Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Gregory Johnsen, who is an expert on Yemen; he's a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and has advised the U.S. and British governments on issues relating to Yemen. Thanks very much for joining me today.
Gregory Johnsen: Thanks so much for having me.
GG: So Yemen has been in the news far more so than usual over the last week because of reports of two sets of attacks in that country, one in the North on a rebellious Shiite group, and there's been reports that there's some Saudi involvement in those attacks along with some very sketchy reports of US involvement, I guess allegations by local villagers there of US involvement. And then there's at least two attacks in the South on what are being called suspected al-Qaeda sites, and it seems much more credible that the US has been involved to some degree there, and ABC News actually says that the US shot cruise missiles ordered by the President himself at these sites, but there are a lot of conflicting reports, and a lot of this is anonymous.
So what can you tell us about what we actually know about these strikes in terms of who was involved and what the results were?
GJ: With regards to the al-Qaeda strikes, we certainly know that the US was involved to some degree, whether the US was the lead partner or whether it was acting in sort of a supporting role in backing the Yemeni government is really difficult to tell for someone like myself or for other analysts just because no-one at the Pentagon and none of the Yemeni sources are really talking much. Our sources in Yemen really don't seem to know much on this. It does seem at least from the sources that I've seen of the strike that cruise missiles appear to be unlikely. A much more likely culprit would be the Hellfire or something along those lines.
What we know of the two strikes is that one took place in the South in Abyan and another took place north of Sana'a in the tribal region known as Arhab after the tribe that lives there. The one in the north was probably at least for the US the most important strike: this was going after an individual who is very high up in al-Qaeda in Yemen's hierarchy, a man named Qasim al-Raymi; unfortunately for the US and Yemeni governments, Qasim al-Raymi escaped. They did capture a few individuals, including four would-be suicide bombers up in the north, and then the second strike in the south - this is the one that galvanized a lot public opposition to the strikes in Yemen.
This is the one where there were a number of civilian casualties took place during the raid. The Yemeni government said it killed anywhere between 24 and 30 al-Qaeda individuals, other independent account have the death toll as high 63 with the number of women and children, and the pictures of these casualties have been posted onto different jihadi forums and different websites.
GG: Let me ask you about the evidence of a possible use of missiles in the strike. I understand that you think cruise missiles are quite unlikely in light of the evidence you've seen, and that Hellfire missiles are possible. How likely are you able to say that actual missiles were used in that attack, and if they were Hellfire missiles or something comparable, is that something the Yemeni government would be capable of launching on their own without US involvement?
GJ: The Yemeni government at least since August has been involved in this sixth round of the war up in the north, and that included a number of daily bombing raids where the planes sort of launched from the Sana'a airport and carried out sorties up in the north. So certainly, dropping bombs in the south in Abyan is something that the Yemeni government is quite capable of doing. So, whether the US only provided intelligence or, as The New York Times reported, US provided intelligence as well as firepower - it's really difficult to say.
GG: Obviously there's, I guess, an interest on the part of the Yemenis not to have it known that the US has been involved in these attacks because of perceptions on the part of the citizenry there that that's a violation of their sovereignty and anti-Americanism, and the like. Can you think of any reason, legitimate reason why the US government would refuse to tell Americans whether or not we're involved in military action within that country?
GJ: Yeah, I think the track record of US-Yemeni relations here is extremely important. So if you go to November 2002, this is when the CIA launched an unmanned drone that then carried out a targeted strike on the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen at the time, a man named Abu Ali al-Harethi, and this was one of the initial drone strikes in the war on terror. Immediately after that, the Bush administration - this attack took place on November 3 2002 - someone in the Pentagon leaked this to US newspapers.
This was the way the Bush administration I believe really needed an early victory on the War on Terror and they were trying to use this example to bolster their Republican allies for the midterm elections, which were going to take place on November 5, so two days after the strike. And this leak caused a great deal of problems for the Yemeni government back at home.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh felt as though he had been sold out by the US for domestic political concerns. And since then, Yemen's cooperation with the US against al-Qaeda has really gone downhill. Yemen started focusing on other things; they weren't as forthcoming in sharing intelligence and giving the US access to prisoners and things of this nature; and so for the Obama administration, certainly it's in their best interests to put a Yemeni face on these strikes and to make sure that they're the silent partner behinds the scenes helping the Yemeni government, that they're not too obvious in their actions.
