Saudi Bombing In Yemen Has Led To New Gains For Al-Qaida
Reporter Gregory Johnsen talks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and how the chaos is impacting the U.S. fight against al-Qaida. Johnsen describes a country torn apart. "I don't even think it's accurate to speak of Yemen as one country anymore," he says. "I think the country has been definitively and decisively broken in the way that no one will ever be able to put it back together again."
Johnsen is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia. A year ago, he escaped a kidnapping attempt in Yemen, which he also discusses in the interview.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to look at the origins of the escalating violence in Yemen, where a group called the Houthis have taken control of large areas of the country, including the capital, Sanaa, where they drove Yemen's president into exile. Saudi Arabia began bombing Houthi forces a month ago, killing more than a thousand people and creating a humanitarian crisis in the country where water, food, gas and electricity are now scarce. The U.S. finds itself in an awkward position cooperating with its ally Saudi Arabia, while the bombing raids have inadvertently strengthened al-Qaida in the region.
Our guest, Gregory Johnsen, is a Yemen scholar who's been studying the country for years and is now a reporter for BuzzFeed News. Johnsen will explain how things got to such a dire point in Yemen after the hopeful protests during the Arab Spring in 2012 which led to the resignation of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country for 33 years. Gregory Johnsen is now based in Istanbul after narrowly escaping a kidnapping attempt in Yemen a year ago, which he'll tell us about later. Johnsen's book, "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War In Arabia," was published in 2012. He went to a studio in Istanbul yesterday to record this interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Gregory Johnsen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's just start with some basics because not everybody follows the Middle East closely. Tell us a little bit about Yemen, where it's located, something about its size and population and its, you know, place in the geopolitics of the Middle East.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: So Yemen is on the Arabian Peninsula. It's just south of Saudi Arabia. It's a country of about 26 million people, and it's very geographically diverse. So there are mountain ranges. There are deserts. There's sort of sweltering coastline, and there's even a little touch of a jungle in parts of Yemen.
And for quite a long time - it's the poorest country in the Arab world, and for the past several years, it's been struggling. There were actually two Yemens during the Cold War in the 1980s. Those unified into one Yemen in 1990, and there have been problems, really, ever since. And in fact, over the past few years with the Arab Spring, the country has continued to fracture and fragment. And there are several humanitarian crises that are currently developing within the country.
DAVIES: One of the groups we hear so much about are the Houthis. Tell us who they are. What's their origin?
JOHNSEN: Right. So the Houthis - the name of the group actually comes from a village. And a family takes its name from that village where they're from, which is up in the north in Yemen. This is a Zaydi Shia group. And so Zaydis are an offset of Shia Islam. And often when we in the West hear about Shia, we tend to think of what happens in Iraq or what happens in Iran, and those are Twelver Shia. The Zadyis are Fiver Shia, and so they're doctrinally distinct from the groups in Iran and the Shia in Iraq.
And in Yemen, for a long time, in fact, for over a thousand years, there was what was called a Zaydi imamate, and this is that the imam was sort of the political and theological head of the state. That was overthrown in 1962 in a revolution in the north Yemeni highlands. And what happened after that is that essentially, the social order in Yemen, if you think of it as a pyramid, was sort of turned on its head. And so the top of the Zaydi pyramid, these sort of descendants of the prophet who had always held the top office, they, all of a sudden, moved to the bottom, and they'd been sort of trying to fight their way back ever since. And the Houthis come out of that sort of Zaydi revivalist movement.
DAVIES: So the Houthis take their name from this village. How did they come into conflict with the government?
JOHNSEN: So basically, in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was the previous president of Yemen - he ruled from 1978 all the way up to 2012 - he had this policy of what he called dancing on the heads of snakes. That is, he was never strong enough to rule Yemen by himself. Yemen's a very fractious country - many different groups. So what he tried to do is he tried to play these different groups off against one another. So if there was a particularly strong group in Yemen - say, the Muslim brotherhood - he would use the Zaydis, who were their enemies, to sort of balance them out.
And he did this quite successfully for a very long time. But in 2000, he made a bit of a mistake. He cut off this individual named Hussein al-Houthi. He cut him off from this sort of private fund of money that Ali Abdullah Saleh would give out to these different people, and he cut Hussein Houthi off. And Hussein al-Houthi eventually started this movement that started chanting in 2002. So it - really, the roots of the Houthi movement go all the way back to a budget cut in 2000.
