Anything But a Love Triangle: Yemen’s Ex-president, al-Qaeda, and Washington

A review of Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: al-Qaeda and America’s War in Yemen.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“After two months of fighting, Yemeni forces retook Ja’ar and the Abyan capital of Zinjibar from al-Qaeda in June.” Global Post, Sunday August 5, 2012

On Saturday August 4 2012, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 mourners at a funeral in Ja’ar near the Yemeni port of Aden. The target, a defector from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), managed to escape with minor injuries. On Tuesday August 7, U.S. drones killed10 al-Qaeda militants in separate strikes aimed at moving vehicles in Yemen. On Saturday August 18, al-Qaedaclaimed responsibility for the grenade-assault deaths of about 20 Yemeni intelligence and security personnel.

This tit-for-tat was not front page news, nor did it become a hot pundit topic at magazine sites like Foreign Policy. Even if the media weren’t in a 2012 presidential campaign frenzy, there would still be Egypt, Israel-Iran, Af/Pak and of course Syria. Yemen, a rather exciting place, has slipped through the cracks now that the hullabaloo over the drone assassination of American-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 had its fifteen minutes. Awlaki preached death to Americans in videos on YouTube, and President Obama was keen on destroying the New Mexico native.

To his credit, author Gregory Johnsen doesn’t spend much time on Awlaki, by far the most media saturated aspect of U.S. relations with Yemen. Johnsen’s most important contribution is chronicling a tribal, desert nation’s quasi-government caught squarely in the 21st century crusade against religious extremism. Though its not meant to be analytical or biographical, the book is disappointingly superficial—yet its relevance and clear delivery override the quibble.

Flash Back to 1990

Johnsen relays the rise of Yemen’s Islamic militants since the 1980s, when the government of President Abdullah Ali al-Saleh encouraged its young men to go wage jihad in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and the true inspiration for al-Qaeda, Shayk Abdullah Azzam, were already there. Azzam had issued fatwas claiming it was the duty of all Muslims to defend their Afghan brethren and testified that he’d seen miracles in the battles against the evil Soviet machine. The day he was supposed to meet Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a Yemeni cleric on his way to becoming the religious rationalizer of al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), Azzam was assassinated by a mujahadeen faction in the Afghan Civil War. Like Azzam, Zindani manipulated the Quran in key ways—primarily saying it allowed war with infidels as well as violence against Muslim apostates, a concept known as taqfir. Though not a true member of al-Qaeda, Zindani is still a major CIA target.

Nineteen ninety was a big year. Like East and West Germany, Yemen looked to benefit by uniting after the Soviet Union broke down and the Cold War superpower payments ended. The North and South (a Soviet client) unified as al-Qaeda fighters from both halves came home from Afghanistan. Saleh, president of North Yemen since 1978, retained the presidency and the leader of the People’s Democratic Republic in South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Bid, got the vice slot. However, the rival rulers undermined one another from the get-go. Machiavellian Saleh joined up with jihadis and the embryotic AQY to launch guerilla attacks on the Marxist South through the early nineties, culminating in a short civil war in ’94.

Also in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saleh made a principled yet disastrous decision to stick by the Iraqis against a broad multinational coalition, including key Yemeni financial backers. Secretary of State James Baker told Yemen’s ambassaor at a United Nations vote on whether to go to war with Iraq: “This will be the most expensive no vote you ever cast.” Saudi Arabia struck back at its southern neighbor by suspending all aid and sending a million Yemeni migrants back down to the poorest Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa.

Osama bin Laden had concerns of his own stemming from the Gulf War and the U.S. coalition’s Operation Desert Shield. The Islamic purist got busy trashing the Saudi Royal family for allowing Americans (women soliders even!) to set up shop on the peninsula. So he went to Yemen, the birthplace of his larger-than-life father and a country where jihadi renegades could easily integrate—its inhospitable deserts and mountain caves make it the Afghanistan of Arabia. Bin Laden set up training camps and cells, plotting to drive out all infidels from the holy land. The Yemeni cell’s first mission—to bomb U.S. Marines staying at a hotel in the southern port city of Aden—failed to kill any Marines but succeeded in driving away Western naval vessels. That would end up as the highlight of AQY’s political agenda until the 2000 USS Cole attack.

9/11

Johnsen cites Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower often and that is the book to read if you want to know about al-Qaeda from its official inception in 1987 to its escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Thankfully The Last Refuge breaks new ground after 9/11. AQY was not involved in the coordinated jetliner strikes that killed 2,819 people in and above Virgina, Pennsylvania and New York City. But the resulting War on Terror was the dawn of a new era for them as much as anyone else. President Saleh became an official U.S. client (and form of mercenary), hunting down fighters from a CIA list for cash. At the top of the list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, dubbed the godfather of AQY, and the tale of his assassination shows Saleh’s limits and America’s advancing role. Harithi escaped Saleh’s soldiers when his tribal hosts in the eastern desert used rocket propelled grenades to fend off the government and its tanks. It seemed al-Qaeda might be able to hold its own against Saleh in the fractious pseudo-nation. But post-9/11, the U.S. began flying predator drones over Yemen. Harithi was the highest profile remote kill from 2002 to 2009 (when the CIA hit Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan).

