Strongly Recommend Johnsen’s Book “The Last Refuge” on AQAP in Yemen

This week, Gregory Johnsen’s new book The Last Refuge arrives in bookstores detailing the rise, fall and reemergence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.  It is clearly the best book available on AQAP in Yemen.

Having spent the past decade in, out and around the U.S. government and academia in a variety of counterterrorism roles, I’ve read endless reams of paper on al Qaeda and their tribulations – so I consider myself a tough critic of al Qaeda works.  But, I was given an advance copy of Gregory’s book, The Last Refuge, and it is undoubtedly one of the best books on al Qaeda I’ve read.  I strongly encourage anyone interested in al Qaeda, terrorism and Yemen to give this text a read as the manuscript provides a much needed update to al Qaeda’s manifestations in the ten years since the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Also, for those lucky enough to be in the New York City area today, November 12, you can see Greg present his work at the Overseas Press Club of America at 6 p.m. at 40 West 45th Street, Club Quarters, NYC.

Regular readers of this blog might be surprised that I would provide such a strong endorsement of Greg’s book as he and I have been quite the rivals on the use of drones in Yemen. (See here, here, here and pretty much anywhere on Twitter.) However, I have relied on Greg’s research on Yemen for years as he provides me needed perspective on a country I’ve never visited and with regards to a language I don’t speak (Arabic).  His book continues in this vein instructing me further on the nuances of the Yemeni culture and the tribulations of America’s intermittent engagement with a country critical to its counterterrorism fight.  Where Greg and I usually diverge is on our interpretation of how al Qaeda has come to roost in Yemen and, even further, what the U.S. should do to uproot the most threatening al Qaeda affiliate to the U.S. homeland.  Here’s what I’ve learned from The Last Refuge.

  • Gregory Johnsen is a fantastic writer!The Last Refuge is the best-written book on al Qaeda I’ve read since Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.  The vast majority of al Qaeda books I’ve read are academically written extensions of PhD dissertations where my eyes struggle to stay focused on highly linear theoretical writing.  Not so with The Last Refuge!  Gregory paints a fascinating picture of al Qaeda’s journey in Yemen intertwining an updated history of al Qaeda’s global battles since 9/11 with new details of U.S. involvement in what was a peripheral counterterrorism fight up until 2009.  I’m jealous that Gregory is so much better at writing than I am and I hope he continues to write books after this installment.
  •  Persistent commitment of young Yemeni’s to jihad – My favorite sections of the book were the initial chapters.  I’ve read many accounts of young foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and even the U.S., but Gregory recounts the recruitment of young men from Yemen to the Afghan jihad which I truly value as a reference for my research on foreign fighters.
  • Centralized decision making, decentralized execution – Greg adequately notes an important distinction with regards to al Qaeda’s affiliates that seems to have been lost in recent discussions about the terror group.  When outlining al Qaeda’s early operations in Yemen, Greg notes (on Page 30), “Already bin Laden knew the dangers of micromanaging his men, preferring what he would later call a philosophy of ‘centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.’ Bin Laden ordered the attack, but the details were up to the operatives on the ground.”  For bin Laden, this approach worked well when he personally knew the operatives under his command.  Bin Laden’s close associates implicitly knew his intent having known the man.  Yet years later, we see this approach backfiring on al Qaeda.  As al Qaeda’s central leadership became more isolated in Pakistan and membership in al Qaeda became more fluid, centralized decision-making occurred, often delayed significantly at times, but execution post-decision routinely went awry.  This drift resulted in the likes of al–Zarqawi aggressively attacking Shia in Iraq and isolating his base of support, foolish self-recruits to al Qaeda around the globe executed bumbling attacks of dubious significance and new emerging militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia striking a U.S. Consulate before laying the needed ground work to secure popular support.  Greg’s narrative describes how Nasir al-Wihayshi, while still remaining loyal to bin Laden, helped regenerate AQAP by taking on a leadership role in decision-making and execution at a time when al Qaeda needed leaders to rejuvenate the force.  How did he take on this role?  Al-Wihayshi was previously bin Laden’s personal secretary, understood al Qaeda’s intent and could execute a strategy in line with al Qaeda’s objectives.  This is one reason why today AQAP remains the most serious organized threat to the U.S. homeland.
  • The First Drone Strike – With regards to drones, Greg and I routinely debate the merits of such a counterterrorism tactic in Yemen.  I’m relatively pro-drone (with caveats) and Greg relatively against (with caveats). But, I found Chapter 9 quite interesting as he notes the first openly reported drone strike (that I’m familiar with) occurred on November 3, 2002 in Yemen  – not Afghanistan or Pakistan – eliminating Abu Ali al-Harithi, head of AQAP as of 2002.  Greg notes this single drone strike truly decimated al Qaeda’s first installment in Yemen.  His subsequent discussion of U.S. Ambassador Hull’s actions to quell AQAP are instructive as Hull artfully used a blend of policy and counterterrorism options to eliminate AQAP’s safe haven.  Yet, when I arrive at the end of this section, I wonder how any of these solutions might be implemented to counter Yemen’s current wave of AQAP?  I’m not too optimistic, though the section is well worth reading for those seeking alternatives to drones and military occupation.
  • Rehab – Chapter 10 provided me some particularly valuable background on Yemen’s once touted al Qaeda rehabilitation program.  I’d heard for many years tales of reformed terrorists being deprogrammed in Yemen.  Greg’s account confirms my suspicions from years’ past.  Yemen’s rehab process was never likely to work on a large scale and was completely unviable for ensuring al Qaeda operatives would not revert.  Thus, as President Obama begins another term pledging to close Guantanamo Bay, what do we do with those remaining detainees?  Rehabilitation?
  • Prisons as incubators – I found the most value in Greg’s discussion of the galvanizing effect of Yemen’s PSO prisons.  For AQAP, these PSO prisons on the outskirts of Sana’a essentially assumed the place of Peshawar’s Services Bureau during the Afghan jihad.  Al-Wihayshi and Fawaz al-Rabi’i “recreated with scraps of paper and imagination what bin laden and Zawahiri had built with books and computers in Afghanistan.”  An excellent chapter 12 illustrates how prisons regenerated AQAP.