DAVIES: So this conflict in which this group is, you know, asserting itself as a formidable military power really dates back to a personal dispute, cutting off somebody's funding?
JOHNSEN: Yeah. So Hussein al-Houthi - he was way up in this northern government, this place called Saada, which is right on the border with Saudi Arabia. There's not a whole lot there. It is a very underdeveloped place. The government was reluctant to spend money there. And so there was this group of people that were both politically as well as religiously frustrated with the government. They felt that the government in Sanaa was not paying enough attention to them. So Hussein al-Houthi, who has this grudge, comes back, and he finds this group of people - these farmers, these students - who are frustrated. And he's able to sort of orchestrate and draw that frustration out and become the leader of this group that eventually, within four years, has entered into open conflict with the government.
DAVIES: Now, I believe there were six wars between the government of President Saleh and the Houthis over this - over the last - what? - 10 years.
JOHNSEN: Yeah, from 2004 to 2010, there were six separate conflicts - six separate wars.
DAVIES: Now, under what circumstances did president Saleh, who had held power for decades - under what circumstances did he leave?
JOHNSEN: Right. So this was part of the Arab Spring. So if you remember in 2011, you saw Hosni Mubarak being - stepping down in Egypt. You saw the popular resistance in Libya that eventually killed Gaddafi. You saw Ben Ali, in Tunisia, who went into exile. And Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen faced the same sort of popular protest. People were taking to the streets. They were chanting against him. They were calling for the downfall of the regime. This is what we were seeing in Tahrir Square in Cairo and other places across the Middle East.
But Ali Abdullah Saleh did something a little bit different from the rest of his colleagues in the Arab world. So Ben Ali, in Tunisia, went into exile. Mubarak went to prison. Gaddafi was killed. Ali Abdullah Saleh just went home. So he struck a deal for himself that gave him immunity in exchange for stepping down. So he said, I will step down peacefully, but I won't leave the country. I won't go to prison. I will just go home. And this was a deal that was signed off on by the United Nations, by the U.S. and by Saudi Arabia. And so Saleh went home, and his long-standing vice president, a man by the name of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, took over the presidency.
DAVIES: And did the new regime establish any kind of effective central authority?
JOHNSEN: Not really. So one of the things about President Hadi is that he didn't have a great deal of domestic support, and so he tended to rely on the U.S. and U.N., on the support from those two - from the organization of the U.N. and from the United States - as a way to make up for the lack of domestic support. And so he was not someone who was really able to consolidate control. And this was made much, much more difficult by the fact that the Houthis were taking power in the north and former president, Saleh, by this time, was attempting to undermine Hadi's government.
So you basically had a country that's falling apart. It's fracturing. If you - almost if you think of sort of a glacier, an iceberg that starts to crack and break apart and slowly drift away, this is what's happening in Yemen in 2012 and 2013. And president Hadi is trying to hold it all together. And to be quite honest, he just didn't have enough guys with guns to hold the country together.
DAVIES: And at this point, are the Houthis moving out of their strongholds in northern Yemen toward the capital, Sanaa?
JOHNSEN: Yeah. So what we see is that the sixth war ended in 2010, and then Saleh, who had been the enemy of the Houthis - they'd been fighting these six wars - he was weakened. And so there was a bit of a power vacuum up in the north. And the Houthis were the best organized, and they had the most guys with guns up in the north. And they were able to take advantage of this. And so you saw them throughout 2012 and 2013 acquiring more and more territory, drawing in more and more followers.
And one of the real tragedies of Yemen is that the Houthis were never really invited into the tent in a way that this sort of - once Saleh stepped down, there was supposed to be this national dialogue that brought everyone together. But the assumptions underlying that dialogue were that the Houthis would just voluntarily give up all the power that they had acquired over the past few years. And that assumption, unfortunately, turned out to be false. And so the Houthis kept creeping closer and closer to the capital. And eventually, in 2014, they actually moved in and took over portions of the capital.
DAVIES: And is that when the new president, Hadi, left?
JOHNSEN: Yeah. So what happened - it was sort of a slow-motion takeover. So the Houthis are - they're a very politically naive group in that they don't always understand how it is that their actions play internationally. They have a very good lay of the land where they come from - this sort of northern highlands in Yemen - the Zaydi portion of Yemen. But they understand less about sort of southern politics as well as international politics. And so what they would do is they would move into a place and sort of wait. They would sort of take and hold, if you were to use military terms, and then wait and see how that played, and then they'd take another step, and so forth.
