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'The Last Refuge': Fighting Al-Qaida In Yemen


The war in Iraq is officially over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. But that doesn't mean President Obama is set to become a peacetime president in his second term. During his first term, Mr. Obama ramped up the drone war against al-Qaida in Pakistan and most recently in Yemen, where the last three major terrorist threats against the U.S. have originated. And there's no sign the campaign in Yemen will let up. The latest drone strike took place just last week near Yemen's capital Sana'a, reportedly killing an al-Qaida commander. Gregory Johnsen has spent a lot of time studying and writing about Yemen. His blog, called Big Think, is well known in national security circles. Now, he's written a book. It's called "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America's War in Arabia." Gregory Johnsen joins us from our New York studio. Thanks for being with us.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So, I'd like to start off by asking you if you could give us a thumbnail sketch of the U.S. campaign against al-Qaida in Yemen.

JOHNSEN: So, basically, the U.S. has been carrying out drone and airstrikes for the past three years. And this started - if you'll remember - there was a would-be suicide bomber that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group in Yemen, managed to put on an airplane over the United States, over Detroit. Thankfully, he failed on Christmas Day 2009.

MARTIN: This is what we call the Christmas Day bomber.

JOHNSEN: Right, the Christmas Day bomber or the underwear bomber, some have called him because of the nature of the bomb that he had. And since that time, and really even a week before that, the Obama administration has been carrying out attacks within Yemen, the idea being that if the U.S. could carry out enough attacks in Yemen, kill enough senior leaders within al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the organization would not be able to launch attacks from Yemen against the United States. And what we'd seen is that that campaign has really not been successful. So, on Christmas Day 2009, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was about two or three hundred members. Now, after three years of bombing raids, the group has more than tripled to well over a thousand. And as events earlier this spring, when we saw al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula attempt to put a second underwear bomb on a plane bound for the United States, the organization continues to be very determined to hit at the United States.

MARTIN: So, why is that so? I mean, you can imagine U.S. officials would probably say that they have been successful and they've been able to avert attacks against the United States. What in your research has shown you that this campaign has been unsuccessful?

JOHNSEN: I think it's very seductive. So, you can easily imagine a military planner sitting in the Pentagon who has a list of names. And so what he wants to do and what he imagines is that if he can kill them, he can make the United States safer. I think there is a flaw, an unspoken assumption in this. And that is that the U.S. seems to be worried only about the threats that it knows. So, if it thinks if it can cross these names off its kill list then it will in fact be safer. So, we saw this with, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric that the U.S. killed in a drone strike in September of 2011. And even though he was killed in September of 2011, in the spring of this year, al-Qaida was still able to build a better, more sophisticated bomb. And it was only a Saudi intelligence agent that had infiltrated the organization that managed to unravel that latest plot.

MARTIN: The Obama administration has publicly cited its legal authority several times for the drone strikes in Pakistan, in Yemen and elsewhere, but they're still very controversial - a lot of concern about civilian casualties. How are the strikes perceived in Yemen?

JOHNSEN: I was just there. I was touring around. I was spending a lot of time talking to people. And in fact, I sat down with an individual who's very close to members of al-Qaida. And he said, look, the United States is not just killing members of al-Qaida. The United States is killing women and children and the United States is killing tribesmen. And this has a very radicalizing effect in Yemen. So, you are having individuals that are being essentially pushed into the arms of al-Qaida because the U.S. has killed their tribesmen or their relative. And in his explanation, that's why al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, this group in Yemen, has grown so big so fast. And so I think the U.S. just is not pursuing this in a very wise manner. I think there's a place for drones in U.S. strategy for Yemen. The problem, I think, is that drones are part of the solution and right now the Obama administration is using them as the totality of the solution.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit more about that? I mean, what are the alternatives?

JOHNSEN: Right. One of the things that struck me as I sort have been going back and forth from Yemen to the United States is the difference in the narrative, in the discussion in the two places. And what really takes place in the United States is that there's an almost unspoken assumption that this is the war that the United States can win on its own. And I just don't think that's true. So, what we see is the U.S. trying to do more, the U.S. trying to do more. The only people that can really decisively defeat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula are Yemenis themselves. I think what's taking place right now is that by the U.S. acting so heavy-handedly that the U.S. is actually closing down the amount of space that local clerics, that tribesmen in Yemen have, to stand up and confront al-Qaida and say, look, what it is that you're doing, what it is that you're arguing has no place within Islam. And in fact, we have seen some clerics do this in Yemen. There was a case just a few months ago where an anti-al-Qaida cleric was standing up, was lecturing in the mosque that these suicide bombings were a travesty, that they were crimes. And this cleric, unfortunately, was an individual who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike.

MARTIN: Gregory Johnsen is the author of a new book called "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America's War in Arabia." Gregory Johnsen, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHNSEN: You're welcome.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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