U.S. Using Old Playbook In Fighting Al-Qaida In Yemen

Audie Cornish talks to Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia, about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and how it became one of the terror network's most active affiliates.

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The U.S. has temporarily shuttered diplomatic posts across the Middle East and Africa, in response to a fear of an imminent al-Qaida attack. We now know that fear began with intercepted communications between the head of al-Qaida and the leader of its branch in Yemen, called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

AQAP is one of the terror network's most active and most effective affiliates. The group played a role in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. It also claimed responsibility for attempting to blow up an airliner over Detroit a month later, and for the attempted Times Square bombing in 2010.

For more on AQAP, we're joined by Gregory Johnsen. He's author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaida and America's War in Arabia." Welcome to the program.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: So let's go back to the beginning. How did AQAP as we know it form?

JOHNSEN: Right, so this is a group that really has its roots in a prison break in Yemen that took place in February 2006. And this is when 23 al-Qaida prisoners tunneled out of their cell into a neighboring mosque, and they sort of dusted themselves off, said their morning prayers, and then they walked out the front door to freedom. And among those escapees was the head - what would turn in to be the head of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuyashi.

CORNISH: And tell us a little bit more about him and some of the other more remarkable characters in the group.

JOHNSEN: So Nasir al-Wuyashi is someone who left Yemen in the late 1990s and he headed to Afghanistan to join al-Qaida there. So he went into the training camps that al-Qaida had established there in Afghanistan. And Osama bin Laden sort of brought him under his wing. And for the next four years, Nasir al-Wuyashi essentially served as the aide-de-camp to Osama bin Laden.

They were separated in the battle of Tora Bora in 2001. And Nasir al-Wuyashi made his way south and then into Iran, where he was arrested and eventually sent back to Yemen in 2003, where he spent the next couple of years in prison before breaking out, as we said, in 2006.

CORNISH: They're also known for their bomb making capabilities. Tell us kind of what we've seen from them and who are the figures within AQAP who are kind of responsible for this reputation.

JOHNSEN: Right, so the main bomb maker that Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has is a Saudi national by the name of Ibrahim al-Asiri. He was a chemistry student. But at one point he was so fed up with the images that he saw out of Iraq from the U.S. forces fighting against the resistance there, that he dropped out of college and tried to make his way to Iraq. But before he could actually cross the border from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, he was arrested by Saudi forces.

And, in fact, he told his younger brother that that was the first time - being in Saudi prison - that he realized that Saudi Arabia was in the pay of what he called the crusaders.

He was let out of prison in late 2005. And in 2006, he made his way across the border into Yemen and he's been constructing bombs ever since. So we know that he was responsible for the Christmas Day underwear bomb. He was responsible for a pair of cartridge bombs in 2010.

But the thing that's really important about Ibrahim al-Asiri is that this is an individual who goes to school on his past failures. And one of the very worrying things is that each time he builds a bomb it seems to be better than the last. And despite all the millions and millions that the U.S. has put into airline security since September 11th, 2001, he's still making bombs that quite possibly could evade that security.

CORNISH: You wrote today that the United States is fighting the al-Qaida that was instead of the al-Qaida that is. What did you mean by that?

JOHNSEN: Yeah, absolutely. I think that in Yemen the U.S. is essentially using the same sort of playbook that they used in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the U.S. had a fair degree of success with that. But in Yemen it's a little bit different. So al-Qaida in Afghanistan was a group of Arabs in a non-Arab country. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is primarily a group of Yemenis in Yemen.

This means that they're tied to society in a way that the group in Afghanistan wasn't. They have tribal and clan ties. They're often intermarried to different tribes. And they have identities that allow them to travel around the countryside in a way that wasn't always possible in Afghanistan.

So tracking these individuals in determining which Yemeni is a member of al-Qaida, and which Yemeni is just somebody who has a beard, carries a gun and talks about Islamic law, that's a very difficult thing to do from several thousand feet up in the air.

CORNISH: Gregory Johnsen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSEN: Thanks for taking the time.

CORNISH: Gregory Johnsen, he's the author of the book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida and America's War in Arabia."

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