And so in late 2014, they moved into the capital. First, they moved against a number of military leaders that they had grudges against from the six wars, and then they surrounded the house of the prime minister and members of the cabinet, as well as president Hadi, and essentially put them under house arrest to the point where the prime minister resigned, as did President Hadi. And then a few weeks later, president Hadi escaped, fled the capital and made it all the way down to sort of what is Yemen's second city, the port city of Aden, down in the south where Hadi is originally from. He's from that region - the southern part of Yemen.
DAVIES: And did the Houthis bring any particular political or ideological agenda to the government, or was this essentially about power?
JOHNSEN: A lot of it was about power, and a lot of it was also about settling old grudges. So the Houthis - one of the ways in which they have really attracted followers is that the government was very heavy-handed in its response during these six wars and drove a lot of people into the arms of the Houthis by sort of indiscriminately arresting a lot of people, by bombing civilian areas in an effort to sort of pull and get rid of the Houthis.
And so the Houthis - their base of support is much larger than it really should have been. But when they got in power, they didn't really have a chance to govern. The Houthis have always been on the outside. They've been a militia group that's now starting to dabble in politics. And they don't really know how to rule, but they didn't really have a chance because once president Hadi went to the South, then he left and fled to Saudi Arabia.
And then, of course, Saudi Arabia started bombing the country. And when that happens, then you have more people who are sort of flocking to the Houthis not out of any sort of ideological allegiance, but rather just because they're trying to defend their homes and their countries against an outside bombing campaign.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Gregory Johnsen. He is a writer-at-large for BuzzFeed News, based in Istanbul. He's also the author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War In Arabia." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Gregory Johnsen. He's a writer at large for BuzzFeed News based in Istanbul. He spent a lot of time in Yemen and has covered the conflict there. He's also the author of a book, "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, And America's War In Arabia."
Now, one of the things a lot of people have said about the Houthis is that they are backed by Iran. Is that true? Was it true from the beginning?
JOHNSEN: This is something that we've heard going all the way back to the first war in 2004. And the roots of this is really part of what President Saleh at the time - his dancing on the heads of snakes, playing different groups off against one another. So at the time, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were worried about Iran. And President Saleh was heavily dependent upon money from the United States. And the U.S. wasn't giving him as much money to fight terrorism, to fight al-Qaida because it looked like, at the time, al-Qaida in Yemen had sort of disappeared.
So what President Saleh did is said, well, OK, so al-Qaida's off the table, but there's this Shia group here that's aligned with Iran. And so just like you guys in Saudi Arabia and the United States are fighting in Iran, or are allied against Iran, I have an Iranian proxy group. And over time, that's really turned into be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that the Houthis are not a proxy of Iran in the sense that anyone in Iran could call Abdel Malik al-Houthi, who's the current head of the group, and say do this and he will do it. Instead, what the Houthis do is they essentially put out their hand, and they'll take money from anyone who wants to put money or put weapons in their hands. And then they'll just go ahead and do what it is that they were going to do anyway. So it's group that draws support from Iran, but is in no way a proxy of Iran.
DAVIES: Is al-Qaida a factor? Are they active in Yemen?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, in the uprising in the Arab Spring in 2011-2012, al-Qaida - this is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that's responsible for the underwear bomber, the group that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric, was a part of. This group starts taking over territory in the South.
And so what you have in Yemen is you essentially have four major characters that are vying for some sort of power. You have the Houthis, who are up in the North. You have former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who's at home, but - who very importantly - a number of key units in the military still have loyalties to him. You have the new president, Hadi, who's in the Presidential Palace trying to work with the U.N. and U.S. And then you have al-Qaida itself, which is very active down in the South. And so it's these different actors that are sort of struggling for power.
And al-Qaida, they're not as numerically strong as the other groups. And so what al-Qaida has done is sort of being - carrying out these hit-and-run almost guerilla attacks, sometimes using suicide bombers, sometimes just sending a small group of four or five individuals to attack an army outpost or something along these lines. But they're very - they very definitely have a presence within Yemen and are trying to use that as sort of a stronghold as a base for operations.
DAVIES: Things change when the Saudis get involved militarily. When does that happen, and why?
