Early last year, wandering through the turbulent carnival of Change Square in Sana’a, Yemen, I found myself sharing a tent with an old jihadi, his tangled beard glowing orange in the filtered afternoon light. He said he’d fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets—the infidels,” he called them, still spitting the word after twenty-five years—and would do it again, no question. But when I raised the topic of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen and the most dangerous of the diffuse terrorist network’s regional organizations, the old jihadi glowered. “Those young men are fighting a different war than we were,” he said, refusing to meet my eye. “It’s on a different scale, for different ends.”

The Last Refuge:
Yemen, al-Queda, and
America’s War in Arabia

by Gregory D. Johnsen
W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pp.

Then, for quite a while, my notes are sparse. The old jihadi and I talked about U.S.-backed drone strikes, and U.S. support for Israel and “the hypocrisy of the West,” until, eventually, we came back around to al-Qaeda. This time, he looked right at me. His generation had fought for Islam so they could “come home and live,” he said. “The young men of al-Qaeda today don’t care about living. For them, fighting is life,” he said. “Go and tell the Americans it’s never going to be over.”

That old jihadi’s chilling prediction emerges as one of the major themes in writer
Gregory D. Johnsen’s excellent new book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. Part modern history, part explanatory narrative, it begins in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s and ends in a smoldering al-Qaeda stronghold in southern Yemen earlier this year. In the intervening quarter century, we watch from the sidelines as Johnsen describes the birth and bloody unification of North and South Yemen in the early ’90’s and the simultaneous emergence of al-Qaeda in the region, first as a controversial boys’ club for wannabe jihadis, and then as a deadly and increasingly well-oiled global force.

The young men who’ve formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the last fifteen years are indeed, as the old jihadi in Change Square suggested, more fanatical, more uncompromising in their vision of jihad, and broader in the scope of who constitutes their enemies, than ever before. Many of these young men were educated in Yemen’s radical religious schools in the ’70, ’80s, and ’90s, and had “grown up on stories of the jihad in Afghanistan,” Johnsen writes, “watching grainy videos from the 1980s as they listened to preachers extol the glory of fighting abroad.” By 2006, the generational shift that started at the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan had widened into a schism, with today’s al-Qaeda leaders giving the old guard an ultimatum: either you’re with us in global jihad, or you’re an enemy, too. “It was time for them to pick a side,” Johnsen writes, summarizing a 2006 audiotape by Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s military commander.

In weaving together the emergence of modern al-Qaeda, the increase of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s power, and the sporadic, but persistent, role that the U.S. military, diplomats, and policymakers have played in both, Johnsen moves deftly between decades, continents, and languages. Major events in U.S.-Yemeni relations—like the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, which left seventeen dead, the botched so-called “underwear bomber” attack on an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and the cartridge bombs sent via FedEx and UPS that were intercepted on their way to the U.S. in 2010—act as landmarks upon which the larger narrative hangs. We are treated to vivid, behind-the-scenes accounts of Saleh’s blustery frustration with the U.S.’s seemingly capricious disbursal of aid (leaving Washington after a diplomatic trip in 2005, Saleh “finally lost it, screaming at aides and firing his entire team of economic advisors within minutes of takeoff”); of AQAP’s fitful attempts to strike U.S. targets in its early years (in one botched attack in 2002, a young al-Qaeda operative accidentally, and quite literally, shot himself in the foot); and of the windfalls and bumbling missteps of the U.S.’s ongoing intelligence operations in Yemen’s tribal hinterlands (in May 2010, an American drone accidentally killed the deputy governor of Marib, who shares a last name with an al-Qaeda fighter. “How could this have happened?” an incredulous President Obama exclaimed).

Part of the success of this book lies in the extraordinary detail of the narrative. Johnsen, a PhD candidate at Princeton University and one of the most well-read bloggers and analysts on the subject of Yemen, relies for his research primarily on jihadist forums, al-Qaeda videos, audiotapes, and publications, and Western and Arab journalists’ published interviews and accounts of major events. The result is that while many of Johnsen’s anecdotes are not new or groundbreaking, they do offer contextualization, a glimpse of the larger picture—an invaluable quality, particularly in the story of Yemen, which is almost always parceled out to readers in bite-sized breaking news stories. For those who follow Yemen, the book delivers the same deep satisfaction of seeing a finished $1,000-piece puzzle intact on a table. You may have touched each of those pieces before, but you didn’t see the whole picture until now. You’ll want to open your palms to it, drag your fingers across its seamless grooves.

