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Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen[…]

As terror attacks continue to plague Yemen, Gregory Johnsen explains how al-Qaeda has secured a lasting presence there.

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.

Recorded on January 25, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen