Why The Future Of Yemen Is So Important New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins recently returned from Yemen, where he met with demonstrators who have called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immediate resignation. Filkins explains why Yemen's uprisings are particularly worrisome for U.S. counterterrorism officials.
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Why The Future Of Yemen Is So Important

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Why The Future Of Yemen Is So Important

Why The Future Of Yemen Is So Important

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, journalist Dexter Filkins, spent several weeks in Yemen covering the protest movement that is demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave office. As inspiring as this youthful movement is, counterterrorist experts in the U.S. are worried that if chaos follows Saleh's departure, al-Qaida fighters in Yemen would be freer to plan attacks on America.

Filkins' article, "After the Uprising: Can Protestors Find a Path Between Dictatorship and Anarchy," is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. Before joining the New Yorker in December, Filkins covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.

His war reporting won a George Polk Award. His book, "The Forever War," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Dexter Filkins was in a studio in Istanbul when we recorded our interview this morning.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you for joining us from Istanbul. So of all the Middle East revolutions, why did you choose to go to Yemen and cover the uprising there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Journalist, New Yorker; Author, "The Forever War"): I don't know. It's a very, very interesting, unbelievably complicated, but also important place. If you remember, I mean, let's - we'll obviously talk about the revolution, but, you know, two attacks in the past year and a half or two years have come out of Yemen - two attacks by al-Qaida into the United States.

There was - you know, they were planned there, or they originated there in some way. And so there's this kind of very direct, kind of, Western interest in the place, in addition to the fact that it's caught up - in a pretty thrilling and wonderful way - it's caught up in the middle of, you know, the Arab awakening, and they're trying to overthrow a leader who is repressive and has been in power for 33 years when most of this country was not even alive. I mean, this is a very young country.

So it's really interesting. I mean, there's just a lot going on there. But I think what distinguishes it is that there really is this kind of direct, American interest and engagement in it. It's not just kind of theoretical or, you know, we're worried about Egypt becoming, you know, this or that if Mubarak falls.

This is very, very direct because there's a pretty active al-Qaida phenomenon in the countryside.

GROSS: And there seems to be some direct connections for you between Yemen and other countries you've reported on. For example, you reported on the Iraq war for years, and you say that Saddam Hussein was Yemen's President Saleh's mentor. What was their relationship?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think it was - I think it was, you know, mentor to protege. But, I mean, it was fascinating. When I was - I went to a couple of rallies that President Saleh had in Yemen, just recently - I mean, just as recently as a couple weeks ago.

He was having - I mean, as the anti-government demonstrations were unfolding, and as they were growing, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, he was kind of rallying. He was concocting his own demonstrations.

And so he would stage these enormous rallies that were essentially celebrations of himself, and they were as - it was as if you were in a time capsule, and you woke up, and you were in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein in, you know, 1995 or something. I mean, it was - it just felt like a Baath Party rally. The flags look exactly the same.

So it was a bunch of, you know, Arab - senior Arab leaders standing on an elevated platform wearing Ray-Bans and listening to people cheer to them how much they loved them and adored them and how much - how willing they were to sacrifice their souls and their lives for this regime.

And so - and it was completely staged. I mean, it was ridiculous. I mean, if it didn't feel like a Baath Party rally, it would feel like a, you know, I guess the other metaphor would be, you know, the Supreme Soviet in 1936 or something, I mean, it was something Stalin would be very familiar with.

But here is a crowd of 50,000 people, you know, just screaming, you know, adoringly at the leader. And of course, they were all being paid and all being...

GROSS: How do you know they were all being paid? How did you find that out?

Mr. FILKINS: They told us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: I mean, they - and actually, this is a really funny aside, which didn't make it into the story, but I went to a kind of pro-government rally, and, you know, it kind of went as it was supposed to go, and everybody was supposed to be paid who had been there.

And then apparently - and I say apparently because I couldn't quite nail it down, although I think it did happen - some of these people didn't get paid, and so they started chanting the anti-government slogans, as if they were, you know, down at the university demanding the president's ouster. As soon as they discovered they weren't going to be paid, they turned against the government.

But so - but the Baath Party connection, I mean, there really was a direct connection between Saddam and Saleh, so direct that Yemen in 1990 - I think it was 1990, just before the Gulf War started in 1991 - Yemen was the only Arab state that voted against the U.N. resolution to expel Saddam, by force, from Kuwait.

And so they suffered. Their economy, which has suffered catastrophically because of that vote, they were...

GROSS: What was the connection?

Mr. FILKINS: The connection - well, they, I think it was on the order of about a million Yemenis were working in different places in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, places like that. And they were expelled by Saudi or all the countries that were basically supporting the U.N. resolution to expel Saddam expelled -when the Yemeni government voted against the resolution, they expelled all the Yemenis.

And so that was a million people who had been, you know, working in relatively well-paying jobs and bringing money home. So they really took a hit for that. But that's how strong the connection was.

GROSS: And one other thing I want to ask you about, about the pro-Saleh rally that you attended in Yemen, when he was introduced, you quote the introduction, and the introducer says: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of all the Yemeni people, the preserver of unity, savior of the nation, peace be upon him, His Excellency Ali Abdullah Saleh. It sounds like the kind of intro James Brown used to get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah, well, I had a good - I had a really - I was lucky that day. I went to this rally. It was in the big - I think it's called like the - I don't know, the Stadium of the Revolution. And I just had a very favored spot. I was up on the viewing stand, and it was really hard for me to get there, but I was basically - you know, at some point I was two feet from the president himself.

So yeah, I got to see it all very, very up close, including him. So yeah, it was pretty exciting.

GROSS: So my guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times. He's now with the New Yorker. His article in the current edition of the New Yorker is about Yemen.

Now, so we were talking about the pro-government rally that you attended. You also met with the woman who basically organized the opposition. And you should pronounce her name for me.

Mr. FILKINS: Her name is Tawakul Karmen.

GROSS: Tawakul Karmen. Now, what was her - what's her background, and what was her motivation for organizing the protest movement?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I should just say - you know, she's just an extraordinary person, I mean woman. When you - you know, you go to a country like this -somebody like me, you drop into a country like this, which kind of exists out of time. It's a closed society. It's not open, by any means.

It's - the status of women there is, you know, centuries behind the West. I mean, women wear, you know, head-to-toe chadors, everything but their eyes. You don't really see women at all on the streets.

And somehow, you know, you meet a person, and you're just kind of amazed. And I said this to her when I met her, when I met Tawakul, the leader of the movement. I said: How did you happen? You know, like how did you turn out this way? You know, and it is an amazing thing.

And so - but she's a very interesting women, but she, on the first night, or on the first night of the first Arab revolution in Tunisia, which was January 14th, I think on the next night, she and like 10 other people went out to the square in front of Sana'a University and started to demonstrate and started just initially just to praise the Tunisian revolution.

And 10 people on the first night. And so, on the next night, it was 50 people. And then the night after that, it was 300, and then, you know, a week later it was 1,000. And then she was arrested, put in jail for three days. The demonstrations kept going. They decided to let her go. And here we are, you know, there are days - I think last Friday, there were probably more than a million people demonstrating. And it started with 10 people. So it was just extraordinary.

But she - not to go on too long, but she - I met her at her house, and afterwards, you know, one night at 11 o'clock or something - and what was really striking was, you know, in trying to answer this question how did you come to be, on her kind of mantel there were four framed pictures. And it was Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Hillary Clinton and Martin Luther King.

And she was fascinating because she said to me, you know, for the last couple of years, the last three years or so, you know, every change that she sought -she would demonstrate, she and other people would demonstrate in front of the president's palace, and they would demand, kind of, you know, to release this journalist or for more press freedom or whatever.

And she said: You know, and then I saw the president of Tunisia fall, and it hit me like a lightning bolt, you know, the whole regime has to go. And so she headed for the square.

GROSS: Now, obviously a lot of the demonstrators are men. It's a country in which women take a very background kind of role in things, in public life. So how do the men who are demonstrating react to her as a leader?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a great question. I - somebody had mentioned Tawakul to me pretty early on after I got there, and I got there kind of in early, mid-February. And the demonstration was still pretty small.

And so I was just, you know, looking around, trying to figure out what was going on. And someone said to me: You've got to find Tawakul Karmen. She's one of the leaders. You know, she's a woman.

And so I had a hard time finding her. I didn't have her phone number. And I was out there one night at the demonstrations, and it was like 10 o'clock at night. And there were maybe 1,000 people there. It wasn't really big.

