Big Think Interview With Gregory Johnsen

A conversation with the Middle East and Yemen expert at Princeton University.
  • Transcript


Question: What specific areas of Middle Eastern and Yemeni life do you study?

Gregory Johnsen: Certainly. I can tell a little bit about my background. That might be helpful. I first went to the Middle East as a study abroad student in my junior year and I studied at the American University of Cairo. Then after graduation I joined the Peace Corps in Jordan and so I was there in 2001, 2002 for about 18 months. We got evacuated before the war in Iraq started. And then I was a Fulbright fellow in Yemen in 2003, 2004. Then in 2005 I was a fellow for the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, and I went back to Yemen. In 2006 I led a group of college, university and graduate students to Yemen as part of a State Department program for them to study Arabic. And then this last year I was once again in Yemen in July and August doing some of my own research for an upcoming book.

At the moment I’m working on two separate projects. One is my dissertation at Princeton which everyone’s very eager for me to finish, mostly my advisor and my mom and dad. And that’s on the Yemeni civil war in the north in the 1960’s. And so, what I’m hoping to do is really look at sort of the internal dynamics of the war. There's been a great deal written about this is really through the lens of the Arab cold war talking about Egyptian involvement, Saudi involvement in the war. My hope is to really get at the Yemeni actors themselves. I think in the couple of years of research that I’ve done, I’ve had some great sources and great material.

The second project that I’m working on is much more contemporary and this is to deal with the history of Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Yemeni political history, particularly since unification in 1990.

Question: What changes have you witnessed in Yemen since you first began studying it?

Gregory Johnsen: Right. I think there are a number of changes that Yemen has undergone in the past several years. I first went there in 2003 and this is really very shortly after the September 11th attacks, of course, in 2001 and this is still, at least as I tend it analyze what's happen there in what I like to call the first phase of the war against Al-Qaeda. So, from that point in 2003 to my most recent trip in July and August of 2009, a great deal has changed. The tension within Sana’a is something that I noticed a great deal on my last trip. It was something that even while almost ironically the number of weapons that are being carried within the city of Sana’a has been greatly reduced. The government has done a very good job of attempting to control the small arms that different individuals carry, particularly within in the city limits of Sana’a, not so much outside.

But, while that number has went down, the tensions have actually increased and this is a result, at least in my view, of the civil war that’s going on up in the north in Sa’dah, the resurgent Al-Qaeda threat as well as the increasing - increasingly, I think, violent calls for secession from the south. So, that was something that really, really stood out to me.

Another thing, and this is just by way of anecdote, that one very good Yemeni friend, a journalist who’s I think a very astute observer of Yemeni politics said, was he told me that "I can no longer tell the difference between Al-Qaeda in the mosques and Al-Qaeda in the caves." And I think this is something that should be a great cause for a concern. It was something that I took away from the trip as being very, very worried about. I think this really gets at the idea that Al-Qaeda is putting a message and a narrative out within Yemen that really isn’t being combated at any meaningful level, either by the Yemeni government or by the U.S. government or even by different clerics and sheikhs and scholars within the Yemeni - within Yemen who tend to disagree with them.

Question: What factors are contributing to the spread of militant Islam in Yemen?

Gregory Johnsen: Certainly. I think when - I think that - I guess the best way to get at this is sort of to give you a little snapshot of Yemen because I think when talking about Yemen, when thinking about Yemen, it’s really, really easy to become overwhelmed by just the totality of the crises that country faces. And so, I tend to view the country as having these three separate layers of crises if you will.

At the top there's this elite rivalry. There's this struggle for power. This is taking place behind closed doors, but it’s something that really, I think, effects all the other levels of and layers of crises within the country. President Ali Abdallah Saleh has been president since 1978. He saw the country through unification in 1990. He saw the country through the civil war that happened four years later when the south attempted to secede and he continues to really, I think, maintain this delicate balancing act. He likes to claim that ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes, and this is something that he’s done very, very well, but it’s something that increasingly it seems as if he’s losing a little bit of his grip.

Now, whether this is just because he’s getting older or whether this is because he’s running out of money and is not longer sort of able to play different opposition groups off against one another is keeping them all perpetually dependent. I think that’s still a little bit of an open question. But, what we have now is all these - this next generation of leaders if you will. So, you have the president’s son, you have a quartet of nephews who are all sort of attempting to position themselves to seize power once the president eventually leaves.

In addition to that, you have another very powerful family. A tribal family, the Al-Akmar family, who’s also attempting to seize power or at least position themselves in a place where they could have a shot at taking power.

And so, this is all going on at the top. It’s something that people within Yemen talk about, speculate on, but it’s very much sort of palace politics. Something that there's much more rumor than fact.

Then below this we have, in this second layer if you will, we have a trio of security crises. We have the, of course, resurgent Al-Qaeda threat. We have the civil war up in the north, the Al-Houthi rebellion that I reference earlier, and then the cause for secession from the south. So, these - this trio of security challenges, I think, have really grabbed the majority of the headlines in 2008, 2009 and as we move forward, particularly the Al-Qaeda threat will grab most of the headlines in the future.

