Feature Interview

Feature Interview with Gregory Johnsen, a leading expert on Yemen, and a member of the United States Agency for International Development's Conflict Assessment team for Yemen in 2009.

There have been many books published about al-Qaeda, but none get as up close and personal like The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, the critically acclaimed new book by Gregory Johnsen. A leading expert on Yemen, Johnsen gives readers unprecedented access to a complex and secretive world, one where multiple wars are being waged along political, tribal, and ideological fault lines that run from Sana’a to Lahore to New York.

Johnsen has covered Yemen and Islamic insurgency in the Middle East extensively and was a member of the United States Agency for International Development’s Conflict Assessment Team for Yemen in 2009. A former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and writes the Yemen blog Waq-al-waq. We talked to Johnsen about public perceptions of drone strikes in Yemen, and how U.S. policy needs to change if the means of remote warfare are to achieve their intended ends. 

How would you assess the Obama administration’s handling of U.S. relations with Yemen?
I’ve been openly critical of the policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations’ policies toward Yemen. Any fair and honest assessment of the Obama administration, however one should acknowledge the very difficult hand that President Obama was dealt in relation too Yemen. Almost immediately after his election to the presidency of the United States, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had its public “coming out party,” which complicated an already difficult relationship with Yemen, and made it impossible for Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo Bay in his first term. The attack on Christmas Day 2009 that followed really refocused U.S. counterterrorism strategy toward Yemen. More recently, the Obama administration has had to deal with the wave of Arab uprisings and long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s stepping down from power. I think the U.S. could have handled some of these events in much better ways than it actually did. However, this has been a very difficult time for U.S. policy in the Middle East. I think that the sheer number of challenges they’ve had to face has been overwhelming for President Obama and his staff.




When Yemen makes headlines in the West, it’s typically in association with drone strikes and the debate over targeted killing.

Since 2009, under President Obama, the U.S. has been very active in carrying out strikes in Yemen, so it makes sense that one of the things that people in the U.S., and in the West more generally, are focused on is drones. We’re worried about the technology ­– there doesn’t really seem to be a clear “rule book” or any kind of coherent legal or ethical framework for the use of drones. However, drones are not actually responsible for all of the strikes in Yemen. While the U.S. certainly uses drones in Yemen, it also uses traditional aircraft as well as Naval ships that fire different sorts of missiles, and they use different weapons systems than do the drones. So in Yemen, drones are a part of what the United States is doing, but they’re only a part.

In the West, the debate over U.S. policy in Yemen has become focused on drone strikes, but in Yemen, the focus is on the civilian casualties that are a result of some of those strikes. When the Obama administration started carrying out attacks in Yemen, there were about 200-300 individuals affiliated with AQAP. Today, it’s at least 1,000 – in fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that it’s at least a few thousand. I don’t think all of this is attributable to the use of drones, or to the civilian casualties they’ve resulted in, but I think a large portion of it is, and because of this, one of the things that I think the U.S. has to do is reconsider its strike policy.


Can you describe the current strike policy? What isn’t working?

The U.S. utilizes different types of drone strikes in Yemen. One of these is called a “high-value target” strike, which is usually dependent upon acquiring a specific piece of intelligence on an individual suspect – that they will be at a particular location or travelling in a car at a certain time, for example. The decision to fire the missile is made on the basis of that specific piece, or pieces, of intelligence. An example of this type of strike would be when the U.S. killed Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011.

Another type of strike is the “signature strike,” or “terrorist attack disruption strike” – sometimes referred to as TADS. I believe it is these strikes that are responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties in Yemen. Given this, I think the U.S. essentially needs to do two different things when it comes to its policy in Yemen. One of these is to take TADS off the table and get rid of signature strikes, and instead use only high-value target strikes. In conjunction with this I think the US has to use drone strikes much more judiciously than it currently is. As great as this technology is – and it certainly is very impressive, and gives the U.S. a significant advantage over its enemies in Yemen – we need to be conscious of the fact that it is still dependent upon human intelligence (HUMINT) on the ground. And in this area, I think the U.S. is sadly deficient. If the U.S. were to move away from signature strikes and limit itself to high-value target strikes, while working very hard on building up and developing HUMINT on the ground (and I recognize that it’s one thing to call for that, and quite another to do it), I think this would do a lot to limit civilian casualties and improve both the U.S.’s short- and long-term national security.

Furthermore, if the U.S. were to carry out fewer and smarter strikes within Yemen, I think this would also have the effect of opening up more space for Yemeni tribes and Yemeni clerics to take the fight to al-Qaeda themselves, because they’re the ones who ultimately will have to defeat al-Qaeda.

These tweaks – restricting signature strikes limiting High Value Target strikes and building up human intelligence on the ground - would, I believe, have a dramatic impact on bringing about the result that the Obama administration continually says it wants to see in Yemen: the disruption, dismantling, and defeat of AQAP.


What would fewer and smarter strikes look like in terms of actual numbers?

Since the current president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, took office in 2012 – Hadi replaced president Saleh after he stepped down in exchange for immunity – we’ve seen the U.S. carry out anywhere from 37-52 strikes, at least. I say “at least” because it’s very difficult to count these accurately – the Yemeni air force will often take credit for strikes even when we know it must be the U.S. because the Yemeni president has admitted publicly that Yemen’s air force can’t actually fly at night. So, it’s a very difficult process to keep track of, but to the best of our knowledge, the number in 2012 falls between 37 and 52.

Those 37-52 strikes represent attempts to kill, at least according to U.S. officials, 10-15 individuals. To me, this says one of two things: Either a) the drone strikes aren’t as accurate as we’re continually being told that they are, or b) the U.S. is doing something different than what it claims to be doing – as in, it’s going after more than just 10-15 individuals.


What might be driving the widening of potential strike targets in Yemen?

I think this is where the arguments of David Cole, a legal scholar at Georgetown, come in. David Cole has written on the evolution of the term “imminent,” and argued that how we define an imminent threat has actually changed a great deal over time. I think how the U.S. currently defines “imminent” represents an overreaction. Fear that there will be an attack from Yemen has led the U.S. to consider every threat an imminent threat, and to adopt the mindset that it is better to fire now and be safe, rather than be sorry later. The 37-52 strikes this year suggest that the U.S. is doing this more and more often ­– a very dangerous trend, in my view.


What about the argument that the U.S. is now acting as a “counterinsurgency” air force for countries Yemen?

The problem with people like myself, or David Cole, or Micah Zenko weighing in on what’s behind the strike strategy is that we’re all outside of government. So we’re all basing our analyses on what’s been made public, and because there’s so little of that and so much that remains shrouded in secrecy, we’re all able to import our own biases into the discussion. Two well-intentioned, honest individuals could look at the same thing, and one could claim the action represents an evolution of what the term “imminent threat” means, while the other could see an example of the U.S. acting as a counterinsurgency air force. The truth is that most of us on the outside just don’t know what the government officials who are making these decisions are thinking, or what’s driving the program. A lot of us would like to see a single codified set of rules for the drone program because that would take a lot of the analytical guesswork out of why the U.S. is doing what it’s doing and move the debate onto firmer ground. We need less speculation and a lot more facts.


Do we have the facts when it comes to numbers of civilian casualties from drone strikes?

Al-Qaeda talks about strike casualties in martyr biographies, occasional newsletters, and periodic public statements, but it doesn’t do any kind of systematic counting of these casualties – it’s much more ad hoc. And their media network has been relatively quiet over the past several months despite some of these strikes taking place. So, if you look to jihadi sources or most  for drone strike casualty numbers, you’re doing a lot of guesswork.  The same thing is at play in the local, Arabic press in Yemen.  There are some cases which we know in great deal, but most strikes still take place in a way that makes collecting accurate information very difficult.