And suddenly, you know, in this ocean of men, this woman climbs up on the stage and grabs a microphone and starts calling for the downfall of the regime. And the people want the regime to fall.

And so right when Tawakul jumped up on the stage, you could just see the men kind of look at each other and go: You know, who's that? But they followed her, you know, and she was completely - I mean, she didn't miss a beat.

I mean, it's a weird thing because you go to these demonstrations. They've changed a little, but 99 percent of the people at these demonstrations are men. You know, there might be 100 women and 15,000 men, you know, and one of the leaders is a woman, and they follow her. So it's pretty extraordinary.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's now writing for the New Yorker magazine. His article in the current edition is about Yemen. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our conversation with Dexter Filkins, who spent several weeks covering the protest movement in Yemen, which is demanding the president leave office. Filkins article, "After the Uprising," is published in the current edition of the New Yorker.

When we left off, we were talking about Tawakul Karmen, a young woman who is one of the leaders of the protest movement.

While you were in Yemen, Karmen was arrested and detained for 36 hours. She was released unharmed, but there was a threat delivered to her through her brother. Would you explain what the threat was and what that has to say about the regime's method of delivering the message to people that they're in danger?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, the first thing I should say probably is that - and I talked about this with Tawakul, is that Yemen is, it's a repressive government, but it is not a kind of nightmarish government. It's not Gadhafi's Libya. It's not as repressive as Saudi Arabia.

It's kind of sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't, and it's not uniformly draconian. So there's a little bit of space. You know, she felt, you know, free to criticize him freely and say basically whatever she wanted.

In fact, she joked about it at one point. She said: You know, the thing about this country is you can say whatever you want, but nothing ever changes.

But she - so she went out there on January 15th. She started to demonstrate, she and 10 other people, and the demonstrations started to grow, and then she was arrested by these plainclothes, you know, creepy guys, no IDs, no nothing, taken away.

Now, you know, she could have never been heard from again, frankly. I mean, thats happened in that country. They held her for three days, and for reasons that aren't really clear, they let her go. And, you know, I don't know if somebody intervened on her behalf, whether the Americans did or whatever, but they let her go.

And then, again, a kind of odd thing about this country and the regime is - and you see this in other countries. You know, there are so few elites that they all tend to know each other, even if they don't like each other.

And so the president, President Saleh, passed a message to Tawakul's brother, who is a poet, whose name is Tarak(ph), and he was kind of a pro-president guy. And he said: Look, nobody disobeys me. And control your sister. And if you don't, I'm going to kill her.

And Tarak dutifully passed the message on to his sister. I think he, Tarak, broke with the president at that moment. And Tawakul just kept right on going. So, pretty amazing. And I think the last I heard, Tarak was composing anti-government poetry and reading it aloud at the demonstrations.

So it's strange. I mean, she definitely had a death threat. Demonstrators have been shot and killed in the streets. But it's unpredictable. You know, it's just - you just don't know whether the government's going to be nice today or nasty.

GROSS: Is there a disagreement in the protest movement over whether to include the Islamist party in Yemen? And, you know, the Islamists in Yemen are - that's one of the really big concerns of the United States because al-Qaida has a big presence in Yemen, and there have been al-Qaida-initiated attacks on the United States that came from Yemen, initiated, that originated in Yemen.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. There is - I mean, that was a pretty live issue when I was there. And I should sort of step back. People said to me, you know, 100 times when I was in Yemen, they said: Look, Yemen, you have to remember Yemen is not Egypt. It doesn't - it's not Tunisia. It doesn't have a middle class. It doesn't have an intelligentsia. It doesn't have those things. It's basically a rural society.

You know, most of the people live in the countryside. Most of the population is very, very young. It's uneducated. It's illiterate. So - and it's deeply, deeply conservative. So in a place like Egypt, where you have just this kind of giant middle class that's super-educated and exposed to the West and has a lot of the - shares a lot of values with us, that's not necessarily true in Yemen.

And so what you had and what was pretty - you know, it was - I never really worked it out in my head, and I don't think they worked it out, either, but you had - the demonstrations in the beginning were led mostly by the students and by young people.

