Cole attack, spent time Yemeni prison, as did Anwar al-Awlaki, perhaps AQAP’s most famous alleged member. In fact, it was during Awlaki’s stay in Yemeni prison that he became “harder,” according to those who knew him, fueled by Sayyid Qutb’s writings and anger over American involvement over his imprisonment without charges.

Of course, this listing doesn’t even address the scores of foot soldiers whose profiles are relayed through AQAP’s “martyrs’ biographies,” the testimonies of the fallen. Many of these lesser-known figures have also spent time in Yemeni jails, and have even been recruited there.

Does imprisonment in Yemeni jails lead to radicalization, then? Or perhaps a better question is, will reforming Yemen’s prisons decrease radicalization?

The answers to these questions are perhaps not quite as clear as they may seem. After all, it’s obvious that Yemeni imprisonment was not the only radicalizing factor in these men’s lives. Wahayshi is a former personal assistant to bin Laden, and both Shihri and Rubaish went through Saudi Arabia’s de-radicalization program, itself an adaptation of Yemen’s efforts from 2002-2005 under Hamoud al-Hitar.

However, given the state of Yemen’s prisons, reform could only do good. Many of Yemen’s current and former prisoners have quite legitimate grievances about the way they’ve been treated.

As tens of thousands of jihadists have been imprisoned over the years, analysts have lamented the ease with which prisons have become factories of radicalization rather than offering real rehabilitation. Yemen’s prisons in particular have a bad reputation of corruption and mistreatment.

When the imams were in power in Yemen, Victoria Clark notes, one could pay to have a person arrested, or pay more to have him released – and this trend has not entirely dissipated in the years since the imamate fell from power in 1962. Particularly troubling is the trend toward government agencies in Yemen, such as the Political Security Office or the National Security Bureau, running their own “private” prisons. “Privation and torture are a well-documented feature of jails run without supervision” by such groups, Clark writes. Local sheikhs sometimes run their own jails as well.

Coupled with frequent jail breaks (there were two fairly extensive escapes in 2011, not to mention the major getaways in 2003 and 2006), kidnapping of prisoners’ family members, suppression by Yemen’s security services, and all-too-common imprisonment without charge, it should not be surprising if the Yemeni populace distrusts the prison system while Yemeni prisoners are angry and prone to radicalization.

Nor is this an issue just now coming to light. A 2008 survey by USAID of Yemeni youth found that Yemeni prisons are “violence academies” where imprisoned youth are exposed to hardened criminals and jihadists, as well as torture and brutalization. “They enter jails normal people with some confusions and prejudices, because of torture they come out four times terrorists than they were before,” stated one survey participant, while another claimed, “Prisons and juvenile centers are supposed to rehabilitate the youth. What happens is the opposite. They get abused and they come out of jail even more aggressive and more violent.”

Ansar al-Shariah and AQAP continue to gain ground in southern Yemen based partially upon their pragmatic approach to providing services the common Yemeni populace misses out on; in addition to providing electricity and teachers to areas lacking both (along with their interpretation of shariah law), it is not uncommon for these Islamist militants to demand the release of jihadist prisoners in areas they enter. Even if detainees did not fully agree with al-Qaeda’s ideology before, release at AQAP’s hand might be enough to sway their minds.

How, then, can an embattled government under the reign of new president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi deal with the issue of prison radicalization in Yemen? If time in Yemeni prison is such a common factor among AQAP members, getting a handle on radicalization among Yemeni prisoners might be a key step in countering AQAP’s recruitment efforts.

Without doubt, this is a multi-faceted question with no simple answers. Radicalization is not an easy topic, and countering it requires much more than getting prisoners to sign a piece of paper saying they won’t carry out terrorist acts – a lesson Yemen had to learn the hard way from Hamoud al-Hitar’s Committee for Religious Dialogue. However, a combination of increased centralization along with improved mediation efforts might lay the foundation for an improved Yemeni prison system.

Increased centralization might not seem like an obvious direction to take the prison system when Yemen’s central government appears to have a tenuous grip on power after the year-long process of removing former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from office. The rampant problem of corruption in Yemen is only exacerbated by the virtual autonomy various leaders have over their own “sheikdoms,” whatever those may be. For example, the PSO could not intimidate so many prisoners if it were not left so much to its own devices.

By placing the prison system under one central authority – preferably staffed by leaders who are not from the entrenched system of Saleh’s sycophants – false imprisonment could be reduced, if not eliminated. The purpose would not be to gain power so much as it would be to seek justice, releasing those wrongly detained and preventing further torture and abuse. How better for Hadi to gain the respect of his citizens than to reverse the injustices of the past?

Additionally, radicalization in prisons could be reduced simply by finding ways to keep people out of prisons. One way to do so is to more fully embrace the notion of tribal mediation for smaller crimes and disagreements. Though tribalism is more a northern phenomenon in Yemen, the concept of mediation is not inextricably linked to tribal leaders. Expanding the concept to include many whose misdemeanors are minor could allow for greater flexibility in restitutive action, rather than punitive (and potentially radicalizing) imprisonment.