Greg’s new book provides the best available account of AQAP in Yemen.  However, recent years have been particularly tough for researching AQAP as access and continued conflict have made reporting tough.  For this, the book’s details prove thin in the final chapters detailing AQAP from 2009 on.  Some of the sections I looked most forward to reading, those discussing U.S. drone use and Anwar al-Awlaki, were more brief than I expected.  He does discuss AQAP’s decision to push for governance in Jaar – a particularly interesting move by AQAP.  Unfortunately for Greg’s first book, events in Yemen have unfolded rapidly in recent months and many of AQAP’s gains have been reduced.  I’m hoping for a second installment from Greg in the coming years that flushes out AQAP’s more recent trajectory.

My critiques of the book are more differences in opinion than debates over reporting.  I completely respect Greg’s presentation of the AQAP in Yemen story and have no doubt it is the most accurate account of the terror group available today. But as he and I have debated before, I arrive at very different conclusions based on his presentation of the evidence describing AQAP’s recent rise.  Here are a few points I’d add.

  • Yemen is not the center of al Qaeda’s universe – For those not particularly familiar with al Qaeda, Greg’s book might convince one that Yemen has always been the center of al Qaeda’s thinking.  Greg doesn’t portray it that way necessarily, but his excellent writing and consistent blending of AQAP’s tribulations with the gyrations of global al Qaeda may convince those just coming onto the topic that Yemen is the center of gravity for al Qaeda.  AQAP and Yemen are clearly an important affiliate, but they are not what Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been for al Qaeda – the epicenter for global jihad.
  • The Saudi influx, not drones, has brought about AQAP’s resurgence – Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise.  However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007.  Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs.  Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another.  With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits.  Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights.  Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth.
  • Beyond al Qaeda, Yemen is not a national security interest for the U.S. – Greg’s book notes Ambassador Hull’s multi-layered development approach for combating AQAP and Yemen’s ills.  I once would have agreed that the U.S. should focus on development to undermine support for AQ.  However, time has shown this a costly and ineffective endeavor where the U.S. rewards countries for hosting people with bad behavior. Without AQAP, Yemen doesn’t really hold much strategic interest for the U.S. So how many resources should the U.S. devote to Yemen?  I’m not entirely sure, but I’m more inclined to support large-scale support and development to countries where the U.S. has a more enduring national interest beyond a regional terrorist group.

I thank Greg for writing an excellent book that has helped me learn more about Yemen than anything I had read to date.  I look forward to reading his next installment and hope he continues to write.

Favorite quote from the book – p.17  –

“Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”


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