And this also I think, if the US was too obvious, could come back to bite them, because then al-Qaeda can easily turn this to its rhetorical advantage by saying things like, oh, President Abdullah is only a paid agent of the Americans who is doing whatever it is the Americans want, and so if you're a true Muslim, you'll follow us.
GG: Well, I guess the question then becomes how do you weigh that interest in maintaining secrecy with the, I guess you could call it a right - I would call it a right - of American citizens to know whether or not their government is essentially engaged in a secret war. If in fact we are shooting missiles, whether with the cooperation or at the request of the Yemeni government or otherwise, in Yemen, isn't that something that if it remains concealed is essentially a secret war? Isn't there a compelling argument to make that if your government is engaged in a war that it's something at least in broad strokes you have the right know?
GJ: I'm not sure a secret war is the right characterization. Certainly the US has been very open about its desire to combat al-Qaeda in Yemen. It's just what guise this takes the form of, that's the question. So, President Obama, would he announced his Afghan strategy, also mentioned Yemen and Somalia by name as places where al-Qaeda was establishing a base, and where the US was looking to confront them. And a number of US generals and US diplomats have been to Yemen over the past couple of years really pressing the Yemeni government to take the fight to al-Qaeda. And so it's more of I would say an underreported war than it is a secret war.
GG: I guess then the question becomes, if, as ABC News says, the President ordered missiles strikes within Yemen - and that's something that the government isn't announcing or even responding to in terms of inquiries, there's certainly a substantial secrecy to that aspect of what we're doing, and I guess then that ought to be weighed against the interest in putting a Yemeni face on the attacks as you said.
But let me ask you this: with regard to al-Qaeda in Yemen: everyone seems to agree that there is an al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, but the problem with the term "terrorist" or "al-Qaeda" is that it's had a very elastic meaning. You could sort of analogize it to Iraq, where "terrorist" or "al-Qaeda" could mean anyone that the government fights against and doesn't like, or it could mean a very localized al-Qaeda -- like al-Qaeda in Iraq -- that cared more about Iraq than, say, attacking the United States within our own borders, or it could mean real al-Qaeda, very similar to or linked with the group that actually was responsible for the 9-11 attacks.
How would you characterize what is being called al-Qaeda in Yemen in that spectrum, and how significant of a threat it is really to the United States, not within Yemen, but outside of Yemen and in the homeland?
GJ: Well, let me talk about it this way, if I can. This is the second incarnation of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Immediately after September 11th, we had what I like to term the first phase of the war against al-Qaeda. This lasted essentially from, say, the USS Cole attack in 2000 and really the September 11th attacks in 2001, up through November 2003. So, in this phase, the US and Yemeni governments partnered very closely. There was the drone strike in November 2002 that I mentioned earlier, and this was largely, at least for al-Qaeda, a reactionary war.
Throughout the 1990s, al-Qaeda had often thought of Yemen as sort of a refuge where they could come, relax; the Yemeni government ignored them as long as al-Qaeda ignored the government and didn't carry out any attacks. It was essentially what could best be called a tacit non-aggression pact between the two. Now, after September 11th, that of course all changed; President Saleh was very worried that Yemen would be on the US hit list, and so he cooperated quite closely with the US government after the strike in November 2002. One year later, the Yemeni government arrested Abu Ali al-Harethi's replacement, so really by November 2003, al-Qaeda in Yemen had been largely defeated by the US and Yemeni governments.
Then there's a period from about November 2003 to February 2006 where there's very little, almost no al-Qaeda violence in the country. Then in February 2006 there's a prison break of 23 al-Qaeda suspects including the individual I mentioned earlier, Qasim al-Raymi, as well as an individual named Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Both Qasim al-Raymi and Nasir al-Wuhayshi had spent time with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, trained in the camps there; Nasir al-Wuhayshi was actually a lieutenant, a personal aide to bin Laden - he fought with bin Laden at the Battle of Tora Bora before eventually moving to Iran and then being extradited back to Yemen where he stayed in jail until he escaped.
