Salon Radio: Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen

Are strikes on that country strengthening Al Qaeda?

Published December 24, 2009 6:25PM (EST)

Over the last week, there have been several extremely significant though unclear events in Yemen.  As I wrote about earlier this week, last Thursday there were two sets of attacks -- one in the North on a rebellious Shiite group and one in the South on "suspected Al Qaeda sites" which caused numerous civilian deaths -- in which U.S. involvement of some kind was reported (credibly with regard to the latter, less so for the former).  This morning, there are reports of yet another air strike in Southern Yemen on a "suspected Al Qaeda site" which "killed at least 30 suspected militants" -- with anonymous U.S. government sources claiming the casualties possibly (though by no means definitely) included Nasir al Wuhayshi, a regional Al Qaeda leader, and Anwar al-Aulaqi, the cleric reported to have communicated extensively with alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan.

Gregory Johnsen of the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University is one of the nation's most knowledgeable experts on Yemen, and is my guest today on Salon Radio to discuss the situation in that country (we recorded the interview yesterday before news of the latest attack).  He was quoted this week in a relatively impressive Time article explaining that air strikes of this sort are counter-productive as they serve to strengthen Al Qaeda's popularity and recruiting efforts in Yemen -- even if they result in the death of some Al Qaeda fighters.  I had planned to conduct a 10-15 minute interview with him, but his dispassionate, fact-based expertise was so in-depth and illuminating (at least to me) that it ended up lasting a little more than 30 minutes.  I would highly recommend that anyone interested in these events and what the U.S. is doing in that country listen to what he has to say.

I say that despite the fact that he expressed a couple of views with which I rather emphatically disagree (he justified, for instance, the White House's refusal to discuss the role played by the U.S. in these strikes on the ground that disclosure would harm our relationship with the Yemeni Government).  He also persauded me (as several commenters here also argued) that I should have been much more skeptical than I was about the anonymous ABC News report claiming that last week's attack in Southern Yemen was a "cruise missile strike" ordered by Obama himself -- not because the report about U.S. involvement is untrue (it very well may not be), but because the facts are woefully insufficient to assume the ABC report to be true.  

Whatever else is true, public debates and judgments can only be improved by exposing oneself to the sort of objective, expert-level factual analysis of the kind Johnsen provides.  Suffice to say, the reaction that many will have to these reports -- we killed Bad Al Qaeda Terrorists, so these strikes are good -- is seriously misguided.  To listen to the interview, click PLAY on the recorder below, or go here for the MP3 file.  A transcript is here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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