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

As medical personnel descend on Guantánamo Bay to cope with a dramatic hunger strike, President Barack Obama renewed efforts to close the detention facilities at the U.S. naval base, a policy objective that has eluded him from his first days in office.  On January 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, Obama issued Executive Order 13492, which required that the detention facilities be closed no later than one year from the date of the order following a review of the grounds for detention for all detainees.  Section 2(a) of the order stated that of the approximately 800 individuals detained, at the time of signing “[t]he Federal Government has moved more than 500 such detainees from Guantánamo, either by returning them to their home country or by releasing or transferring them to a third country”.1  The nature of the evidence against them and the opaque channels that filled detention cells made these releases inevitable, and the Obama administration sought to continue to transfer those eligible for release.

Of the hundreds of former detainees, however, at least a handful had been released only to plot attacks against Western targets and the United States.  Two released detainees helped to found a new al-Qaeda affiliate, a merger of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches, whose ominous intentions were announced via a video days after Obama assumed office.  Based in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula quickly came to complicate the administration’s efforts to remove Guantánamo as a controversial component of America’s counter-terrorism policies.

In the aftermath of the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger jet on December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab revealed to investigators that he had traveled to Yemen to seek out the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose internet sermons inspired him to participate in violent jihad. His admissions confirmed what had previously been a tenuous link between Awlaki and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which provided the explosive device, and also suggested that the firebrand preacher played a role in the group’s operational decisions.  The near success of the suicide attack, the advanced bomb design, and AQAP’s involvement combined to create the perception of Yemen as a nexus of Islamic militancy and grounds for the Obama administration to cease returning Yemeni detainees to their home country.  A moratorium on transfers from Guantánamo, where the majority of the remaining 166 detainees are Yemeni, remains in effect. The prospects for release for Yemenis who have been administratively cleared are contingent upon security conditions in a country experiencing a precarious political transition and where al-Qaeda’s ranks swell. Gregory Johnsen’s book, The Last Refuge, provides an excellent account of historical developments that produced the current situation.

Johnsen sets out to place Yemen in the larger historical context of modern global jihad.  This approach provides a comprehensive background for readers with little to no knowledge of the subject, and also highlights Yemen’s importance in the development of militant Islam.  Indeed, Yemen’s relevance to the religion stretches back to its founding. While this may have been merely a function of geography, the ancient evocative symbolism with which the country is imbued persists to the present. Johnsen notes that Yemen’s role as a safe haven for Muslims, mythically, began when Muhammad purportedly instructed followers during the flight from Mecca to seek refuge in Yemen should disaster threaten.  The author draws a parallel between this fable and how Yemen is viewed today by the most fundamentalist adherents of the Prophet’s teachings.  Despite the fact that Johnsen goes on to construct a profile of a country that offered a physical landscape and a security atmosphere with obvious strategic appeal for Islamic militants, this is at the very least one way of synthesizing the past and present in a literary sense.

The Last Refuge opens with an examination of the country’s unique role in the Afghanistan conflict during the 1980’s.  North Yemen, entering its last decade as a separate state, encouraged young men to join the fight against the invading Soviet army.  Three forces were at work in this effort, each reinforcing the message of the others. President Ali Abdullah Salih, shayks from Yemen’s powerful tribes, and clerics all sought to inflame these young men’s sense of duty to help protect fellow Muslims.  While recruits for the fight came from across the Muslim world, “[f]or an entire generation of young Yemenis, a trip to the front lines in Afghanistan became a rite of passage.”

It was after Soviet forces withdrew that al-Qaeda took firm root in Yemen. Osama bin Laden created the organization towards the end of the fighting in 1989 and pursued his vision of liberating all Muslim lands from foreign invaders. Governed by a Soviet-friendly regime who forcibly took political power, South Yemen came into bin Laden’s sights. In addition to the men bin Laden sent into the mountains, Afghanistan veterans flooded into a newly unified Yemen with the tacit approval of President Salih, who reckoned these fighters could aid his plans to destabilize the government in the south and consolidate state power.

