The call came late in the morning, the sharp ringing of the telephone echoing off the heavy stones in a Sanaa house. On the other end of the line, an unfamiliar voice crackled through miles of static. ‘Hisham has been martyred,’ the man announced. ‘Congratulations.’ That was all the family would get, a handful of words from a stranger two thousand miles away. There was no body to bury and no final message to pass along. By the time the call came through from Pakistan, Hisham had been dead twelve days.”
The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda and the Battle for Arabia traces the rise, fall and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen over the past 30 years, detailing how a group that the US claimed to have defeated in 2002 has become one of the world’s most dangerous threats. Engaging and highly readable, Gregory Johnsen’s book provides detailed, often graphic insights into the complex dynamics and brutal actions of the global jihad movement that will hold the reader’s attention to the last page.
But The Last Refuge is more than a great read: it tells, or seeks to tell, the true story of al-Qaeda at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. And Johnsen’s story is convincing, carefully constructed from a variety of open-access media sources in English and Arabic as well al-Qaeda’s own words. And it concludes on a chilling note taken from one of al-Qaeda’s recent messages to the US: “The war between us will not end and the coming days are bringing something new.”
Although Johnsen gives answers, however, he does not ask questions. What is crucially missing from his account is any kind of critical assessment of the sources on which the story is based. Because of the asymmetric nature of the conflict - tiny, ill-equipped cells versus the high-tech behemoths of the West - al-Qaeda’s power largely depends on convincing the world of the magnitude of its threat. Its public statements therefore cannot be taken at face value but must be seen as propaganda.
Indeed, as with all claims about al-Qaeda, information regarding the Yemeni branch is contradictory and subject to much debate. For example, on 23 June 2010, the Saudi-owned, London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat carried in its print edition an article in which it was claimed that well- informed security sources had revealed that Qassem al-Rimi, described by Johnsen as a military commander, was the real leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Those sources went on to claim that the supposed leader, Nasir al- Wahayshi, and his deputy, Saudi national Said al-Shihri, both of whom had previously been assumed to be in charge on the basis of their appearance in the 2009 video announcing the merger of al-Qaeda groups in the Arabian Peninsula, were in fact merely figureheads and theoreticians who had nothing to do with the day-to-day activities of the organisation. Whichever account is correct, the existence of such differences cannot be overlooked, as they raise serious questions regarding the extent to which al-Qaeda can be known and understood.
While The Last Refuge certainly constitutes one of the more compelling and insightful analyses of this subject, a more critical examination of its sources would truly have set it apart from the rest.
The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda and the Battle For Arabia
By Gregory D. Johnsen
Oneworld, 368pp, £11.99
Published 7 February 2013