Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Defeating Al Queda in Yemen is one of the top priorities on President Obama's national security agenda. But Obama isn't the first White House occupant to take up that fight. Let's go back to the year 2000 and the bombing of the U.S.S Cole.

[RECORDING] Unidentified Male: There was an explosion caused externally to the ship. There are more than 30 injured, some seriously.

[RECORDING] President Clinton: If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism it was a despicable and cowardly act.

Werman: The Cole was docked in the Yemeni port of Aden when a dingy packed with explosives plowed into the side of the warship. Seventeen American sailors were killed and thirty-nine were injured. Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, which drew attention away from Yemen and onto Afghanistan and later Iraq. That changed again in 2008 with an attack on the U.S. embassy in the Yemeni capital Sana'a.

[RECORDING] Unidentified Male: We understand that there were two vehicle-borne bombs that were part of this attack.

[RECORDING] President Bush: One objectives of these extremists as they kill is to try to cause the United States to lose our nerve and to withdraw from regions of the world.

Werman: Gregory Johnsen is author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia." He describes that 2008 attack on the embassy.

Gregory Johnsen: This is an attack that took place on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a in September of 2008 and this is really the moment where the U.S. once again woke up to the threat of al Queda in Yemen. There had been a prison break in February of 2006 in which 23 al Queda members tunneled out of this maximum security prison in Sana'a. They tunneled their way into a mosque. They said their morning prayers and then they walked out the front door to freedom and that's really the genesis moment of al Queda in the Arabian peninsula. Two years later in 2008 they were able to carry out this attack on the U.S. embassy. What happened is al Queda essentially used a one two punch. They had the first car, they had a lot of bombs in the car. It drove through the opening gate there at the embassy and it was speeding its way towards the final gate where it would attempt to sort of explode and then breach the door and then another five attackers would sort of run in through that breach with automatic machine guns and attempt to kill as many Americans as they could. Thankfully in this case a Yemeni security guard, a local individual, was able to lower a bar that forced the car to explode several yards away from the gate. But this is the moment in September 2008 when the U.S. really woke back up that al Queda is once again a threat and is carrying out attacks against the U.S.

Werman: I mean that narrative sounds a little like Benghazi in September of 2012. Do you think the U.S. let its guard down in 2008 in Yemen?

Johnsen: Absolutely. I think what happened is that al Queda in Yemen was largely defeated by the end of 2003/2004 and essentially the U.S. along with the Yemeni government took their eye off the ball, took their eye off of what al Queda was doing and so when this prison break happened in February of 2006, they paid very little attention to it and al Queda essentially had two years in which to rebuild their organization up from the ashes with no sort of interference or pressure from either the U.S. or Yemeni governments. The result was then this attack in September 2008 and of course all the attacks that have taken place since then.

Werman: Right. We've got the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from Nigeria who was stopped on his way into Detroit with a bomb. There was also the printer cartridge bombs that were found on cargo planes. That was a plot that was foiled. Let's just move straight up to 2011 and the Anwar al-Awlaki announcement of his death.

[RECORDING] Unidentified Male: As we know he was involved in the Detroit bombing. He was involved in the cargo bombing efforts. He continued to try to inspire people.

Werman: So, the loss of Anwar al-Awlaki was brought about through a drone strike. you were just in Yemen, Gregory Johnsen. How are the U.S. military and CIA drone programs perceived there right now?

Johnsen: Well, they're incredibly unpopular in Yemen. For the last three years what we've seen is that the U.S. has carried out a number of drone and a number of air strikes against al Queda in Yemen in an attempt to eradicate the organization, in an attempt to keep the organization back on their heels enough that they're not able to carry out an attack against the United States. So, this is what we saw with the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki. The Obama administration has attempted to be very clear that it doesn't want to get sucked in to any sort of a war in Yemen, that it wants to only target the top commanders of al Queda who are plotting and planning against the United States. the problem is that the U.S. says there's about 10-15 of these individuals that it's trying to kill in Yemen. This year it's carried out anywhere from 37 to 50 strikes in Yemen; 37-50 strikes in an attempt to kill 10-15 individuals. So, in my view, one of two things is happening. Either the drone strikes aren't as accurate as we're continually being told that they are or the U.S. is targeting many more individuals than those 10-15 on its list. And I think if its the latter, then the U.S. really does run the risk of being sucked into a much longer, a much costlier conflict in Yemen.

Werman: Gregory Johnsen writes the blog Waq al-Waq and is the author of the new book The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America�s War in Arabia. Gregory, good to speak with you again. Thank you.

Johnsen: Thanks so much, Marco.