And these are, you know, really educated, privileged, smart, sophisticated kids. And they knew what they wanted. And people like Tawakul, I mean, they want - you know, they basically want what we want. You know, they want freedom and democracy and a free press and all the things that they've been denied.

And what's strange is - what's been difficult or kind of, I think, difficult for them but kind of strange to witness is that as the movement has gotten more popular, and it certainly has, it's become a popular movement, it's - there's these tensions with the rest of the society, which is basically very, very conservative and very religious, and that includes the Islamists.

And there's an Islamist party there. And I was there. I mention this in the piece. There was this extraordinary moment when a guy named Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who's an imam and a cleric, and he got up and spoke in front of the students. I mean, you know, in that day, there must have been 10,000 people there. There was a huge crowd. And, you know, kind of a stir went through the crowd. And he got up on the stage, and he started to speak, and he said: The caliphate is coming. You know, the caliphate is coming - and very Islamist speech.

And so it was the first time I'd seen that. And then after that speech, just by chance because again, this is in a sea of people, I happened to see Tawakul, who's not Islamist at all and, you know, is pretty secular in her outlook. She's a woman. She's a liberal.

I saw her, and she was furious. You know, she said: We had a big fight about this, you know, the rest of the leaders and I, over whether to allow Zindani to speak. And she said: I was against it. You know, this is not a religious movement. This is a youth movement. It's secular. And so you can see the tensions kind of already coming to the fore.

GROSS: So are there people within the movement who think the Islamists should be included? I guess so if they let Zindani speak.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, yeah, but I think it's even bigger than that. I think it's that the movement itself, as it becomes more popular, it necessarily becomes more religious, more Islamist, because that's the way society is.

And so I think it's going to be - you know, if - and I don't like to predict the future because it's usually not a good idea, but I'm - I'll put it this way: I'm concerned that the people like Tawakul, the liberals, you know, small L, the people who generally have a secular outlook and want to have a kind of secular state, I'm worried that they're going to get pushed aside.

As the movement becomes more of a mass movement, it will become more Islamist, almost necessarily.

GROSS: And if it becomes more Islamist, does that leave the door open to al-Qaida to have a more official place at the table?

Mr. FILKINS: I don't know. I mean, personally, I think when you look at these Arab - the revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world, whether it's in Yemen or Egypt or anywhere else, I think - I mean, I think it's a catastrophe for al-Qaida. I mean, I think, you know, they've thrived on these closed, repressive societies for years. And now, suddenly, the fresh air and the sunlight are coming in, and I think they're in trouble.

So I don't think they're going to get a seat at the table that way, but I do think they - al-Qaida thrives on chaos and despair, and, you know, there's certainly no shortage of that in Yemen.

GROSS: My guest, Dexter Filkins, will be back in the second half of the show. His article about Yemen, "After the Uprising," is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back but with journalist Dexter Filkins. He spent several weeks in Yemen covering the protest movement that is demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Filkins article, After the Uprising: Can Protesters Find A Path Between Dictatorship And Anarchy, is published in the current edition of The New Yorker. Before joining the magazine in December, he covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times.

What are some of the options that the Obama administration sees when they look into the future of the Yemen?

Mr. FILKINS: I think they're all bad. I mean that's the problem. I mean here's the problem. You had a guy in power for so long, 33 years. You know, 1978, I mean, you know, Jimmy Carter was president in 1978.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Hes been in power for so long and that he has gutted and basically hollowed out every institution in that country. So in reference to the government and to the armed forces, he's hollowed out those institutions and replaced them with, you know, his family and cronies. And so, you have I think 27 or 28 family members spread throughout the government. So his son is head of the Republican Guards. You know, his nephew is the head of the Mukhabarat. I mean you just go, you know, he has another relative who is head of the oil ministry, another one who's head of the national airline. I mean it's just one thing after another, so it's just a big giant family business.

And so, if you get rid of the family, you get rid of the state and then it all falls apart. And so that's what they're wrestling with. It's like look, if we get rid of the Saleh family and the whole clan, how can we devise something that will prevent the state from completely collapsing? You know, and that's not, you know, that's not easy, and I think it's why it's kind of taken I mean this has been a very slow motion revolution in Yemen. You know, I mean this has been going on for two months now, people have been demonstrating in the streets.

