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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: The Last Refuge

The history of Al Qaeda has a prismatic quality, taking on a different color depending on the angle from which you examine it.

Gregory Johnsen's TheLast Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia brings a shockingly fresh perspective to the story, examining the terrorist organization through its tortured relationship with Yemen.

Starting with the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Johnsen puts on a masterful show of storytelling as he unravels the twin stories of Yemeni involvement in Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda's impact on Yemen.

Johnsen is a former Fulbright fellow and current doctoral candidate at Princeton, but this is no dry academic read. From its first pages, The Last Refuge unfolds like a novel, effortlessly guiding readers through a thicket of complex situations and unfamiliar characters, bringing their stories to life.

In this respect, it compares favorably to Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, and the books also complement each other in terms of content. Wright offers the broadest picture of Al Qaeda's early history and formation, while Johnsen tells the story as it was seen by Yemenis. The perspectives are so different that you could easily read the books back to back without fear of repetition. 

Much of this story will be new to readers, even those with a previous interest in Al Qaeda. Johnsen draws extensively on Arabic language sources, including media reports and jihadi writings, as well as his own field work in Yemen. His time on the ground shows in an abundance of rich and evocative detail rarely associated with books on terrorism.

The author breathes life into key figures such as Tarik al-Fadli, who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Nasir al-Wihayshi, bin Laden's former personal secretary and the leader of Al Qaeda's current incarnation in Yemen, as well as a host of supporting characters. 

The result is a rich narrative and a compelling portrait not only of the jihadist current in Yemen, but of the rise and the beginning of the fall of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose challenging and contradictory personality jumps off the page at times. 

But unlike the fiction genre from which Johnsen clearly draws literary inspiration, The Last Refuge begins to lose steam just as events build toward a climax. There are obvious challenges in writing a history of events as they happen, but The Last Refuge hits the fast-forward button in the late 2000s and doesn't release it until the book concludes.

This is particularly disappointing for those who follow Johnsen's work. The author is well known for his vocal and substantive critiques of conventional wisdom regarding U.S. policies toward Yemen, including the counterterrorism focus on Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Awlaki and the potentially counterproductive tactic of aggressive missile and drone strikes inside the country. But these subjects get the shortest of shrift in the book's penultimate chapters.

The author offers little color on Awlaki, especially in comparison to the lavish characterizations and backstories he provides for other AQAP figures. This may be informed by his belief that Awlaki's importance in AQAP has been overstated, but he doesn't make that case or attempt to clarify what Awlaki's actual role might have been.  

While this topic is plagued by conflicting and incomplete information, there's ample source material to paint a compelling portrait of Awlaki's personality and at least sketch a qualified outline of his significance, or lack thereof.  

Similarly, Johnsen skimps on the issue of U.S. airstrikes against Yemeni targets, some of which are cataloged but not substantially contextualized. The author's other work makes clear his strong opinions about how air strikes may be counterproductive, contributing to anti-American sentiment disproportionate to their strategic advantage. The Last Refuge does little to convey how passionately Johnsen cares about this issue, belying the subtitle's focus on "America's War in Arabia."

The breakneck pace of recent developments clearly collided with the unavoidable time frame for publication. Saleh's departure, for instance, occurs after the end of the book’s timeline, as do most of Al Qaeda's interesting attempts at governance. Although publication schedules are understandable from a writer’s perspective, for readers the final act simply can't live up to the robust storytelling of earlier chapters, despite the inherent, escalating drama of events.

Aggravating the lightness of the closing pages is the book's abrupt end. While Johnsen the storyteller shines through most of the book, Johnsen the analyst never makes an appearance, not even at the conclusion, where some context and guidance would be very welcome. There are no summations or recommendations, and the book presents no road map to the complicated lessons that might be learned. 

Despite these shortcomings, The Last Refuge is undoubtedly a definitive history of the formation and development of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As such, its value is indisputable, and as a work of literature, it's a startlingly elegant debut. I highly recommend it on both counts.  

Readers may find themselves wanting more -- especially those who work in terrorism-related fields. But the quality and importance of this first book make it clear we'll hear more from the author in the future. If The Last Refuge is any indication, it will be worth the wait.

Check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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