JOHNSEN: That happens about a month ago, so that happens in late March. And what has happened is that President Hadi has made his way to Aden. He's in exile. He's resigned. And then he's rescinded his resignation, but now the Houthis have moved in on him down on the southern port city. So the Houthis have basically made this huge push down from the highlands of Yemen by the border with Saudi Arabia, all the way to the capital sort of in the middle and then going down in the low lands, all the way to the coast into Aden. So they've taken over this huge swath of country from the north to the south.
President Hadi escapes. He flees Aden, eventually makes his way to Saudi Arabia. And he asks Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily to restore him to power because at this time, President Hadi is still the internationally recognized leader of Yemen. The United States has closed its embassy. The U.S. has pulled out all of its special operations advisers who were carrying out counterterrorism operations. So everything has sort of ground to a halt as the Houthis have taken over. So in late March, Saudi Arabia begins this - really leads this 10-nation coalition of carrying out bombings - bombing raids in Sana'a up in the North as well as in Aden in an attempt to weaken the Houthis and re-install President Hadi back as the president and leader of Yemen.
DAVIES: And why did the Saudis want to do this? I mean, do they fear the Houthis militarily? I mean, Yemen is a relatively small country. Why is this so important to them?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, Yemen is relatively small, and the Houthis are relatively weak. But in the final war, in the sixth war back in 2009, the Saudis fought a few border skirmishes with the Houthis and were really embarrassed. They came off very poorly. There were a number of YouTube videos that would show Houthi fighters riding around in Saudi military equipment. A number of Saudis were sort of embarrassed as the Houthis went into Saudi Arabia, actually took control of some territory. So there's that reason. There's sort of the revenge factor.
But there's also the reason - and it's unclear to me and I think a number of people - to what degree Saudi Arabia actually believes that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy. And so Saudi Arabia is seeing what's happened in Iraq, where sort of the Shia power has taken control of portions of Iraq. And Iraq's right on its border. And it's very worried about Iran, sort of its creeping influence within the region. And so you have almost these two conflicts that are playing out simultaneously. You have this domestic conflict in Yemen that is messy and murky. And we talked about these four actors - former President Saleh and al-Qaida and the Houthis and President Hadi - and they're all jockeying for power against one another. And then you have this sort of regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that's being played out at the same time.
And so I think it's really for both of these reasons - for sort of the worry of Iranian encroachment on their southern border as well as a desire to hit back against the Houthis who embarrassed them in 2009. That led Saudi Arabia to sort of use the fig leaf of Hadi asking them to intervene militarily, that they eventually started late last month carrying out airstrikes.
DAVIES: And what's been the - well, the humanitarian impact first, the impact on civilians?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, it's been catastrophic. I think the World Health Organization recently estimated that about 900 people had been killed in the conflict so far - 900 - and that will likely rise. So, you know, bakeries are running out of flour. There's not gas to be had. There's electrical shortages, which of course raises all sorts of problems for people in hospitals who need electricity to keep things cool, to perform operations, to do different things. The airstrikes have not been as targeted as many outside observers would like. So Saudi Arabia continues to say that it's going - only going after Houthi targets or, in fact, military units that are still loyal to President Saleh, which raises all sorts of questions about sort of what will be left when Saudi is done bombing the Yemeni military. Who will actually go and fight al-Qaida? That's a separate question.
There have been a number of civilian casualties from all of these air raids. And in fact, the United States has been drawn into this in the sense that the U.S. has established this - what the White House calls a Joint Planning Cell, where U.S. military planners feed Saudi Arabian intelligence as a way of trying to sort of shape their strikes so that they don't hit civilian targets. But the track record, quite frankly, over the past month, has not been good. There have been many more civilian casualties than there should be if Saudi Arabia is only going after military or Houthi targets.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Gregory Johnsen. After a short break, Johnsen will describe how he was nearly kidnapped in Yemen last year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Gregory Johnsen about the chaos in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been bombing the Houthi militias, the group which drove Yemen's president out of office. The bombing campaign has created a humanitarian crisis and has put the U.S. in the awkward position of cooperating with its ally, Saudi Arabia, even though the bombing raids have inadvertently strengthened al-Qaida in the region. Johnsen spent years in Yemen, wrote a book about Yemen and al-Qaida and is now covering the conflict from Turkey for BuzzFeed News. Before the break, they were talking about the humanitarian impact of the bombing.
DAVIES: What's been the military impact of the Saudi bombing?