So from February 2006 up to today, we have this second phase of the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen. And this is when al-Qaeda has really become a threat, because they've certainly learned from the first phase. They changed a lot of their tactics, and since February '06 up until now, they've done a very good job of really building a durable infrastructure that can sustain and withstand the loss of key leaders, so when you assassinate cell leaders, you don't find the organization crumbling down around himself. And in January of 2009, they moved from being what you could call a local chapter of al-Qaeda just based in Yemen, into more of a regional franchise, this al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which is the name that they use today.
Since then they've really been working to almost match their actions to their rhetoric, so their rhetoric says that they want to be an organization that can carry out attacks throughout the region, that is, throughout the Arabian peninsula. And so you've seen this; they've targeted Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism chief, Mohammed bin Nayef, for assassination, they've launched other attacks into Saudi Arabia that were foiled before they could take place. But this is the real danger that they present right now, is not just in Yemen, but using Yemen as a launching pad for attacks throughout the region.
GG: You say attacks throughout the region - is there evidence of any substantial plots against the United States itself that have originated with al-Qaeda in Yemen?
GJ: In September of 2008, they launched an attack on the US embassy there is Sana'a, and certainly the organization's rhetoric. They're quite forthcoming - they published a bimonthly journal, they put out numerous audio tapes, they put out numerous videos. One of their more recent videos shows them having kidnapped and then executed a Yemenese security official, having the governorates of Ma'rib - which is really an al-Qaeda stronghold, a place where the Yemeni government has very little power, and so certainly, the US remains the major target. But as they said, just the other day after the two strikes in Arhab and Abyan, their aim is to attack not only the external enemies - the crusaders, the Americans, the Europeans and so forth - but also the internal enemies, that is those people allied with the US.
GG: I understand that within Yemen itself, which has all sort of conflicts internally, and lots of violence between various factions, that what is called al-Qaeda in Yemen has committed pretty heinous acts against other citizens of Yemen, and even against neighboring Saudis. I guess my question really was: is there any evidence of any credible or significant plots originating from al-Qaeda in Yemen that have been directed against the United States? Not rhetoric, not "death to America", but actual plots?
GJ: Outside of the Arabian peninsula, you mean, not necessary inside the Arabian peninsula?
GG: Right. I don't mean if we have a presence in Yemen or in Saudi Arabia, I mean against the United States itself.
GJ: The homeland, if you will?
GJ: At this point al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula doesn't seem to have the logistical and infrastructure capabilities to have what took place in Afghanistan, what was planned there as well as in Germany. But it's really difficult to know. I mean, this is an organization that, when they first got their restart, if you will, in February 2006, they were building up from ashes, they're essentially like the Phoenix rising up from the ashes. This is an organization that started out with nothing and in just under four years, has really made themselves into quite a powerful organization, an organization that is really so strong and so entrenched in Yemen, that there's not going to be a short war between the US and Yemeni governments against al-Qaeda - it's going to be a really hard slog, and so I think the worry for US policy makers is, well, maybe today there isn't an immediate threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula against the US homeland, or the US mainland; in a year or two years, it's really different to suggest that that wouldn't be the case.
GG: You mentioned earlier that the strike at the al-Qaeda sites did not in fact result in a hit on the principal al-Qaeda target, but there were civilians killed, there were probably some al-Qaeda fighters killed, but not the primary one who was targeted. So, in terms of our efforts to limit or even eradicate the strength of this group in Yemen and in the region, what do you think are the effects of attacks of this sort on al-Qaeda's strength?
GJ: I think it's important for the US to realize that it's not going to defeat al-Qaeda in Yemen tomorrow, or next month, or even next year. Like I said, al-Qaeda right now is just too strong and too entrenched in Yemen. There really is no magic missile solution to the problem. It's going to be a very long and a very different fight. And military strikes like the one that we saw last week, they really need to come at the end of the process, when al-Qaeda has been isolated from the population, when its rhetoric has been discredited, not at the beginning of the process, when al-Qaeda members are still seen as pious individuals defending their faith.