Then below this we have, I think, what could really be described as sort of a - almost the structurally challenges to the state. This is the fact that the state, which is heavily dependent upon oil revenue, is running out of oil. It’s losing water. The water table is dropping by, say, six to eight meters in some areas of the country, which for a country where the vast majority of the population still is dependent upon sustenance agriculture for their livelihood, this is a very significant thing.

There’s rampant corruption in the government. A very high birthrate correspondingly very rates of literacy within the country. Unemployment is very high; poverty is very high. So, you really, at this level, you have sort of a laundry list. And so, that’s sort of the snapshot of Yemen, at least as I see it at the moment.

Question: How religious has Yemen been historically, and what changes is Islam undergoing there?

Gregory Johnsen: Right. I think one of the best ways to sort of get at this is to talk about these two distinct phases of the war against Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s roots in Yemen are fairly deep. They go back into the early and mid 1990s. Yemen had sent a lot of individuals off to fight in Afghanistan during the 1980s against the Soviet Union there. They - unlike most of the Arab countries however, Yemen welcomed most of these fighters back. Places like Egypt, places like Algeria, they really didn’t want these guys coming back. Yemen, however, let them come back.

And so, throughout the 1990s you really had, I think, what could best be described as a tacit nonaggression pact between the Yemeni government and these fighters. President Saleh, one of his comrades from his home village, a very powerful military commander named Ali Musa al-Akmar, they really utilized these returning fighters during the 1994 civil war against their socialist enemies. So, for these fighters who had fought in Afghanistan, what you had is they defeated the communists there and they came back to Yemen and were once again fighting communists within the Yemeni context.

However, this started to change in 2000 with the U.S.S. Cole attack and then really after September 11th when I think president Saleh felt as though Yemen was next after Afghanistan on a U.S. hit list. So, Yemen was quite worried that the U.S. was going to carry out some strikes within the country; that it was going to go after the government, go after individuals, go after Yemenis, largely because of this dubious history that the Yemeni government had had with some of these individuals.

And so, President Saleh was quite concerned about this. He had his son Akhmed send a letter to King Abdullah of Jordan who was in Washington at the time. He dispatched a top level advisor to come to Washington and then President Saleh followed that up with a trip to Washington in November of 2001. And this is really when the Yemeni government got very serious about combating Al-Qaeda.

President Saleh had a meeting with then President Bush and Bush essentially told him, “Look, this is how you show the U.S. that you're on our side. Here’s a list of Al-Qaeda operatives in the country. You need to go after them. You need to either arrest them or kill them.” So, when President Saleh returned to Yemen, he dispatched the military counter-terrorism forces to different places within the country where he was going to go after these individuals. The first strike on a village out in Ma'rib in December of 2001 did not go well. The head of Al-Qaeda, a man named Abu Ali Al-Harithi who the Yemeni government was after, managed to escape. The Yemeni military performed rather poorly. They lost a number of individuals who were killed as well as a number of other soldiers who were taken captive by tribesmen.

So, at this point the U.S. realized that if it wanted to do something in Yemen it was going to have to take a more proactive role, take a more leadership role. And so, this is then, if we’ll sort of skip ahead to November 2002, where the U.S. and the CIA carried out the unmanned predatory drone strike that actually killed this man, Abu Ali Al-Harithi. Unfortunately for U.S. Yemeni security cooperation at this time, someone in the Pentagon leaked news of the strike. The strike took place on November 3rd, 2002. There were midterm elections, if you’ll remember, on November 5th, 2002 and so this was seen sort of as a way to show the U.S. population that look, the Bush administration is serious. We have this early victory in what was then called the War on Terror. But of course, that leak played much different in the U.S. than it did in Yemen.

In Yemen, it was seen as the Yemeni government being sold out the U.S. domestic political concerns and in fact, a number of Yemeni political advisors said publically, “Look, this is why we can’t work with the U.S. Any time something like this happens we’re hung out to dry.” And so, that was really the zenith of U.S. Yemeni security cooperation. It was also a major strike a year later in November 2003, Yemen arrested Mohammad Hamdi al-Akdal who had replaced Abu Ali Al-Harithi as the head of Al-Qaeda and that really brought an end to sort of this first phase of the war against Al-Qaeda. Then from that point up until February 2006 there was very little, almost no Al-Qaeda violence in the country and then in February 2006 there was a prison break where 23 Al-Qaeda suspects, including a former personal aide to Osama Bin Laden tunneled out of a political security prison in Sana’a into a neighboring mosque where they said their morning prayers. Then they walked out the front door to freedom and these individuals this Nasser Al-Wahaishi, this personal aide to Bin Laden as well as Qassim Al-Raimi really did a very, very good job of rebuilding, reorganizing, really resurrecting Al-Qaeda in Yemen up from the ashes and they're also a much different, a much more radical group than the previous versions of Al-Qaeda that we had seen in the country.

So, this organization, under Al-Wahaishi and Al-Raimi, they’ve done a very, very good job of tailoring a narrative to fit the Yemeni context. So, they put themselves on the right side of nearly every issue from local corruption to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to flooding in Hadramawt and Al-Mahara. I mean, this is an organization that really knows what it’s doing and has built this sort of durable infrastructure that will withstand the loss of key leaders.