JOHNSEN: So this is very interesting in that just recently, a Saudi spokesman said that the goals of the airstrike campaign had been met and that they had destroyed all of the Houthis' ballistic missiles. And so it's unclear at this point what it is that Saudi wants to accomplish. Their stated goal is to restore President Hadi to power. But that's going to be something that's very, very difficult to do because you have the optics of an exiled president in a foreign capital as that country bombs his country. And so President Hadi, who never had a strong base of domestic support within the country, is now even weaker than he was before. And so that seems to be a nonstarter. And bombing the Houthis back to the bargaining table doesn't seem to be working very well. So the Saudis are sort of in this difficult position where it doesn't appear as though a campaign of just airstrikes is going to achieve their goals. So they either have to stop those altogether and let the Houthis sort of declare victory or they have to go in with ground troops, which would be very messy and, I think, risks a much larger, a much longer and a much more regional conflict.
DAVIES: On Tuesday, the Saudis announced they were ending the bombing campaign, that it had achieved its objectives. And then, after that, there were reports of additional strikes. Do you know what the situation is?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, this is a - that's a really good question. So there was this announcement on Tuesday. And then, on Wednesday, the Saudis continued to carry out strikes as if there had been no announcement. And so on Tuesday, the Saudis said they were moving into a new phase. They were moving into a political phase that might have some military aspects to it. And on Wednesday, they continued to carry out strikes as they had on Monday and Sunday, going back all the way to last month. And so it's really not clear what the Saudis are doing at this point. Their goals, what it is that they want to accomplish, can't be brought about just by airstrikes. They don't want to go in on the ground, and they don't want to quit. And so they're sort of in this middle ground. And they can't seem to decide what to do, whether to stop altogether or to say they're going to stop and keep going. My sense is that they're just sort of throwing stuff at the wall in the hope that something will eventually stick. This doesn't seem to be a particularly well thought out strategy for the Saudis.
DAVIES: But they did change the name of the campaign from Operation Decisive Storm to Restoration of Hope.
JOHNSEN: They changed the name. But what they were doing in the skies over Yemen remained very much the same.
DAVIES: And can you be effective without people on the ground in Yemen?
JOHNSEN: Well, this is, I think, a question that the Saudis are wrestling with right now, is that they're carrying out - they're hitting some of the things they're aiming at. And we've had now a month of airstrikes. But militarily, it hasn't done anything really to the Houthis. They've killed a lot of people. They've destroyed a lot of things. They've brought a humanitarian disaster upon an entire country within Yemen. But the Houthis still hold the territory that they held when the Saudis started the bombing campaign. And so the Saudis have made everything worse, but they don't seem to have really a very good plan about how to put it all back together again.
DAVIES: So we have this situation where the Houthis have had increasing control over increasing parts of Yemen. There has been this Saudi bombing, which has caused terrible civilian casualties, hasn't been particularly militarily effective. What about al-Qaida that's been out there? How have their fortunes changed as this war has unfolded?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, that's one of the real ironies, in that al-Qaida itself has - is of course at war with Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida's at war with the United States. Al-Qaida's also at war with both President Hadi as well as former President Saleh as well as the Houthis. In fact, the Houthis and al-Qaida are two main rivals. They - al-Qaida often carries out suicide attacks against the Houthis. But al-Qaida in this conflict, over the past month, has really been on the sidelines. That is, they've watched - the Saudis are essentially doing their work for them. The Saudis are bombing the Yemeni military. The Saudis are bombing the Houthis, both of whom at different times have fought against al-Qaida. And so what we've seen is that the bombing campaign in Yemen has opened up a great deal of territory for al-Qaida to move in. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, al-Qaida moved into this port city down on the southern coast of Yemen, a city by the name of Al Mukalla. They had several guys in a pickup, and they essentially sprung a prison break. And 300 prisoners whom Yemen had arrested and had in this central security prison made their way to freedom, including some top al-Qaida leaders. And later, al-Qaida was able to take over large portions of that town. The U.S. has since carried out a couple of drone strikes and in fact even killed one of al-Qaida's major leaders, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. But al-Qaida is gaining in this. And they're not only gaining on the ground; but they're gaining in the sense that Saudi is weakening the Yemeni military. So Saudi's bombing Yemeni military units, destroying Yemeni military equipment, many - much of which, incidentally, the U.S. has provided to the Yemeni military. So these are all being destroyed, which then means that once the bombing campaign is over, once it's concluded, what will - whatever government is left in Sana'a - what will that government use to combat this growing al-Qaida threat? And that's a - you know, that's a question that neither Saudi Arabia or the United States have really been able to answer at this point.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about that. I mean, what are the United States' interests in this situation? And how have - how has the government responded?