GROSS: And Yemen is a particularly important place in terms of the United States' safety because it's a home to so many members of al-Qaida. And it's interesting that the president of Yemen has been helpful officially to the United States in the campaign against al-Qaida and the United States has bombed al-Qaida sites in Yemen and there was some kind of deal made where Saleh said that U.S. could bomb but he would take credit for the bombings.


GROSS: He told Petraeus that the U.S. could continue missile strikes against al-Qaida as long as the Yemeni government could take credit for them. That was a revelation from WikiLeaks. So is he playing both sides? Because on the one hand hes allowed his country to be a home to many al-Qaida cells, and at the same time he's allowing the United States to bomb al-Qaida.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think the most generous interpretation to Saleh and I'm not, I mean I'm not sure I would endorse that, but I think the most generous interpretation he is just he presides over an extremely weak state, and so al-Qaida thrives, you know, outside the reach of the state and he can't stop them, he can't control them. So he's decided to allow the United States a great deal of latitude in attacking al-Qaida.

The problem there - and this is true across that part of the world, you know, whether it's Karzai or, you know, the Saudi's or somebody else - the United States isn't popular. So if the word gets out - and it has gotten out - you can never keep these things secret. But I think the idea is if it is known that the Yemeni government is allowing the United States to bomb and fire missiles at targets in Yemen - which often miss their targets and kill the wrong people -that will be really, really hurtful and harmful to the Yemeni government. So, you have this bizarre shorthand going on, which was in the WikiLeaks cables. It's hilarious, you know, where Saleh is saying to Petraeus, you know, look, you keep bombing and Ill keep saying we did it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: So and theres all sorts of weird, you know, weird bits of dialogue like that, but it's very, very complicated. And I'll just give you one example of what's happened there and it's, you know, it's like out of a spy novel. But last May, there was an American's strike. I think it was a Predator drone strike fired at some al-Qaida people outside of the capital of Sanaa. It hit its target. It killed some al-Qaida people. It also happened to kill the deputy governor of a province, of Marib province. His name is Shabwani, and it killed the deputy governor. And so within, you know, within hours people in Yemen knew that there was a, they knew that there had been a strike, an airstrike, probably an Americans strike. I mean every taxi driver in town knows.

And so I had a conversation with an American official in Washington about this very strike. And I said look, you know, it looks like you killed some of the people you wanted to but then you killed the deputy governor and it backfired on the Yemeni government and they went crazy and theyve stopped allowing the United States to do these strikes. And the answer that came back from this very senior American official was well, the deputy governor was killed because, hes part of, basically he's part of al-Qaida. So you actually - and he said that's not uncommon. You have many parts of the Yemeni government in the local areas have relationships with al-Qaida. And so that's how complicated it is.

I mean it's just really, really complicated. But anyway, the end result of that strike, which was in May of last year, that was May of 2010, so almost a year ago, was Saleh basically said to the United States no more. You know, we can't. These are too politically difficult for me. You know, you guys are dropping your bombs and you're killing, you know, you killed one of my deputy governors so we can't allow it anymore. And so they're not allowing the Americans to do anything and then when you talk to the Americans about what the Yemeni government is doing the Yemeni government is not doing anything against al-Qaida. They go to the Yemenis, the Americans do, the go to the Yemenis, they give them targeting information, they give them maps. They say heres a list of names, go take these people out. Yemeni government doesn't do anything. And so the bottom line is for the past 11 months basically, almost a year, you had almost no counterterrorist operations going on against al-Qaida in Yemen.

GROSS: Meanwhile, last year, 2010, the Defense Department spent $150 million to train and arm Yemeni security forces. Are there fears in the Obama administration, in the U.S. military that those weapons could be turned against us or against the demonstrators?

Mr. FILKINS: I think it's the latter. I think it's the latter. I had a lot of conversations about the training program that were doing. We're providing them with helicopters, night vision goggles, weapons, you know training, all sorts of stuff. And the first complaint of the Americans, I mean I talked to this one guy who was involved in the program and he said look, you know, I can't tell you the number of times that we've gone to the president, President Saleh, and weve put information on his desk and we've said here are the bad guys. Go get them. And he says thanks, you know, and then nothing happens. And he said, you know, we just can't get him to do anything. And so long pause and he said, you know, if he's not using these guys that we are training against the bad guys what's he want them for? And he said, you know, my concern is that, you know, we're training this whole big force to basically protect the warden. That's how he put it, to protect the president.

