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