JOHNSEN: Right. So the United States is primarily concerned with Yemen through the prism of counterterrorism. In fact, the United States views Yemen as an al-Qaida problem. And so this is what we see. The U.S. carries out drone strikes. It carries out airstrikes within Yemen, all targeting al-Qaida. This is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that most people in the U.S. government seem to think poses the most serious terrorist threat to the United States, something like what we saw on Christmas Day, 2009, where an underwear bomber - would-be suicide bomber - is dispatched from Yemen, put on a plane. So the U.S. is very concerned about al-Qaida. But the U.S. is also aligned with Saudi Arabia. And so while the U.S. didn't appear to have a great deal of foreknowledge about the air campaign that Saudi Arabia was going to launch in Yemen and has launched over the past month, the U.S. has essentially sided with Saudi Arabia. That is, it continues to work with the kingdom. It continues to share intelligence. It has these different cells that are operating sort of hand-in-hand. But that's meant that the U.S. is no longer as effective on the counterterrorism front as it was when there wasn't a bombing campaign. There have been a few drone strikes in recent days. But this is not really a formula that the U.S. wants to, I think, see continue - that is, a very chaotic Yemen where al-Qaida's gaining supporters, where al-Qaida's gaining growth because as the Houthis - we've been talking about them coming down and sort of taking more territory. There's resistance to that. But sort of the best domestic fighters against the Houthis have been al-Qaida. And so you have different Yemenis who are now being drawn into al-Qaida - not, again, out of any sort of ideological allegiance but rather just so they can fight the Houthis. And so it makes, then, a very messy battle. And as the U.S. is firing missiles, it's not always clear if the people that they're killing are really full-fledged members of al-Qaida or members of the moment, only to fight the Houthis or, worst of all, maybe just guys with beards and guns who happen to be tribesmen in an area that the U.S. thinks al-Qaida might be active in.
DAVIES: Now, there's also a broader international context here. I mean, the United States is trying to negotiate nuclear controls in Iran. At the same time, it is backing a Saudi military campaign, which the Iranians are on the other side of. That has to be problematic also.
JOHNSEN: It does. And in fact, the story gets even a little bit more confusing when you see the U.S. and Iran essentially on the same side, fighting against ISIS in Iraq.
JOHNSEN: And so there are all of these different alliances that aren't just working in Yemen; but they're working internationally as well. And I think we've seen the U.S., which appears to be a little overwhelmed by what's happening and a little caught off-guard by the Saudi bombing campaign, is trying to walk a very, very delicate line. It's not wanting to do anything that would put in danger the nuclear talks with Iran. But at the same time, it realizes that it does have a very strong ally in Saudi Arabia. And it wants to both continue and maintain that relationship while trying to rein Saudi Arabia in. And I think if you talk to members of the administration, that is what they would say that they're trying to do. In fact, I think there was a quote that one individual came out with. That is, U.S. support for Saudi and Yemen has nothing to do with Yemen. It has everything to do with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. So at a time when it looks like the U.S. and Iran might be moving toward a breakthrough, the U.S. certainly wants to reassure Saudi Arabia that it isn't going to abandon it.
DAVIES: Gregory Johnsen is a writer at large for BuzzFeed News based in Istanbul, where he's been covering the events in Yemen. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Gregory Johnsen. He's a writer at large for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul where he's been covering events in Yemen. He's also the author of a book, "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, And America's War In Arabia."
Is ISIS also a presence in Yemen?
JOHNSEN: This is a really good question, Dave. So a few weeks ago, there was a pair of suicide bombers - two each - that walked into two mosques on - right at Friday noon prayer, so sort of the big, congregational prayers of the week. In fact, one of the suicide bombers had the bomb actually hidden in a cast in his leg. And there's a video of this sort of closed-circuit TV where you see this individual who's about to go in - walk into a mosque and blow up this mosque. He sort of gets help from one of the people walking into the mosque. And then a few seconds later, he detonates his bomb and blows himself up.