So, unlike what happened in this first phase where you kill Abu Ali Al-Harithi and the organization would sort of crumble down around itself, this is no longer the case with this new group.

Question: Has the U.S. opened a third front in the war on terror in Yemen?

Gregory Johnsen: Well, this is something that I think is the subject of a great deal of speculation. Certainly, in my view, there's been a militarization of U.S. policy towards Yemen which I think is a grave mistake and will have - I think what it does is essentially it pursues short-term benefits which, unfortunately, will, in my opinion, have exceedingly high long-term costs. The U.S. has sent a number of Special Forces, Joint Special Operations commands, CIA. They all have a very active presence within Yemen. Senator Lieberman talked about this. Senator Lieberman travelled to Yemen in August of 2009 along with Senator McCain and a couple of other individuals. I was in touch with his staff when he was going and so he, I think, is right. That the U.S. does have a very active sort of covert military presence there.

We’ve seen this in recent months prior to the December 25th failed attempt to blow up the Detroit airliner. We saw a series of strikes on December 17th. There were a number of strikes allegedly carried out with U.S. missiles. Unfortunately, I think this was also counterproductive because while the missiles did hit some of their targets, they did kill some Al-Qaeda individuals, they also killed a number of women and children and this is something that was immediately put up on Jihadi. So, you would see these corpses of women and children and they're all captioned and sort of headlined with the “Made in the USA” caption. And this is something that I think goes a long way towards increasing and really extending the appeal that Al-Qaeda has within Yemen.

More recently we’ve seen a number of strikes about a week and a half ago in early January, there was a strike that would have killed Qasim al-Rami, this individual I talked about, who is now the military commander and really third in charge in this Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. But he’s an individual that myself as well as, I believe, a number of individuals who are well informed within the U.S. government, considered to be the single most dangerous individual within the organization. He was reported to have been killed. The Yemeni government made a huge deal about this. The Yemeni government claimed that it had carried out the strike, but most informed observers believed that if it did, it was acting on U.S. intelligence or that the U.S. itself actually carried out the strike.

But of course, having learned from what we talked about in November of 2002, sort of the risks of exposing all of this, the Obama administration seems to have learned that hubris in this isn’t always the best policy. However, unfortunately for the U.S. and Yemeni governments, it appeared that Qasim al-Rami as well as the other seven individuals who were targeted in that strike in January of 2010, all escaped. In fact, Al-Qaeda put out a statement that said, “Look, don’t trust the Yemeni government when it puts this stuff out. It’s just propaganda. Wait until you hear stuff from us. That is going to be authenticated, that is going to be put through the proper channels on Jihadi forums, and that’s the stuff that you can trust. These are the statements; these are the videos that you can trust.” And Al-Qaeda has said this over and over over the past several months and really, I think it’s, to be quite frank, it’s a very sad state of affairs when people like myself, outside observers, trust the statements that Al-Qaeda puts out much more than the statements that the Yemeni government puts out.

Question: Will the U.S. ever openly wage war in Yemen?

Gregory Johnsen: Well, I think it would be a catastrophic mistake to put U.S. boots on the ground in Yemen. I think there are a lot of things that the U.S. can do which it hasn’t really done. The U.S. has really seen Yemen through the prism of Al-Qaeda. Essentially, just looked at the country as this counter-terrorism problem that has to be solved and you, I think, ironically that the U.S.’s insistence on seeing the country that way by linking nearly all of its aid to the single issue has actually induced exactly the type of results that the U.S. is hoping to avoid.

So, the U.S. can’t deal with Al-Qaeda in isolation of all of Yemen’s other problems. The country has to be dealt with as a whole. And I think in Yemen there is a great and I believe growing fear that if Al-Qaeda were to go away, U.S. aid and interest in the country would also go away, and this is something that Yemenis point to not only the history of the U.S. over the past ten years, say how high U.S. aid and interest was in 2001, 2002 then see the drop-off in ’04, ’05 and ’06, but also how the U.S. has dealt with countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 1990s.

So, the U.S. is really working, I think, against a great deal of muscle memory here that it has to overcome. There are a number of steps that the U.S. can take. These have to be, I think, coordinated both internationally and regionally and it also, I think, demands a sort of localized and nuanced knowledge that the U.S. doesn’t appear to have when it comes to Yemen, nor, for that matter, do sort of regional countries like Saudi Arabia or some of Yemen’s other neighbors. And I would, in fact, say it would be a mistake if the U.S. were to attempt to run its Yemen policy through Riyadh or through Saudi Arabia.

But, at the same time, it has to bring Saudi Arabia in; it has to bring a number of these other countries in. But, it can do a lot on public diplomacy. It can do a lot on peeling away different individuals who are now joining Al-Qaeda because we know that these individuals really weren't sort of constructed to join Al-Qaeda. That Al-Qaeda is something that’s a mirage. But, these in really the absence of anything else, these people are going after that mirage.

Recorded on January 25, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen