Review: The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia

By Gregory D. Johnsen

Al-Qaeda did not die with Osama bin Laden. The militant Islamist group continues to thrive in Yemen, a corridor of desert and tribes abutting Saudi Arabia in the south of the Arabian peninsula. Johnsen tracks al-Qaeda in Yemen from the 1980s to the present in authoritative, often stunning detail. We learn about how the organization has managed to recruit and persist despite the best efforts of the U.S. and the frequently co-operative Yemeni regime. A decentralized structure of compartmentalized cells has orchestrated a steady stream of attacks against Americans, tourists, the oil industry and Yemeni “collaborators.”

The U.S. found a sometimes ally in Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Salih, who released many jihadis in 2003-04 in a failed reintegration program, and who tended to ignore al-Qaeda during civil wars in the country’s north. But the big picture is a persistent American failure to come to grips with the extent and nature of the threat. Al-Qaeda has grown in Yemen despite the blowback it faced for attacks that mostly claimed the lives of Muslim Yemenis. Johnsen suggests that many U.S. policies, including an expanded bombing campaign by unmanned drones, have made things worse. The bombings kill many—and recruit more. As one Yemeni tribal leader put it: “The U.S. sees al-Qaeda as terrorism, and we consider the drones terrorism.”

Johnsen lets his narrative of events speak for itself, but his account would have benefited from a more detailed assessment of American foreign policy. Johnsen makes no prescriptions and offers no conclusions. The story ends in the ominous present, with the United States increasing its military involvement in Yemen’s civil war, and al-Qaeda seeming stronger than ever. This is the story of a hydra, resilient despite filling a graveyard with its heads.




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