These two mosques were Houthi mosques, and the individuals - the group that took credit for this was ISIS. Al-Qaida distanced itself from these two suicide attacks; they killed nearly 150 people in the capital of Sana'a. Al-Qaida said it wasn't us; ISIS said it was us. And this is really the first evidence that we have of an ISIS-like group in Yemen.
But whether this is sort of a group that only has aspirations to be a part of ISIS, or whether this is a group that's actually in some way affiliated with the leadership of ISIS is far from clear. And I think that's one of the things that we're seeing in Yemen is that there are again, all of these different groups and as the fighting increases, you see more and more people. It's sort of - it's a bit of a war of escalation; that is, one attack does this and so the next attack does something else. And you see groups that splinter off and break from one another, and it becomes very, very chaotic and as we've seen in Syria, almost apocalyptic.
DAVIES: You spent many years in Yemen, and there came a point at which you felt it just wasn't safe to travel there as you had before. What changed? When was that?
JOHNSEN: That was in March of last year, so just over a year ago. I had went on a trip to Yemen; I was looking to reconnect, do some more stories that I was really interested in pursuing. And it was one Saturday morning; I was walking with a Yemeni friend of mine. We were walking down one of the busiest streets in downtown Sana'a, Zubairy Street. We were about to go in and get some breakfast at a cafe, and my friend, who's Yemeni, sort of caught his jacket on the rifle of an individual coming out. And the man sort of stared at me and stared at my friend and then just walked on. And we thought nothing of it, went into the cafe, had our breakfast and we came out.
And when we came out, that man had another friend, and they were both dressed in military uniforms. And they grabbed my friend's arm, and they grabbed my arm. And they said to him in Arabic, who is this? And, you know, what's he doing? Is he a foreigner? My friend answered and said, yeah, he's my friend; he's an American researcher. And then they started pulling us. And they pulled us out toward the street. And I saw out on the street - I saw this Yemeni taxi, and its backdoor was open. And at that point, I knew what was happening. I knew they were attempting to kidnap us. And the man with the gun had his hand on my arm, and he was pulling me toward the cab.
You know, I think there's a survival instinct within all of us that just refuses to go toward that fate. And so I pulled back, and he pulled back. And there was sort of this weird struggle. And then the individual who had the arm of my Yemeni friend, he dropped it to chamber a bullet in his gun. My friend took off running, thankfully, made it through some cars and escaped to safety. And the guy who had my arm, he did the same thing, and I thought they were about to start shooting. And I took off running and ran into a restaurant.
And I tried to get through the back; my plan was to run through the kitchen and to make this big circle and get back to the place where I was staying. But a Yemeni who worked at the restaurant sort of wrapped me in this big bear hug and wouldn't let me through. And so there was a moment when I was stuck, and I couldn't see the street - I was around this little corner by a sink where I thought the guys would - the guys with guns would come back in and execute me there but thankfully, they didn't. And my friend came back, and we were able to sort of get out of there.
But yeah, Yemen is a country that I have been going to for more than a decade. But in that decade, it's changed dramatically. And so this was still the Yemen - it looked the same; the buildings looked the same, the places where I bought my cot, the places where I went to lunch, the places where I hung out with friends. I could pinpoint all of those landmarks there, and I could point out the buildings and I could still go to them. But the country around them had changed dramatically. And it was no longer a safe place for me and I don't think for many Westerners.
DAVIES: Do you see this unraveling?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, in fact, I don't even think it's accurate to speak of Yemen as one country anymore. I think the country has been definitively and decisively broken in the way that no one will ever be able to put it back together again. I mean, you don't have one group that has enough power to impose its will upon anyone else. But all of these different groups have enough power, they have enough money and they have enough guns that they can act as spoilers to the other group, which means that it will be, as you said, very, very chaotic. And it will be even more chaotic if there's a ground invasion or if the Saudi bombing campaign continues. And out of that chaos as we learned in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the 1990s, as we're seeing in Iraq and now in Syria, very bad things grow. And those things that come out of that tend to have serious repercussions for Western and U.S. national security interests.
DAVIES: Well, Gregory Johnsen, thanks so much for speaking with us.
JOHNSEN: Thanks so much for having me, Dave.
GROSS: Gregory Johnsen spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Johnsen is the author of the 2012 book "The Last Refuge." It's about Yemen and al-Qaida. He's now based in Istanbul where he's reporting on the conflict in Yemen for BuzzFeed News. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by country singer and actor Dwight Yoakam. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.