And that, for me, is the mistake that the US made, not necessarily in partnering with the Yemeni government to go after these individuals. Certainly, you have to do that, but just in having the chronology of the attacks wrong. They didn't do the proper field work, they didn't do the proper groundwork to undermine al-Qaeda to the degree that these attacks would be seen as a good thing by the Yemeni population. Instead, they're been seen as a bad thing and as something that al-Qaeda, at least in my view, will be able to use these strikes and to really replace and offset any of the losses that they may have had. It's really, for al-Qaeda, a recruiting field day.
GG: And describe a little bit why that is. Actually, before you do that, let me ask you: that dynamic that you just described, which is when we engage in these kind of isolated strikes that are detached from or at least that precede more non-military efforts to transform the population and discredit al-Qaeda in terms of their rhetoric and their arguments -- that dynamic of military strikes actually being counterproductive because it turns the population against the United States and makes them more receptive to the al-Qaeda message: is that something you think is unique to Yemen, or is that something that is fairly universal wherever al-Qaeda is found?
GJ: Well I can really only speak to the Yemeni case with any degree of expertise, but certainly in Yemen, this is something that is universal throughout the country. That is, anywhere that you're going to do this sort of military strike without the proper groundwork and preparation work, you're going to run into the same problem, where it's going to be very, very counterproductive. And if you expand the net of who is al-Qaeda - and it's important I think to remember in Yemen, there's almost what, I think could best be called an Islamist spectrum.
That is, a number of people who view Islam as a political matter and who, at least in the West, it would be very easy to look at them, and they look like al-Qaeda and they sort of say many of the same things that al-Qaeda says, but they're not necessarily al-Qaeda. And in Yemen, al-Qaeda only occupies one point along this spectrum. And so if you want to broaden the war out, and target all of these people, or say that they're all al-Qaeda, then you're opening yourself up to a war that you can never end, because you're just fighting way too many people in Yemen. So the idea is to narrow this point of who exactly is al-Qaeda to as small as it can be possibly be before you attack.
GG: Just a couple more questions, but I'm finding this really interesting. The response to the argument that you've articulated, that strikes like this, when carried out in this manner, are counterproductive because they actually strengthen al-Qaeda, is that there's really no other viable alternative, that if the President is told by intelligence agencies or the military that they have a fairly good idea that there are dangerous al-Qaeda fighters in a certain area that can be killed with a strike, that he can't very well simply let them go, that he can't just ignore those reports, and so an attack of this kind to wipe out whatever ones we see is something that's both tempting -- really I guess a responsibility, in terms of looking at what his obligations are as the President.
If this isn't the right strategy right now, what else is it that needs to be done before military strikes make sense? I mean, you talked about it in sort of vague terms of convincing the population, isolating al-Qaeda, discrediting them, but in terms of what the United States can and should do within this country, what does that really mean?
GJ: Let me deal with the first part first, and that is that the US has been down this road before. I mean, the US and Yemeni governments as I laid out a little bit earlier, essentially defeated al-Qaeda in Yemen - they killed all the people, they arrested all the people, they incarcerated them. But the problem didn't go away; it went into hibernation, if you will, for a couple of years. But now we're in the situation where we just have to kill these people again or arrest them again. And so if you keep doing this, you're going to just be fighting new incarnations of al-Qaeda every few years.
So what I would argue needs to take place is that this sort of military approach needs to be coupled with a development approach - it has to be a multifaceted counterterrorism approach to what's going on. So the US can do a lot of things. The US can work in development, it can attempt to peel as many of the young individuals who are being driven, at least in Yemen, by poverty, by lack of employment, by lack of other options to join al-Qaeda. It can do a lot by partnering with the Yemeni government to sort of put out its own propaganda, because whether or not the US realizes it, it's in a propaganda war with al-Qaeda in Yemen, and it's losing, and losing very badly.