And so there's I think, you know, the American officials in Yemen say we have drawn very bright red lines and said to President Saleh you cannot under any circumstances use these troops, these counterterrorism troops, against say nonviolent demonstrators. You cannot do that. The moment you do that we will leave. We'll pull the plug on the program. There are suspicions that they are but at this point they're just that, just suspicions.

GROSS: Do you see parallels between Yemen and Pakistan in terms of the ambiguity of the governments position on al-Qaida?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes, I do. I do. I mean, you know, the Pakistan one is pretty well-known, you know, unbelievably complicated but essentially you have, you know, the United States providing, you know, more than $1 billion a year in aid to the Pakistani government, which to fight the Taliban largely. And simultaneously the Pakistani government is, it becomes clearer and clearer each day, is helping the Taliban against the United States. So it's kind of very complicated double game.

I don't think it's that pronounced in Yemen. But when you talk to people, when you talk to people, I mean there is a bit of a - I don't know if double game is the right way. But somebody put it to me this way, they said, you know, for us or to Saleh, to President Saleh, the Americans, al-Qaida, you know, we're just a couple more tribes he has to deal with. You know, this is a tribal society and hes constantly balancing one tribe against the other. And he said, you know, al-Qaida's a tribe and like the Americans are a tribe. So he's just playing everybody off against everybody else but the ultimate aim, of course, is keeping himself in power.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, former war correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's now writing for The New Yorker magazine and his piece in the current edition is about Yemen, where he was for several weeks.

So let's take a break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, former war correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hes now writing for The New Yorker magazine and his piece in the current edition is about Yemen, where he was for several weeks.

So you described Yemen as a very tribal culture and you met with one of the powerful leaders of a tribal group. So tell us about the person who you met with.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, his name was Hamid Al-Ahmar and he was really, boy, he was quite a character. I met him in his house, which looks like a castle. I mean there's 20-foot high sandstone walls. It's, you know, marble floors and kind of gigantic chandeliers and nothing understated. And his house surrounded by guys with machine guns and, you know, RPGs and I mean a small army. And this is in the middle of, you know, downtown, this is in the middle of the capital. And so I met him. Hes, Hamid Al-Ahmar is an extremely ambitious guy. And if you had to put your money on who would end up in some ways wielding the most power in Yemen after Saleh leaves it will be Hamid Al-Ahmar - whether hes formerly the president, probably not, or something like the vice president or prime minister or something. He'll be the man in the driver's seat. So I thought it would be a good idea to go see him and, you know, I was led into his giant marble palace...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: ...and I sat down with him and quite a character. But and I remember he said to me, he told me just to, he told me this hilarious story about the president himself. And he said I think that President Saleh had a very unhappy childhood. He said perhaps the most unhappy childhood in history. And he said for his entire life he's been taking out this unhappy childhood on all of us. And he said I think the president is never so happy as when he has a very powerful person on his knees in front of him begging for his life. This is what makes the president really happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Gosh.

Mr. FILKINS: So, I couldnt tell. I thought he was joking but I think he wasn't.

GROSS: Well, talk about hysterical stories, this person also told you that when Saleh tried to travels to Europe, hes in his 60s, that he carries Viagra in his pocket.

Mr. FILKINS: Always. Always. Yeah. I mean, well, you know, and what was really weird about Yemen is there this whole absolutely bizarre phenomenon of khat, which is this kind of its like an evergreen shrub and everyday, you know, probably three quarters of the country stuffs an enormous amount of cot in its mouth in its cheeks so that their, people's cheeks are just kind of bulging like there's a softball in it and get high. I mean it's a narcotic plant. So and this starts about one o'clock or two o'clock and then, but so literally by, you know, by mid-afternoon most of the country is high.

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Mr. FILKINS: And so it's not a powerful narcotic but it's pretty strange. And so everybody kind of goes into this haze for about six hours and then, you know, things start to pick up again later in the evening.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like when you met with this tribal leader he was chewing khat.

Mr. FILKINS: He was chewing khat. Yeah.

GROSS: Did that affect the conversation do you think?

Mr. FILKINS: I don't know. I don't know. I guess so. But he, yeah, he had a giant wad of khat in his mouth and, but was feeding me, you know, pastries and almonds and things like that on a platter. None for himself. It suppresses the appetite.

