Yemen Scholar Says U.S. Drone Strikes May Have Driven al-Qaida Membership

For more on the threat posed by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Gregory Johnsen from Princeton University, a former Fulbright scholar in Yemen, joins Margaret Warner to discuss U.S.-Yemeni government relations and possible unintended consequences of drone strikes in that country.


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MARGARET WARNER:  And for more on the threat posed by Yemen and emanating from Yemen, we turn to Gregory Johnsen. He was a Fulbright scholar based in Yemen, now at Princeton University.

And, Gregory Johnsen, welcome.

The U.S. has been pounding away at AQAP, certainly intensively ever since the Christmas Day bomb attempt of late 2009. Is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula stronger or weaker than it was then?

GREGORY JOHNSEN, Princeton University: Right.

I think this is one of the really frustrating things for the United States. It's because, as you point out, they have been carrying out several air and drone strikes. They have killed people like Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric there in Yemen. They killed AQAP's number two.

And yet what we have seen over the past three-and-a-half years is that AQAP has gone from a group of about 200 to 300 people on Christmas Day 2009 to, according to the U.S. State Department, more than a few thousand fighters today.

MARGARET WARNER:  And what explains that?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, I think one of the things that explains it is that the U.S. -- not all of these strikes that the U.S. carries out are successful. So there are some mistaken strikes. There are strikes that kill civilians. There are strikes that kill women and children.

And when you kill people in Yemen, these are people who have families. They have clans. And they have tribes. And what we're seeing is that the United States might target a particular individual because they see him as a member of al-Qaida. But what's happening on the ground is that he's being defended as a tribesman.

So you have people flowing into al-Qaida, not necessarily because they share the same ideology of al-Qaida, but just so that they can get revenge for their tribesman who has been killed in a drone or airstrike.

MARGARET WARNER:  Now, how widely can AQAP operate outside of Yemen?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, this is a group that, as your report, showed, I mean, they were able to Christmas Day 2009 to send a would-be suicide bomber from Yemen on to a plane bound for the U.S. In 2010, they sent a pair of cartridge bombs which were thankfully uncovered before they could be exploded.

And just last spring in 2012, the organization developed almost an underwear bomb 2.0, one that was generations beyond what they had created in 2009. Thankfully, that one, they gave to an undercover agent. This is a group that has shown itself to be determined and also to have the technical capability to ship bombs to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER:  Now, reportedly this latest iteration of the threats and the warnings came from some sort of intercepted communication between the head of AQAP and Ayman al-Zawahri, head of al-Qaida central, of course, believed to be based in Pakistan.

To what degree does the head of AQAP take direction from the central al-Qaida?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right.

That's an excellent question, Margaret. So Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the organization in Yemen, the head of AQAP, he has a great deal of operational independence. And so he's deciding when these plots are going to be launched, when they're not. What it appears that Ayman al-Zawahri is doing is that Zawahri is putting pressure on Nasir al-Wuhayshi and saying, look, you need to carry out a strike. You need to do this.

This is something that Ayman al-Zawahri did just last week in an open video to groups in Egypt as well. And it's something quite common in al-Qaida. We often saw Osama bin Laden putting pressure on affiliates in different places to carry out attacks, but the final word on something like this is going to come from the people on the ground, the people in Yemen, people like Nasir al-Wuhayshi, for the reason that we're seeing today.

Communication back and forth between Yemen and Pakistan is easily intercepted.

MARGARET WARNER:  And that probably explains the intensified U.S. drone strikes in Yemen over the past week.

Finally, how aggressively is the government of Yemen and this new President Hadi going after AQAP both on its own and in concert with the U.S.?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right.

Well, the new government under President Hadi, who was just in the U.S. last week meeting with President Obama, President Hadi has given the U.S. essentially a green light to carry out strikes in a variety of different places at the times of the U.S. choosing.

And he's doing this because he has a lack of domestic support within Yemen. And so he needs the U.S. to make up for that lack of domestic support. And so there's an open communication which is much different now than it was from when the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was in charge.

But we have to remember that the central government in Yemen is incredibly weak. There's a separate insurrection that's going on up in the north. There's calls for secession in the south. There's the al-Qaida threat. The economy continues to collapse. And people in Yemen are struggling on a daily basis to put food on the table and water into their pipes.

And when that -- when all of that is taking place, al-Qaida tends to drop down on the list of priorities for a country like Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER:  And at the same time makes it fertile ground for al-Qaida.

Well, Gregory Johnston of Princeton, thank you so much.