For instance, I was just in Yemen in August of this year, and Sheik Mohammed Al-Moayad, who is a Yemeni who has been lured to Germany soon after the September 11th, was eventually extradited to the US and brought up on charges of supporting al-Qaeda and Hamas - he was eventually cleared of the charges of supporting al-Qaeda, but convicted on the charges of supporting Hamas - he stayed in the supermax prison out in Colorado for a number of years before Attorney General Holder let him go. I was in Yemen when he came back, and this was something that all Yemenis, everyone from the president to al-Qaeda, had been calling for his release for a number years, and when the US finally released him, the US embassy didn't put out a single statement. They didn't say anything - there was just silence.
It would have been I think incredibly easy for the US to write an op-ed and place it in the official daily Al-Sawra in Yemen, which would have went a long way towards explaining that the US, like other countries, makes mistakes, but the US tries to learn from its mistakes. I think when it comes to this, when it comes to public diplomacy in Yemen, the US tends to be all defense on no offense.
GG: Let me just quickly ask you about that. So, this was a Yemeni prisoner who was kept, not in Guantanamo, but who was actually put into the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Is it fair to say that the perception that he was wrongfully imprisoned, or unjustly imprisoned, or was mistreated in terms of his imprisonment, was both a propaganda instrument for al-Qaeda as well as a source of anger towards the United States within Yemen?
GJ: Absolutely, and the reason that he wasn't sort of incarcerated within Guantanamo was that as part of the extradition agreement between Germany and the US, that Germany extracted a promise from the US that a) it wouldn't lead to the death penalty, and b) that it wouldn't put him in Guantanamo Bay. In the Yemeni press, in the Arabic press, he's known as the father of orphans, because of his charity work, and of course as the case developed, it was seen that the one informant upon which the FBI based their entire case, was a bit of a charlatan and a bit of a fraud. He eventually lit himself on fire outside of the White House in November of 2004 after his attempts to shake down more money from the FBI failed.
So this is someone that certainly al-Qaeda used to great rhetorical advantage in its own propaganda; this was often an issue that President Saleh brought up with different US ambassadors to Yemen, as well as on his trips to the US. This is something that had a great deal of resonance within Yemen from the north to the south, from the east to the west, and US silence, by just releasing him and not saying anything, was a tacit admission of guilt, and in my mind at least, the US missed a golden opportunity to explain itself to the Yemeni people, and to show how the US is learning from its mistakes.
GG: And is the same thing true with regard to the Yemeni prisoners who are in Guantanamo, several of whom have just been released, but most of whom continue to be imprisoned in Guantanamo? Does that too play a similar role in terms of al-Qaeda's use of these sorts of things to drum up anti-American sentiment?
GJ: It's probably different with regard to the prisoners in Guantanamo, because most of them aren't as well known as this particular sheik...
GJ: ...who had a very long and vigorous history as a charitable worker in Yemen. It is known that many of the Yemenis in Guantanamo do appear to be innocent; they appear to have been caught up in this drag net after September 11th. But there are also a number of Yemenis there who the law of averages as well as what we know about them would suggest them to be individuals who if released would rejoin al-Qaeda. And so for US officials, for US investigators, this is really a difficult task, especially almost eight years after Guantanamo was opened, to separate the guilty from out from the innocent, and the perception, at least in Yemen, is that many of these individuals, particularly the ones that are deemed to be a low-level threat or no threat at all, is that they're prisoners of their own citizenship - that the US government doesn't trust the Yemeni government, and because it doesn't trust the Yemeni government, it won't release them.
The Yemenis in Guantanamo are not that different from the Saudis in Guantanamo. The only difference is that the US government trusts the Saudis, and so it's released the vast majority of them back to Saudi Arabia, whereas it doesn't the Yemenis, and so it hasn't released them.
GG: Let me ask you quickly about that, and if I'm taking too much of your time, just let me know, but I just have a couple more questions.
GG: The notion that the US doesn't trust the Yemeni government in terms of release of Guantanamo detainees - why is that? Is the Yemeni government actively hostile towards al-Qaeda, or is there still that sense that you described earlier, sort of a détente between the two, that the government is willing to live with al-Qaeda provided al-Qaeda doesn't attack the government, and that to the extent the government is actually hostile to al-Qaeda, it's because they're pressured by the US to do so? What is the posture of the government to the al-Qaeda elements in their country?
