Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 352 pp., $27.95.
THE TELEVISION series Homeland aside, the war on terrorism nowadays excites little interest and even less enthusiasm. The killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki—in addition to more than thirty other key Al Qaeda leaders and over two hundred fighters—have sufficiently diminished the threat of terrorism to a war-weary, economically preoccupied American public. Indeed, during the 2012 presidential campaign the few hortatory declamations from either candidate about the world still being a dangerous place for Americans (Benghazi notwithstanding) fell mostly on deaf ears. The famed British diplomat Sir Robert Vansittart could have been referring to today when he observed of the interwar period eighty years ago, “Left or Right, everybody was for the quiet life.” As the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reported the weekend before the election, “Measured by most relevant statistics, the United States—and the world—have never been safer.” As evidence, he cited the purported fact that more Americans have died since September 11, 2001, from furniture or humongous flat-screen television sets falling on their heads than have been killed by terrorists.
But before we exhale a collective sigh of relief that the threat from Al Qaeda has passed, it would be wise to consider the story told by Gregory D. Johnsen in The Last Refuge. Johnsen—a former Fulbright scholar, Princeton PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies and one-time member of the USAID conflict-assessment team for Yemen—is perhaps this country’s foremost expert on that godforsaken, tribally riven, impoverished land. Indeed, Yemen remains an Al Qaeda stronghold that is surpassed only by Pakistan in terms of both the number of the movement’s terrorists present there and, accordingly, the number of targeted killings executed by U.S. unmanned drone aircraft.
As is already well-known, the remote mountains and isolated wadis of Yemen were not immune to the clarion call to battle issued forth from Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion. Even in the southern Arabian Peninsula’s most distant locales, illiterate, poor desert tribesmen, whose attire and manners likely had changed little since medieval times, emerged from the barren hinterland to travel far from home to do battle in a hitherto unknown but remarkably similar territory of harsh escarpment and blighted geography. There, they defended kith and kin that they had never met but were unalterably connected to by a common creed.
Unlike other Arab governments, who publicly supported the jihad while privately discouraging their young men from traveling to Afghanistan, North Yemen, then a separate state, sent scores of its best and brightest. For an entire generation of young Yemenis, a trip to the front lines in Afghanistan became a rite of passage.
Among them was a diminutive, frail-looking twenty-year-old named Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The struggle in Afghanistan was catnip for al-Wuhayshi—a product of one of the thousand or so private religious institutions that Saudi and Egyptian exiles had established in Yemen during the 1980s. These schools taught a literal interpretation of Islam that meshed easily with the theological justifications and scriptural references used by bin Laden and his mentor, the late Abdullah Azzam, among others, to rally Muslims for Afghan jihad. “They were gateway schools,” Johnsen notes, “innocuous on the surface but deadly in retrospect.” Although these schools’ purpose was not to produce terrorists, they nonetheless laid the critical intellectual foundations of a worldview that comported completely with Al Qaeda’s.
Bin Laden spotted al-Wuhayshi soon after he arrived at the movement’s Khaldan training camp near Khost, Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda leader recognized a kindred spirit in the new recruit. Al-Wuhayshi was contemplative and quiet but sharp and ambitious. He was one of the “dangerous dreamers” that T. E. Lawrence, the famed Lawrence of Arabia, had once written about, a man capable of translating dreams into reality and thought into action—“too short to be intimidating and too smart to be wasted,” as Johnsen describes him. Bin Laden appointed al-Wuhayshi his personal secretary and aide-de-camp, positions from which al-Wuhayshi managed the revered sheikh’s schedule and attended to his correspondence. All the while he observed and learned from his master. Together with the other young Yemenis that swelled Al Qaeda’s ranks, al-Wuhayshi and his countrymen would form the nucleus of a new Al Qaeda a decade later.