Book thoughts: “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia” by Gregory Johnsen (2013)


Shibam, remote town in Hadramawt Governorate of Yemen
By Jialiang Gao (Original Photograph) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Most counterterrorism wonks know the basic story of al-Qaeda’s rise: the brainchild of a rich and charismatic Saudi (Osama bin Ladin) and an Egyptian doctor-cum-theologian and terror organizer (Ayman al-Zawahiri); jihad against the Soviets in 1980s Afghanistan; the move to Sudan; the 1996 and 1998 fatwas; the move back to Afghanistan; the Embassy bombings; 9/11.

What observers are less likely to understand is the story of al-Qaeda’s enigmatic “affiliates.”

It is here where Gregory Johnsen’s excellent narrative of the rise, fall, and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen—arguably the terror network’s most potent affiliate today—fills in some of the gaps. Truly the first full-length book (in English) on the subject, Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia follows the group of al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists who have terrorized Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula from their inception in the early 1990s to today.

Johnsen begins his book appropriately by explaining its title. He writes that tradition says that Muhammad, the central prophet of Islam, proclaimed once in the seventh century: “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.” (Johnsen, p. xi) While Muhammad himself was successful in battle, men and women for centuries to come would heed his valuable advice, fleeing invading armies or powerful tyrants to the remote hills of Yemen: the last refuge of the Middle East.

This theme—of falling, hiding away, and rising again—is woven throughout the book, beginning with the oft-neglected narrative of bin Ladin’s powerful hand in establishing an al-Qaeda sanctuary in Yemen in the early 1990s. After the war in Afghanistan, many Yemeni adherents of al-Qaeda returned home (some at the request of bin Ladin himself) and fought alongside President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces during a brief civil war in 1994 that drove communism in the country to the grave. But instead of being rewarded for their contributions to a decisive victory, the hardened Islamist fighters were cast away by Saleh’s long-standing government, proscribed as enemies of the state.

The jihadists, focused particularly on expelling Western influence from their homeland, fought back. The increasingly sophisticated and well-organized jihadists stepped up attacks against Saleh’s government (considered kufr (infidels of the faith)) and Western targets in Yemen throughout the latter half of the decade.

But al-Qaeda’s strength in Yemen was short-lived. The 2000 USS Cole attack in Aden caught the US’ attention, and 9/11 prompted an American response that aimed to root out al-Qaeda’s presence anywhere and everywhere across the globe. President Saleh signed up to offer his assistance, giving the US a green light to take the fight to Yemen. In 2002, the Bush administration’s first ever documented drone strike killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen, and the regional affiliate virtually disintegrated thereafter. Other prominent jihadists were locked up.

It was not until after February 2006, when 23 terrorists (including several former Guantanamo Bay detainees) escaped prison in Sana’a by digging out à la Shawshank Redemption style, that the modern-day al-Qaeda in Yemen was born. Led by Nasir al-Wihayshi (bin Ladin’s former personal secretary) and Qasim al-Raymi, the Yemeni fighters rebuilt their network and joined up with a smaller group of Saudis to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2008. As Salih’s government was distracted by a recalcitrant conflict in Yemen’s north (the Houthi rebellion), AQAP quickly reconstituted its strength, finding refuge among sympathetic tribes deep in the remote hills of the country’s south, center, and east. From 2008 onwards, the group became a local, regional, and eventually global menace.


So as to not belabor the point (you should read the book for yourself!), I will focus here on two key takeaways from the book.

1)      AQAP relies on “centralization of decision, decentralization of execution” (p. 209): Nasir al-Wihayshi, AQAP’s current emir, laid the groundwork in 2006-07 for a redesigned al-Qaeda affiliate that delegates responsibility for plotting and executing operations out to distinct regional units. According to Johnsen, Wihayshi insisted “each cell be self-contained and isolated from the rest of the network.” (p. 217) Like a multi-headed hydra, if one cell was eliminated (by Yemeni forces or drone strikes), it would have minimal impact on the rest of the organization, and the slain fighters would quickly be replaced by new ones. The operational structure reflected Wihayshi’s astute ability to learn from the past:

“Using the blueprint he had seen bin Laden perfect in Afghanistan, Wihayshi built a network that would last. He knew what had happened in Yemen the first time, when Harithi’s death had crippled the network, and he had seen the failures in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda had to learn from its mistakes.” (Johnsen, p. 208)