GROSS: Now you said that if there is change in Yemen that this tribal leader that you met with would likely be in the driver's seat whether hes officially an elected leader or, you know, or not. He could buy power too. I mean hes a billionaire in Yemen, which is like the poorest country in the region.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yes. He runs the big cell phone company there called and he is, hes a billionaire. The whole money thing in Yemen is so strange. You know, its like Deep Throat in All The Presidents Men, you know, he says follow the money, you know. And that's what you have to do in the societies, you have to follow the money to kind of figure out how the society really works. And so you have Hamid Al-Ahmar whos a billionaire.

But then you have really one of the strangest kind of social phenomenons I've ever seen. Which is, you have the Yemeni government and the Saudi government both essentially enacting this enormous system of nationwide bribery. I mean I don't know how else to describe it. They have placed, on their payroll, most of the tribal leaders in the country. And so, I mean I talked to tribal leaders about this. And so if you were the head of a tribe or kind of a, you know, even a mid-level leader in one of the big tribes in Yemen, you just get, you get a lot of money from the government and you get a lot of money from the Saudi government. And the purpose of this money, you don't have to really do anything in return except to keep the peace, just kind of keep your people quiet. And that's the way - I mean again, it's such a strange society, but that's how the peace has been kept there for so long. You know, I mean that's basically how Saleh has kind of managed it.

He's kind of kept the tribal leaders reasonably happy. The rest of the country is impoverished and the Saudi's have kind of, you know, they're concerned about what happens there too because it's right on the border, and so they've kind of pitched in as well, you know. And so - really strange.

GROSS: Well, so this could be a recipe for civil war, maybe. Like you take away the president, you take away his payments to the tribal leaders, and do the tribal leaders get along or do they fight?

Mr. FILKINS: They fight. They fight. And I think that's the concern. You know, somebody said to me - well, more than one person said to me, you know, 70 percent of I think the public revenues in Yemen come from oil. Oil will be gone in 10 years or begin to run out. Most of the water will begin to run out in 10 years. And so, but in the short term, you know, as Salehs position in power was threatened he started to beef up payments to the tribal leaders and he started to pay them more and he started, he gave raises to the army and he gave raises to, you know, this vast public sector that he has.

And so the government is running out of money. And so the foreign reserves, I mean their currency is kind of the, the riyal it's kind of worthless on the international market. So, but their foreign reserves are basically rapidly disappearing. And so one person said to me at one point well, I think maybe Saleh can make it through this political crisis but he sure as heck can't make it through the economic crisis which is coming, you know, in two or three months when this government runs out of money, basically.

GROSS: It sounds like things are actually getting very dangerous for the United States in Yemen now - as the government becomes weaker and as the United States, as a longer time collapses in which the United States cannot do strikes against al-Qaida because it no longer has that agreement with the Yemen government that it can do it - more al-Qaida fighters are coming Yemen. According to a report by your former colleague Eric Schmidt, in The New York Times, he says there's a small but steady stream of Islamist fighters coming from other countries to Yemen and that U.S. Intelligence says that theres chatter indicating that al-Qaida is al-Qaida in Yemen is planning another attack against the United States.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Well, I think that's why the U.S. has been so engaged in Yemen. I mean there's kind of Yemen as Yemen, and then Yemen as a potential threat to the West and the United States. And so, yeah. I mean I think the concern is that if the president falls and there isn't, you know, a very well thought through transition plan, the place will kind of crumbled. And, you know, again, al-Qaida thrives on that.

I don't know - you know, if you look back I think it was the Christmas Day bomber 2009, that originated in Yemen. I think you had the guy in Texas at Fort Hood who shot all those people, he was inspired by - was said to be inspired by - Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaida-related cleric who is in Yemen as well. So there's a lot of these lines go back to Yemen.

GROSS: And those postal bombings where there were...


GROSS: ...was it printers with explosives...

Mr. FILKINS: Printer cartridges.

GROSS: ...inside that were shipped to the United States.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, they were...