Soon Saleh and his Political Service Organization (PSO) proved a capable arm of American justice and, aside from the destruction of a French oil tanker in 2002, AQY bungled, floundered and flailed for most of the new century. Just like Guantanamo Bay, the PSO prisons quickly filled up with all manner of “suspects.” Johnsen doesn’t dwell on the Saleh government’s morally questionable tactics, rampant nepotism or shady dealings—much like in Afghanistan, Western concepts of corruption are simply the way things get done. But Saleh’s behavior during the 2005 elections is telling: the twenty-seven year ruler claimed he wouldn’t run for president then had the media and/or thugs intimidate anyone who announced his candidacy. Guess who got elected. Another unintentionally amusing scene involves the frequent scolding of Saleh by U.S. officials: “Ill prepared for the meeting, the Yemeni president could only sputter in frustration as [Condoleezza] Rice ‘rapped him over the knuckles’ on corruption and lack of reform.” Saleh is the most interesting character in the most dramatic position—his famous “dancing on the heads of snakes” analogy proves well-suited—among the Yemeni people, AQAP and Washington. Yet, we get no insight into his personal or family life or friendships. And there are no comparisons of Saleh to America’s classic or modern client strongmen; no examination of why al-Qaeda in Yemen never tried to assassinate him. Johnsen has to cover a unique stretch of 21st century war and, again, can be forgiven for presenting mostly raw material.

The Last Refuge effectively points out the cyclical trend of prisoner radicalization that comes back to haunt the governments in Sanaa and Washington. After his massive roundups, President Saleh greenlighted a program to let the men out if they swore to renounce violent jihad. In a form of faith rehab, Judge Hamud al-Hitar set about reinterpreting the Quran for the incarcerated. The biggest obstacle was trying to convince these hardened jihadis that serving President Saleh, a man who dealt directly with the Great Satan, represented legitimate Islam or Sharia. (The failure of the program is noticed by the Bush II administration.) If that weren’t bad enough for Saleh and the PSO, the AQY gang escaped prison in 2006 in another comical anecdote.

Books like The Looming Tower allow us to see the men of al-Qaeda develop into murderers for a cause. No matter how much we are disgusted by their actions, the details enable us to put ourselves in the shoes of terrorists. The personal biographies of bin Laden and cofounder Ayman al-Zawahiri, who both grew up privileged, help first-world folks understand them as rebels. Tower gets around looking like a terrorist-sympathizing tome both because it gives a mindnumbingly comprehensive account of terrorism and goes into detailed bios of American agents as well. The Last Refuge doesn’t provide enough character study to really feel for these bitter holy warriors, but the tale of the Saudi Asiri brothers is an example of Johnsen’s surface inspection of their motivations. The elder, Ibrahim, becomes an expert bombmaker who designs the underwear bomb for the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner attempt. The device he makes for his younger brother, Abdullah, is to be self-detonated while concealed rectally. In his suicide mission to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayif, the security chief and archenemy of the Saudi AQ, Abdullah is the only one killed though he was standing only a yard from his target. The ill-conceived bomb caused his head to pop off and put a hole in the ceiling. A reader might get emotionally invested in if Johnsen could relate Ibrahim’s response—it’s not as if Nayif is a guiltless civilian.

The Last Refuge confirms that, whether its misguided acts of violence or spurring a government to overreact and punish the guiltless, al-Qaeda and similar groups unhinge the lives of innocent Muslims infinitely more than they terrorize the thoughts of Westerners. Often by accident, U.S. intelligence massacres civilians close to an al-Qaeda target. Then these genius jihadis retaliate by blowing up Muslim women and children at Arab amusement parks (e.g., Baghdad, August 16, 2012).

In January 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a combo of cells from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, announced its birth via a 19-minute introduction video that included former inmates Guantanamo Bay. This upended newly inaugurated President Obama’s plans to the close the Cuba detention center the same week. Johnsen anchors his narrative with this stunningly timed intro exemplifying the complex issues that arise when governments, in effect, go vigilante. However, certain recent revolutions have quickly made Gitmo, black sites and rendition passé—and put Yemen on the historical backburner once again.

The Arab Awakening affected AQAP in two ways. First, the Islamic insurgents saw that popular movements were more effective at removing Western-backed dictators—such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whom Zawahiri had tried to assassinate a dozen times—than their suicide bombers. The revolts also reinforced the take-away from al-Qaeda’s failures during the Iraq War: Murdering scores of the local Muslims causes them to side with the Great Satan against pure Islam. Second, directly related to the first, Saleh, a thirty-three year ruler, was forced to resign and flee. He didn’t learn from Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad in Syria: Murdering scores of your countrymen causes them to turn against you.

In August, the author told The Yemen Times, “in 2011 and 2012, AQAP started taking over towns in southern Yemen—reinventing itself in a matter of speaking by changing its name to Ansar Al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law. The new group had essentially exactly the same membership as AQAP, but the new name was meant to project a kinder, gentler image.” Al-Qaeda’s coordinated attacks across the globe (from Yemen and Iraq to Pakistan) at the end of Ramadan 2012 beg to differ. As noted above, AQAP has gone back to the goal of massive civilian casualties in the hopes of gaining an illusory political end.

The title, The Last Refuge, harks back to the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula. “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen,” the Prophet Muhammad, knowing he might not make it back from his violent quest of conversion, told his followers. Now, hunted as outlaws throughout the world, this deluded group of Islamic fundamentalists has heeded the prophet’s timeless wisdom by settling. Is Johnsen saying al-Qaeda, with its belief in a violent worldwide conversion, the truly faithful? Is the jihadi aim to restore the caliphate and strict Sharia at all costs what the Quran really says? Thankfully, this story doesn’t bare that out. Indeed, if one otherworldly idea comes across, it is that any powerful god is not on al-Qaeda’s side.

Michael Quiñones studies at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School . He posts at There Will Be War.