On the other hand, Johnsen does highlight the central leadership’s important role in guiding AQAP on a strategic level. He portrays al-Qaeda in Yemen this time around as uniquely gifted, guided by operationally savvy leaders (Wihayshi and Raymi) and skilled specialists (notably master bombmaker Ibrahim Asiri). The book’s verdict is not clear, however, on how deep this centralization of talent and strategic-level decision-making runs. For contrast, a highly-informative report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) make its crystal clear, going so far as to say AQAP’s decentralized nature is simply an illusion masking the vital importance of group’s central figures at the top:

“AQAP is the antithesis of the organic social movement it purports to be. The group’s development owes more to the careful management of its unique leadership, all of whom gained considerable experience practicing jihad abroad…AQAP’s unusually capable strategic decision making reveals that the group’s greatest asset is also its most glaring vulnerability. The most direct way to reduce the group’s viability in Yemen, while simultaneously limiting its capacity to attack the United States at home, lies in removing those Yemeni leaders responsible for the group’s operational coherence: Nasir `Abd al-Kareem `Abdullah al-Wahayshi, Qasim Yahya Mahdi al-Raymi, Muhammad Sa`id Ali Hasan al-’Umda and `Adil bin `Abdullah bin Thabit al-`Abab.” (CTC, October 2011, pp. 11 & 45)

Despite the ambiguity over whether Johnsen would prescribe a similar recommendation, his characterization of AQAP’s “centralization of decision, decentralization of execution” seems plausibly accurate.

2)      Anwar alAwlaki’s centrality should not be overstated: Johnsen’s characterization of infamous al-Qaeda preacher and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki (killed by a drone strike in September 2011) is slightly controversial and reflects the author’s background as a Yemen-specific regional specialist more than a theorist on al-Qaeda’s global network. The crux of Johnsen’s argument is encapsulated in the following quote:

“Until late 2009…AQAP had been focused on attacks inside Yemen. This raised a key question: why the sudden shift to targeting the US? The answer, many believed, was Anwar al-Awlaki. Their theory was that as Awlaki advanced up the ranks of AQAP, he had rechanneled the energies of a skilled subset of operatives into plots against the US. This theory oversimplified a complex organization. Al-Qaeda in Yemen had been growing and evolving since 2006, moving from small-scale attacks in Yemen to larger ones in Saudi Arabia and the US. More than the brainchild of a single man, the Christmas Day attempt was the natural outgrowth of an increasingly ambitious group that had several former Guantanamo Bay detainees in its ranks. Nevertheless, Brennan’s (White House CT director) Awlaki-centered view prevailed.” (Johnsen, p. 262)

Johnsen is correct to assert that Awlaki was neither the leader nor the most influential figure within AQAP before his death in September 2011. In this way, The Last Refuge’s description is a necessary corrective to the popular misconception that AQAP would take a plunge when Awlaki died. In fact, his death had minimal impact on the group’s structure or capability.

However, it is important not to simply brush Awlaki’s importance aside. A scholar looking at AQAP from a more global perspective is likely to note Awlaki’s considerable indirect influence over terrorist operations through his tremendous knack for recruiting would-be jihadists from around the world. In other words, his gifted communication skills and ideological framing inspired a new generation of anti-American jihadists. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the infamous “underwear bomber”), Nidal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood shooter), and perhaps hundreds or thousands of others took up Awlaki’s call to arms after watching his many videos broadcasted to the world, as well as his online al-Qaeda magazine, Inspire. The inspirational effect Awlaki had on his followers is difficult to measure using Johnsen’s metrics of organizational and operational importance to AQAP.

On the whole, The Last Refuge is a gripping read and a refreshing look at an under-studied terrorist group. My one complaint is that the book ends almost abruptly, glossing over important events in 2011-12 (the Arab Spring in Yemen, AQAP’s novel push to hold significant swathes of territory in Abyan and Shabwah province, and the rise of Ansar al-Sharia) in the book’s final pages.

Nonetheless, for any Yemen or al-Qaeda watchers (or fans of good narrative non-fiction), The Last Refuge is a worthwhile read.

(See here for another review of the book by CT scholar Daniel Byman. And here for the NY Review of Books’ terrific review. For author Gregory Johnsen’s own blog, see here.)

Full citation: Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2013).

This entry was posted in Book reviews, Middle East and North Africa, terrorism, Yemen and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book thoughts: “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia” by Gregory Johnsen (2013)

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