GJ: Well, this gets at really one of the fundamental problems I think in the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen. And that is, that the view from Washington is so different from the view from Sana'a. So in Washington you see all these al-Qaeda individuals, and they're all al-Qaeda and they're all guilty. But when you get to Yemen, the Yemeni government has to deal with this: many of these al-Qaeda members are tribesmen, they're their cousins, they're their brothers, they're their uncles and so on.
And so the Yemeni government tries to take a more nuanced approach, which is also, at least in the US, often viewed as sort of a schizophrenic approach, if you will. So the Yemeni government tries to peel as many of these individuals off through these tacit non-aggression pacts, saying things like, well, you don't have to give up your ideological beliefs, or anything like that, but don't carry out any attacks here, and we'll leave you alone. And then the Yemeni government, when forced, it goes after the al-Qaeda individuals who are actively carrying out attacks in Yemen. Every time there's a suicide attack, for instance, in Yemen, the Yemeni government reacts quite forcefully, quite quickly, and usually does a very good job of tracking down the cells.
The problem for the US is that there's no sustainability in this from the Yemeni government. That is, when there's not a suicide attack, the Yemeni government is very hesitant to take the fight to al-Qaeda, and so it just tends to be a difference in how you view the threat from al-Qaeda.
GG: Right. Can you talk a little bit - and I'm sure it's complicated, more so than would allow you to give a summary answer, but to the extent you can - can you talk about the role that both Saudi Arabia and Iran play in some of the instability and some of the internal conflicts within Yemen? Are they really as active as reports suggest? Has that been overplayed? What's the interest of those two governments in what's happening in Yemen?
GJ: Right. Let me just give you, if I can, just a brief overview of Yemen. Because when you talk about Yemen, I think it's really easy to become overwhelmed by all of the problems that Yemen is facing. So I tend to think of Yemen as almost having three layers of crises. That is, on the top, there's this elite rivalry, struggle for power that's going on behind the scenes over what happens when President Saleh leaves the scene. He's been in power for more than 30 years.
In the middle, there's this trio of security crises. There's the al-Qaeda crisis which we've talked about a great deal; there's this al-Houthi rebellion up in the north; and then there's the threat of secession from the south. And this middle layer is really what's grabbing the majority of the headlines. And then at the bottom, you have what could almost be called the foundational problems of infrastructure within the country, that the government is losing money because its oil is running out, it's running out of water, rampant corruption, unemployment, a high birth rate - there's just a laundry list of problems.
And so, the al-Houthi crisis is certainly something that the government views as being an existential threat to itself. It's been going on since 2004, which was when the conflict first started but the roots of the conflict go way back into Yemeni history back into the 1960s and particularly into the 1980s and 1990s. Saudi Arabia has been very active in the conflict, not only in the 1980s and 1990s, but since fighting really broke out in 2004. However, in November of this year, this is when Saudi Arabia became overtly involved, and that is, Saudi Arabia started bombing some of the Houthi positions, it started taking the attack to the Houthi fighters. There have been reports that the Houthis have put that the Saudis have actually started to bomb into Yemen.
The Yemeni government has often claimed that the Houthi are proxies for Iran. This is a little misleading, and this gets into some of the local politics of Yemen, and that is, the Yemeni government always feels that in order for its own domestic crises to be taken seriously, that it has to link them to larger regional and Western concerns. So every time that Saudi Arabia or the US starts to publicly voice concerns over the growing Iranian presence, then Yemen links the Houthi to Iran and says, look, we have our own Shiite problem, here in north this is an Iranian proxy, they're trying to do what Hezbollah did in Lebanon. But really, besides that posturing by the Yemeni government, there's been very little evidence to suggest that the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, or that Iran is actively involved in the military side of the conflict.
GG: I think I'm a little more concerned about the White House's secrecy about what's happening in Yemen than you seem to suggest earlier, although I understand there are legitimate reasons. But whatever else is true, I think hearing from someone whose knowledge is as in-depth as yours is about Yemen can only help inform the public debate. I found it very illuminating and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.
GJ: Well thanks so much for having me.
GG: My pleasure.
[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]