Johnsen here begins to establish the link between al-Qaeda, Yemen, and the U.S.  Bin Laden had watched the ruling family in his home country of Saudi Arabia invite American forces to construct bases near the holiest sites in Islam during the Persian Gulf War, bases remaining well after the conflict ended and the pretext for their presence evaporated.  Following the 1992 U.N. declaration authorizing the use of “any necessary means” to ameliorate the violence unfolding in nearby Somalia, the U.S. negotiated an agreement with Salih to use Aden, Yemen’s large southern port city, as a base for operations in Africa.  Alarmed by America’s creeping presence and citing a hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, bin Laden ordered his operatives to attack American targets in Aden to “expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula”.  Although the attacks proved unsuccessful, they were al-Qaeda’s first act of aggression towards the United States.

Johnsen’s book divides into three sections, (1) the rise of al-Qaeda in Yemen, (2 its disruption and suppression following the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks, and (3) resurgence and reorganization that produced the virulent affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula.  Each chapter flows seamlessly into the next owing to a narrative that reads more like an engaging work of fiction than a history textbook. Johnsen’s scope is perhaps overly precise, notably omitting certain pertinent events. The reader will find no mention of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in the chapter addressing this time period, and although the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 are mentioned, details of their planning and execution are not examined.  Relevance to Yemen is Johnsen’s stringent criterion of inclusion.  Every subplot and character coalesce to provide the reader a near complete picture of the particular story the author strives to tell.

A former Fulbright scholar who spent extended time in Yemen, Johnsen draws on on-the-ground expertise.  Not the inside perspective of a diplomat or a former administration official, although he spoke to many such, The Last Refuge offers readers a dispassionate account of an obscure country drawn into global prominence as a result of al-Qaeda activity within its borders.  Currently a PhD candidate at Princeton University, Johnsen contributes to many broadcast and print media outlets on Yemen and AQAP.  He maintains a blog, Waq al-Waq as a forum for analysis of developments there.

In a country of 24 million, the United Nations estimates that approximately 10 million Yemenis go to sleep hungry every night.  Thousands of children suffer acute malnutrition, unemployment is estimated at 22 percent, and sources of potable water are almost exhausted.  Reductions in crucial fuel and food subsidies, required by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as conditions of financial assistance, have devastating effects for a nation in which half or more of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.  The vast majority has long been neglected by a corrupt central government in Sanaa which has operated on patronage, rather than notions of equity or need.  And although longtime president Ali Abdullah Salih has relinquished state power in a transitional plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council following sustained popular unrest in early 2011, experts warn that the resulting political instability has put Yemen at risk of collapsing into chaos.

In an impoverished nation where suffering appears nearly universal, Yemenis have been increasingly subjected to an additional and unique form of terror.  Despite denouncing counterterrorism policies of his predecessor, President Obama escalated use of drone and missile strikes to assassinate high-level AQAP operatives in Yemen.  While these attacks may achieve short-term objectives, the intelligence that informs U.S. operational decisions is often faulty.  The result has been a growing number of civilian casualties, the implications of which were elaborated in recent Congressional testimony of a Yemeni journalist who attended high school in the U.S.

Errant strikes that kill civilians are generating new recruits for al-Qaeda, as Yemenis who do not espouse the group’s ideology seek an opportunity to avenge the deaths of friends and families.  Farea al-Muslimi, who testified in place of his friend and fellow Yemeni Ibrahim Mothana, described the impact of a drone strike on his village, saying that the attack “accomplished in an instant” what years of al-Qaeda’s anti-American propaganda had failed to do.2 In prepared remarks, admitted into the Congressional record, Mothana confirmed this development by citing estimates from both Yemen’s government and the United States, which indicate that al-Qaeda membership in the country increased from hundreds in 2009 to thousands in 2012. Muslimi rejected the Obama administration’s assertions that missile strikes are ordered where capture isn’t feasible, stating that the target of the strike was well known and could have been easily apprehended.  In what portends a continuation, any constraints on the campaign deriving from sovereignty concerns were relaxed by Yemen’s interim president, who granted the U.S. greater freedom in carrying out strikes.  As the implications of developments in Yemen grow increasingly dire, Gregory Johnsen’s book serves as a valuable resource for anyone seeking a better understanding of the country that has become al-Qaeda’s last refuge.





Michael Kropp holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University.  He currently works in the Pharmaceutical industry


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1