For example, when the teenage suicide bomber Abdu Muhammad al-Ruhayqah blew himself up in Marib in 2007, killing eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers, the story neither begins nor ends there. Pages before, Johnsen has already introduced us to Ruhayqah, as he is “napping in a grove of fruit trees” before the attack. “Lying on top of a thin blanket with his hair curling around his ears, Ruhayqah looked like a child,” Johnsen writes. Later, we see the explosion captured by an al-Qaeda cameraman, who “watches the smoke tumble upward like a raised fist before dissipating and eventually dispersing,” and we see the investigators spending days “painstakingly collecting body parts.” Later still, we witness the ensuing diplomatic scramble when Saleh, fearful of a backlash from the international community, marshaled his forces and surrounded an al-Qaeda safe house, leaving a “bloody mess of clothes and limbs inside the mud hut”—and in doing so launches a different diplomatic maelstrom, just on the domestic front.

Perhaps the most poignant of the many tragedies that arise in Johnsen’s retelling of the last twenty-five years in Yemen is how, nearly eight years ago, the U.S. had almost routed al-Qaeda in Yemen. With half its members killed and the other half in prison or marooned in isolated outposts around the country, al-Qaeda in Yemen was in its death throes. But, mired in both Iraq, which was worse than ever, and Afghanistan, which wasn’t improving, the Bush administration pulled its attention away from Yemen. Like not finishing all the prescribed antibiotics, the U.S. allowed those surviving al-Qaeda militants to return, and grow into a stronger, harder-to-kill version of what they’d been before. In a devastating chapter, “Resurrecting al-Qaeda,” Johnsen recounts the rebirth of al-Qaeda in 2006 and 2007 under the leadership of Yemen-born Nasir al-Wihayshi, “a tiny, frail-looking twenty-two-year-old with a sharp nose and sunken cheeks,” who is still the head of AQAP today.

In 2009, when the Obama administration turned its attention to Yemen, it drew upon the same cocktail of targeted drone strikes and cruise missile attacks that had helped the Bush administration beat back al-Qaeda in Yemen in the early part of last decade. But in many ways, it was too late. Under Wihayshi, al-Qaeda in Yemen has been rebuilt into a diffuse group of cells that communicate with a central leadership but operate independently on the ground. Starfish-like, chopping off one arm—or killing a handful of leaders in a drone strike—no longer kills the center. “The surgical approach Obama and [chief counterterrorism adviser John O.] Brennan favored no longer seemed to be working. The U.S. kept killing al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, but AQAP continued to grow,” Johnsen writes.

The broader discussion of targeted drone strikes and cruise missile attacks—alternatively referred to as signature strikes, terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or TADS—are in some ways the best part of this book. Like all other major events in Yemen’s recent history, Johnsen offers a comprehensive description of U.S. signature strikes, some of which were extraordinarily effective in killing al-Qaeda leaders, some of which killed scores of innocent civilians, some of which killed U.S. citizens, and nearly all of which led to a sandstorm of unintended consequences. For example, in November 2002, a U.S. intelligence team tracked a cell phone belonging to Abu Ali al-Harithi, the so-called “godfather” of al-Qaeda in Yemen, and, within four hours, targeted and killed him and five of his companions in a car. At the time, Saleh was allowing the U.S. to pursue drone attacks within Yemen’s borders, so long as they were kept secret, but on November 3—two days before the 2002 U.S. midterm elections—the Bush administration broke its promise. “The Hellfire strike was a very successful tactical operation,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told CNN that night, Johnsen writes. In other words, what could have been an unequivocal victory in the U.S. war against al-Qaeda instead sent U.S.-Yemeni relations into a tailspin, torpedoed Saleh’s credibility on the ground, and handed AQAP readymade fodder for recruiting tapes for years to come.

As has been well documented in the news lately, one unintended consequence of drone attacks in Yemen, and elsewhere, is that they tend to have the effect of galvanizing popular opinion against the U.S. and driving new recruits straight into al-Qaeda’s arms. In his detailed account of strike after strike, Johnsen makes clear that it’s more complicated than killing bad guys. When al-Qaeda fighters are killed by U.S. strikes, they are often quickly replaced from AQAP’s growing ranks; when strikes succeed in driving al-Qaeda from certain towns or regions, fighters simply resettle elsewhere. In early September, when a U.S. drone missed its mark and killed thirteen civilians, including three women, a local activist quoted by CNN put it succinctly: “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.” In 2010, the Obama administration estimated that al-Qaeda in Yemen had “several hundred” members; as of this year, the State Department puts that number at “a few thousand.”