Moreover, these two approaches have the potential to balance one another out politically. For Hadi, greater centralization would allow the regime to combat charges of corruption, while incorporating mediation could help encourage much-needed tribal support for the government. For the tribes, mediation would help off-set worries about a power grab via centralized prison administration, while also giving them a voice in the debate about justice.

There’s no guarantee that this approach would work, much as there’s no guarantee that any of the reforms underway in Yemen will work. At the least, though, it’s a step in the right direction.

March 18, 2012
Remembering Yemen’s March 18th

Image after image of the dead, men and boys, showed that those killed in the most violent day in the capital city Sana’a for 30 years had been systematically shot through the head and neck by gunmen positioned on city rooftops." - The Telegraph, 19 March 2011, "Yemen protests: Evidence snipers shot to kill


My Twitter feed is full of remembrances for last year’s March 18th massacre in Yemen, surely a turning point in Saleh’s rule of the country, and perhaps of the country’s unified future as well.  

It was on March 18th of last year that I realized I’d probably been wrong about Saleh; previously, I thought he was bound to stay in for at least the full term of his presidency, and that he was, perhaps, a strongman we needed to stay in power to combat al-Qaeda.  Snipers intentionally picking off protesters in the street made me realize that Saleh had turned a page - or, at least, that my understanding of him had done so.

As a way of remembering what last year was like, I thought I would re-link to a select number of my posts from last spring (with the date and title of the post in bold), with a key quote from each (in italics).  The contemporaneous accounts of March’s tragedy were powerful to re-read.

Feb. 2 - Pre Day of Rage

A question that finds little voice in the media - at least from what I have seen - is whether removing Saleh will actually be good for Yemen.  Saleh’s government is certainly corrupt, but I question whether the opposition party would be better.  Saleh’s assistance to Western powers concerning counter-terrorism has certainly been flaky, but he is a known quantity, reliable or not.  And while Saleh’s administration has not provided the answers the Yemeni people want concerning unemployment and the host of other issues facing Yemen, do opposing parties have better answers?

I am not necessarily arguing that Saleh should stay in power; I do think we should question how much instability Yemen can take without falling apart completely.

Mar. 1 - Saleh’s 50-50 shot

I have previously stated that I thought Saleh would stay in power; now, I would have to agree with Mr. Krajeski.  50% sounds about right.  If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible in today’s Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter, but it’s worth noting that, as Gregory Johnsen pointed out in a recent post, it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to really understand a country like Yemen, partially because things really do operate very differently than in the US.)  Saleh may be forced out, which would have far reaching effects.  Replacing him with anyone, let alone anyone sympathetic to US interests, would be extremely difficult, as would (I suspect) keeping Yemen united.

Mar. 6 - Saleh’s Still In

As I pointed out in the first substantive post on this blog, the West is sorely lacking of Yemeni experts.  The few that we do have sometimes disagree with one another, as evidenced by Johnsen’s critique of Victoria Clark’s opinion pieces on Waq al-Waq, but on the whole they give a fairly unified view on the problems in Yemen.  They also tend to spend a fair amount of time trying to correct the misperceptions, misquotes, and outright fallacies in popular news stories based on scant evidence and questionable local sources; or, as Johnsen writes, “preventing US academics from going to the country to study does nothing to help the US gain information about a country that it all too often analyzes with guesses and hunches.”  All of this adds up to misinformed or ill-informed leaders making poor choices on how to deal with what increasingly looks like the linchpin of our counter-AQ plan.

Mar. 14 - Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

The US often is very well intentioned when it comes to foreign policy.  While sometimes we are caught off guard by the suddenness or ferocity of events, oftentimes we are simply not very good at predicting the consequences of our choices.  Especially when there are so few actual experts on Yemen to advise our leaders, I am concerned that we are not only heading the wrong direction in Yemen, but that we may actually be helping our adversaries through our many mistakes.

In some ways, we need Saleh, simply because he keeps Yemen from turning into chaos.  If we hold on too long, however, we might help instigate spreading that chaos worldwide by ticking off too many of the wrong people.

[The sniper attacks happened on March 18th.]

Mar. 26 - Thoughts on Yemen

A week ago yesterday, snipers opened fire on protesters after Friday prayers.  The first estimates I saw put the deaths around 30, but that number climbed to well over 50, with hundreds wounded.  Most of the victims were shot in the head or neck, which directly contradicted Saleh’s claim that it was protesters and residents turning upon one another.  Saleh declared a state of emergency.


The momentum has shifted against Saleh.  Once again, we are hearing that Yemen is close to a deal to transition power, though Saleh has said that before.  Eventually, though, he will be gone.  What happens after he leaves is definitely up in the air, and there are many, many players hoping to influence things their way.  Unless we can get our eye on the ball, get experts in positions to influence our own leaders into making wise decisions, I’m afraid Yemen will not only slip through the fingers of US influence but it will descend into pure anarchy.  That’s not good for anyone.

Mar. 27 - Civil War in Yemen?

One of the stories I linked to in my giant post of links was the CNN article “Hard-line approach to Arab unrest intensifies.” The author quotes Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who noted that “The Middle East has no model of people losing power and staying alive in their country.” It may very well be true that Saleh fears either exile or death; such a result, while possible before the shootings, is near certainty now.

2:00pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/ZkaTzxIBeQeU
(View comments  
Filed under: Yemen March 18 Saleh