One case is particularly illustrative of this: On Nov. 7 of this year, shortly after President Obama won re-election, there was a drone strike in an area in Yemen called Sanhan. Initial Arabic reporting on the drone strike claimed that four people were killed, including the target, Adnan al-Qadhi. Adam Baron, a young and very good American freelance journalist who has been in Yemen for a long time, speaks Arabic, and knows the country very well, travelled to the site of the strike a couple of weeks later and talked to a lot of people, including the relatives of Adnan al-Qadhi. He discovered that in fact, only two people had been killed in the strike. So, there’s a lot of reporting and a lot of talk, but in many cases, we just don’t know how accurate the reported casualty numbers are. And the Nov. 7 strike took place very close to Sana’a, the capital, which is relatively accessible, whereas many of these strikes take place in areas that are much more difficult to get to.


Yemen is still transitioning out of the Saleh era. Is it politically risky for President Hadi to allow the U.S. to carry out strikes on Yemeni territory?

It depends on how you look at Hadi’s regime. From the outside, permitting U.S. strikes would seem to be a very risky policy because the strikes are not very popular in Yemen. But if you look at it the way I think President Hadi looks at it, doing what the U.S. wants is smart policy and reflects the mutual understanding the U.S. has reached with Yemen: President Hadi carries out drone strikes and goes after al-Qaeda in exchange for consistent support from the U.S. which he needs to make up for deficient domestic support.

The other factor is that public opinion in Yemen is divided, because the country is divided. The power structure on the ground differs significantly from one place to another. In fact, I don’t even know how accurate it is to refer to a united Yemen anymore. There’s the Yemen that’s under the control of the Houthis up in the North, there’s the Yemen in Sana’a, and there’s the Yemen out in Hadramawt or the different Yemens in the south of the country. So, I don’t think it’s accurate to do what some have done and talk to people from one particular place and claim that opinions on the ground there are representative of the country as a whole.


Yemen is clearly a very complex country, and likely will only become more so if these divisions persist. Does having the technology to fight war remotely encourage the U.S. to approach its relations with Yemen solely within a counterterrorism framework, rather than adopting a more holistic approach that seeks to address the motivators for AQAP’s resurgence?

I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that in the absence of drones, the U.S. would want – or would even consider – a development based on a more holistic approach toward Yemen. The U.S. is going through an age of austerity and does not have a great deal of money. If al-Qaeda were to disappear from Yemen tomorrow, U.S. money would quickly follow out of the country. As I discuss in my book, we have already seen this happen.

The problem we have in Washington is that Yemen has essentially slipped into the category of countries that are too hard to deal with. Because of this – because the United States does not understand Yemen, and doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground – there is increasing acceptance of using drones and other kinds of missiles and weapons to get what we want. The mentality has become, “If we bomb Yemen, if we bomb al-Qaeda targets, then we can keep the group back on its heels and it won’t be able to plot and launch attacks against us.”

Now, while I don’t think that’s the right mentality, I also don’t think the Obama administration is going to wake up tomorrow morning and say, “Everything we’ve done in the past four years is wrong and we need to rethink our policy.” But I do think that individuals outside of government like myself can make an impact by a) telling the Obama administration how cutting out signature strikes and only using high-value target strikes would have a much better chance of eliminating al-Qaeda and preventing the radicalization of the population in Yemen because of civilian casualties, and b) pointing out that if we really invest in human intelligence on the ground, we won’t need to fight this same war for yet another decade.

The worldview of the current leaders of al-Qaeda was shaped in the late 1990s. The worldview of future generations of al-Qaeda leaders is being shaped today, in an environment that is much more radical than the previous generation’s. We talk about this issue, but day-to-day crisis management is working against long-term intelligent planning to address it. Even small changes to current policies could go a long way to making what we’re doing more viable over the long term and more effective in the short term.

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