After Bin Laden's Death, Who Will Lead Al-Qaida?

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Following the death of Osama bin Laden, there are many questions about who will lead al-Qaida. One of the terrorist network's most active branches is in Yemen. It's known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP. The U.S., with troves of evidence from the raid on bin Laden's compound, is trying to find out more about AQAP. Robert Siegel speaks with Gregory Johnsen, scholar and blogger on Yemen issues. Johnsen discusses revelations from evidence found at Osama bin Laden's compound.


Following the death of Osama bin Laden, there are many questions about who will lead al-Qaida. One of the terrorist network's most active branches is in Yemen. It's known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The United States, with troves of evidence from the raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, is trying to find out more about AQAP.

And joining us now to discuss this is Gregory Johnsen. He's a Yemen scholar from Princeton, where he's a PhD candidate, and he's speaking with us from Cairo, where he is on a fellowship. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (Princeton University): Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: And what are we learning about the terrorism network in Yemen after Osama bin Laden's death?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, I think it's important to remember that the reported treasure trove of documents is a huge sea and we're only getting a few drops that are coming out in the press. That being said, we've learned a couple of different things. One is that Osama bin Laden was in touch with different branches around the world, including the organization within Yemen.

We've also learned about his views of Anwar al-Awlaki, the prominent American cleric who's been targeted for assassination by the Obama administration, someone who speaks fluent in idiomatic English and has a very large following in the West.

We know that the head of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a former student of bin Laden, actually offered to step down in favor of Anwar al-Awlaki a few months ago and bin Laden essentially nixed the idea. He told the current leader, I know you, I trust you. This is not a relationship that he has with Anwar al-Awlaki. Someone like Anwar al-Awlaki wasn't even known in the Arabic-speaking world two years ago and now he's become someone who's rumored to be next in line to head al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

And this, I think, suggests that the more the Obama administration talks about him, the more the media focuses on him, the more that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula pushes him to the front, really, in essence, taking advantage of free advertising.

SIEGEL: It's interesting. I had read two different takes on Awlaki. One was very - from American counterterrorism officials who regard him as a very important character and the other, people saying, no, he really isn't that significant in Yemen itself; he's someone whom the Americans take seriously because he speaks English like an American native.

You're saying that the very perception of him and the comments about him in the United States may well have altered and improved his standing among his al-Qaida colleagues in Yemen.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Absolutely. It's because of the focused and sustained U.S. attention on him, he's become someone that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula think they can use on really their two cornerstone issues. And that is fundraising and recruiting.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you a bit about what's been happening in Yemen otherwise. Today, we waited all day for a long-expected agreement to be signed that would lead to the retirement of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who's been running Yemen for over three decades. To what degree does Saleh's leadership in Yemen have to do with the fight against al-Qaida there?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Right. I think President Saleh stepping down is going to be a key factor. For a long time, the U.S. has run most of its counter-terrorism operations not only through him, but through his sons and his nephews, which control many of the armed forces.

Over the recent weeks, what we've seen in Yemen is that the military has split down the middle, with a large portion of the army defecting and joining the protesters, while many of the specialized groups, and particularly the groups that the U.S. puts money, funding and training into have stayed loyal to President Saleh and are continuing to protect the presidency.

What this means for the fight against al-Qaida is simply this. There's no one out in the hinterlands that's fighting al-Qaida in a way that they were fighting them last year. And this, I think, is a very dangerous situation.

SIEGEL: That's Gregory Johnsen of Princeton who spoke with us from Cairo about what's going on in Yemen, spoke to us by Skype. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: And earlier today, the White House urged President Saleh to accept the agreement we just mentioned, but now it appears the latest round of talks has broken down.

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