In the last pages of the book, Johnsen describes the aftermath of one U.S. air strike earlier this year, which had been aided by three spies working with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. When al-Qaeda fighters discovered the spies in their ranks, all three were sentenced to death. At one of the public executions—a crucifixion—al-Qaeda leadership had asked that a young child named Salim, the son of one of the men killed in the U.S. air strike, witness the ceremony. “Dressed in a light blue robe with childish curls in his hair and most of his baby teeth still in place, Salim looked to be about six years old,” Johnsen writes, and then describes the grisly scene in which a man is nailed to a cross and lashed to a street post. “As the crowd surged forward for a better view, one of the men picked Salim up and put him on his shoulders. ‘That’s the traitor who killed my father,’ the boy said, pointing at the crucified man.”

Johnsen, by and large, does not offer guidance on the efficacy or morality of drone strikes or cruise missile attacks, or U.S. policy in Yemen over the last two decades. In general, he is a stater of facts, not a purveyor of opinions, and his book, by extension, offers the same. The Last
is a cogent insight into what the U.S. has done in the past twenty-five years—a bird’s-eye view on those successes and failures, in all their shades of horrid gray—but it does not dispense advice to U.S. policymakers or predict the future. You can’t blame Johnsen from shying away from the crystal ball, but the resulting lack of a clear policy solution—indeed of any workable policy solution besides the status quo—is the most frustrating part of the book. By the end, we want nothing more than to be led by the hand down a prescriptive path to victory and peace, but, as Johnsen makes clear, there is no such path. In Yemen, there are no silver bullets.

If the U.S. stops its targeted drone and missile strikes, AQAP will begin to grow and metastasize as it did before. But continuing on this path of militarization doesn’t seem to be working either. At best, the U.S.’s signature strikes are a stopgap measure, temporarily disrupting AQAP activities while failing to neutralize the root of the problem. According to a 2008 report by the RAND Corporation, more than 80 percent of the 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006 were eliminated after police or intelligence agencies infiltrated them or after they reached a political solution with the state; only 7 percent were eliminated by military force. In Yemen, where local police and intelligence networks are unreliable and underfunded, and local officers are sometimes in bed with al-Qaeda, counterterrorism options are severely limited. In the coming months and years, the U.S. will no doubt continue to pursue regular military strikes and increase its intelligence efforts on the ground. It should also continue to back Saudi and Arab-led counterterrorism efforts and ratchet up development projects in Yemen’s extraordinarily impoverished villages in an attempt to win—or at least have a dog in the fight—in the battle for Yemeni hearts and minds.

As it stands, AQAP is stronger and more sophisticated now than ever before, having come close to attacking the U.S. on its own soil three separate times. In the wake of the chaos following the Arab Spring last year, al-Qaeda in Yemen was able to overrun Zanjubar, a town in southern Yemen, and pillage its military laboratories. “It later used those and other materials to ‘transform the modest lab’ which had produced the 2009 underwear bomb and the 2010 cartridge bombs into a ‘modern’ one,” Johnsen writes. “By early 2012, al-Qaeda had plenty of bombs; what it lacked was individuals with passports that would allow them to travel freely in the West.” In another attempted attack on the U.S. in April, al-Qaeda handed a bomb to a British undercover agent who had been posing as a young suicide bomber, and instructed him to blow himself up on a plane bound for the U.S. The bomb, with two triggering mechanisms and no metal parts, was more sophisticated than anything AQAP had used before. While that particular attack was thwarted, the upshot is grim. It very well could be a matter of when, not if, AQAP is able to success fully strike the U.S. or one of its allies. What might happen next is anybody’s guess.

With a new generation of young men, including boys like Salim, wrapped in his light blue robe, being radicalized in al-Qaeda’s shadow and U.S. policy failing to fatally cripple al-Qaeda’s diffuse network, we are left at the end of The Last Refuge with a clear picture of a daunting, messy future that echoes that old jihadi’s prediction in Change Square last year. This new generation is indeed fighting “on a different scale, for different ends,” and while it may not last forever, it’s clear the U.S.’s war in Arabia isn’t going to end anytime soon.

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Haley Sweetland Edwards, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is the former deputy Washington bureau chief at TIME.