GROSS: That originated in Yemen too.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: They were shipped from Yemen anyway.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. And so that's the concern. I mean I think again, al-Qaida sort of thrives in these large ungoverned spaces and so the fear is that as the government gets weaker and as the government disintegrates - which clearly, it's doing - I mean army units have already been pulled out of all sorts of different places. You saw that spectacular thing last week where the ammunition factory exploded. You know, the army had abandoned this giant ammunition factory and then the looters descended on it and then it blew up. It killed 150 people. The fear is that we're going to see more of that because the government is basically disintegrating before this revolution and that al-Qaida will be able to take advantage of that.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's now writing for The New Yorker magazine. His article in the current edition is about Yemen.

Lets take a short break here, then well talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's now writing for The New Yorker magazine. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times. His article in the current edition of The New Yorker is about Yemen.

Youve been covering the Middle East for a long time. What's your reaction to seeing all of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa now?

Mr. FILKINS: Its a pretty wonderful thing to see. I mean it really is. It's, you go down - I mean I'm just thinking now when I got there in mid-February in Yemen and, you know, again, these are closed societies. These are societies where the government has done everything in its power to kind of - to keep everything, you know, any hope of a better future or ideas of a better future or ideas of a different way to live away from the people.

And here you had - you know, I remember when I landed in Yemen, I landed at the airport and drove straight to Sana University. And here are, you know, 22-year-old kids who are, you know, fighting, and in some cases dying, for all the things that, you know, that we believe in - you know, for democracy and the rule of law and for freedom of speech and press and those things - and it's incredibly inspiring. I mean to see somebody like Tawakul Karman kind of, you know, rise out of this and to be able to articulate a democratic vision, as well as anybody in the West, is remarkable in its so inspiring to see.

And I think what's also been so clear, and particularly in a place like Yemen, you know, the leaders just theyre stunned, you're just blown away. They just don't know how to react, you know, they're like this never happened before. And one of the things I did when I was in Yemen was I had gone to one of these rallies that Saleh had, one of these pro-government rallies. And, you know, they're bizarre spectacles. And I went and looked up - as you can do, just to remind myself - on YouTube you can find the old video from 1989 of the Romanian dictator, Ceausescu, going out. And this is, I think, probably just a couple of hours before he's executed and his government is overthrown. He goes out on the balcony, you know, out into the square, you know, whatever it was called, the victory of socialism square and the giant crowd is out there - as he had done, you know, a thousand times before - and the crowd, you know, cheered him adoringly.

And in this case, the crowd just starts to jeer. And you see Ceausescus face just kind of collapse. You know, he can't, hes just, he can't believe it. And it hasnt quite come to that in Yemen, but you can feel it. You can feel it. The government just doesn't know - none of these governments know what to do. You know, they offer, you know, they dissolve their cabinet. They always do the same stuff. But its incredibly inspiring. It really is. You can't help but be moved by it.

GROSS: You covered the war in Iraq for years and when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, many members of the Bush administration and neoconservatives who supported the invasion, like Bill Kristol, said if we topple Saddam Husseins government and help create a democracy there, democracy will spread through the Middle East. That didn't happen. Iraq is still, you know, trying to create democracy, slowly, but there's still a lot of fighting between different factions in Iraq. It does not seem to have caused democracy to spread through the Middle East. Many people say it really strengthened al-Qaida. But now, ever since Tunisia, that has spread through the Middle East. And I guess I'm wondering if you're comparing those two scenarios a lot.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yeah. Inevitably. Well, I think the first thing thats obvious, I mean here you have these really thrilling, wonderful, inspiring -where the people are kind of rising up and saying, you know, enough. We're not going to take these repressive leaders anymore. That's just an amazing thing to see. And so - but the principle difference between say Yemen and Egypt and Iraq is, you know, one was imposed from outside and the other, you know, bubbled up from within. And you can, I mean, it never felt like that in Baghdad.

But the other thing I think, you know, to credit whether, you know, it's George Bush or Bill Kristol or one of those guys. When George Bush asked the question, as I think he did, why should we assume that democracy - that the Arab people don't want democracy? Why should we assume that? Well, he was right about that. I mean, when you hear people in the streets in Yemen, you know, 22-year-olds articulate what they want, its a deep yearning that I think comes from people's hearts and souls. And they know exactly what they want, and it's basically the same thing we want. And so in that sense, it feels universal. It really does. And I think they were right about that.

GROSS: Well, Dexter Filkins, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins article about Yemen, After The Uprising, is published in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to the article on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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