Why The U.S. Is Aggressively Targeting Yemen
er.Action.PLAY_NOW,%20NPR.Player.Type.STORY,%20'0')> Listen to the Story
> Fresh Air from WHYY
[47 min 6 sec]
Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. "The United
States is doubling down on its use of air power and drones, which are
swiftly becoming the primary focus of Washington's counterterrorism
operations," writes Jeremy Scahill.
More From Jeremy Scahill
Dangerous U.S. Game In Yemen
Washington's War In Yemen Backfires
May 18, 2012
U.S. intelligence officials announced last week that they had broken up
-the-new-yemen-bomb-plot> a plan by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen to blow up
a plane headed toward the United States.
U.S. officials are aggressively targeting terrorists in Yemen, which is now
considered to be "the greatest external threat facing the U.S. homeland in
terms of terrorism," says investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill.
Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation, has reported
from the ground in Yemen, the home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or
AQAP. The group was behind the attempted "
er-sentenced-to-life-in-prison> underwear bombing" in December 2009 and the
inutes-from-detonating> parcel bombings in 2010.
Scahill talks about the recent leadership shifts in Yemen and increased
drone strikes in the country, including one that killed Fahd al-Quso, who
played a role in the USS Cole bombing, and the deadly attack against Anwar
al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen who was involved with AQAP.
Scahill tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that increased drone attacks by the
U.S. military have led to many civilian casualties in Yemen, and a growing
resentment and anger toward the United States.
"Because the drone strikes started by President Obama's administration in
2009 have not been precise, what I saw was Yemenis starting to say, 'The
enemy of the enemy is my friend. If the United States is saying they're
fighting AQAP but they're killing our children and our grandchildren and our
wives, then we're terrorists too,' " he says.
Copyright C 2012 National Public RadioR. For personal, noncommercial use
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The most operational franchise of
al-Qaida today is the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,
according to John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism advisor. He
describes the group as very, very dangerous. Several terrorist plots
originated there, including the recent underwear bomb plot, which was just
exposed by a double agent.
The radical U.S.-born Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S.
drone in Yemen last year. He developed a following on the Internet and was
able to preach to English-speaking people. The Obama administration has
escalated its drone attacks in Yemen, and the U.S. is now providing
logistical support to the Yemeni military.
But Yemen is a country you don't hear that much about. One reason is that
it's difficult for journalists to get in. My guest, Jeremy Scahill, was in
Yemen last January and has been writing about its militant groups, civil
wars and the relationship between Yemen and the U.S. Scahill is the national
security correspondent for The Nation and author of the bestseller
"Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army."
Jeremy Scahill, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why is Yemen considered to pose
perhaps the greatest threat of terrorism to the United States?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, after 9/11 and the decimation of the Taliban
government, al-Qaida operatives started to flee the country, and very
famously many of them ended up inside of Pakistan. But over the course of
the years following 9/11, a number of al-Qaida operatives ended up going to
Somalia and Yemen, and in the mid-2000s there were only a few hundred
operatives of al-Qaida. In fact, the group wasn't even called al-Qaida in
the Arabian Peninsula.
And they were just kind of laying low, and they weren't posing much of a
threat to anyone, not the government in Yemen and not the United States. But
then in 2009, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was formed, and some of the
members of that organization had an external jihadist agenda to attack both
Saudi Arabia and the United States.
And because of the connection of AQAP, two things like the attempted
underwear bombing on Christmas of 2009 and the parcel bomb plots, you know,
it really sort of came to be that it was a primary place on the U.S. radar.
And U.S. officials are sort of nuanced in how they've talked about it. They
say it's the greatest external threat facing the U.S. homeland in terms of
GROSS: There's been some recent threats from al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula, AQAP, and one of them was that second underwear bombing. Now, it
turned out that the bomber was a double agent, who is a Saudi-British
national. But just refresh our memory about this plot that was just thwarted
SCAHILL: Well, there are a number of notorious, sort of infamous Saudi
bomb-makers that are residing in Yemen. One of them, Asiri, is known to have
made bombs that can be placed inside the human body. In fact, one of his
operatives tried to kill one of the Saudi princes who was the intelligence
chief, in 2009, with an explosive that appeared to have been actually
inserted into his body.
There was the infamous attempt to take down an airliner over the United
States, Christmas of 2009, by this Nigerian young man named Abdul Farouk
Abdulmutallab, and he had this somewhat crude, but also advanced underwear
bomb that many terrorism analysts say could have brought down that plane if
it was correctly executed.
And so then in recent weeks, we've learned of this, what is reported to be a
disrupted plot, an attempt for AQAP once again to send someone onto an
airliner with a more sophisticated version of that underwear bomb. And the
reports that we have is that it was broken up by this agent.
But I feel like I need to say, Terry, that I haven't done my own reporting
on this, and while I trust my colleagues, particularly from the Associated
Press, who've done a good job in reporting this story, I'm not entirely
convinced that we have a full understanding of how this plot was broken up
and who the agent that allegedly broke it up actually is.
GROSS: What are your questions?
SCAHILL: Well, I mean I think that you have to realize that Yemen is just a
cauldron of chaos when it comes to intelligence. And you have a number of
forces that have their hands deeply invested in Yemen. The Saudis have
thousands of people on their payrolls, and they pay off tribal leaders, and
the United States actually has a pretty weak intelligence presence on the
ground when it comes to human intelligence.
And the United States has sort of outsourced its intelligence operations in
Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Yemen's security forces. And we've seen repeatedly
over the past 10 years the Saudis and the Yemenis manipulate events
regarding al-Qaida within Yemen to try to curry favor with the United States
or to get more funding.
And so I just would sort of reserve commentary, as a reporter who's covered
Yemen extensively and been there, on going too far down the line of guessing
who this agent was, who he was working for, and what he actually did,
because I've seen it too many times where someone's getting played, or
someone's getting spun.
I mean look at the leaks that came out after bin Laden and all of the
information that we thought was true because it was coming from the
administration, and in reality it wasn't coming from the men who conducted
that operation, and now we learn details that contradict some of those
So I guess it's more just learning a lesson as a reporter to let the facts
fall before rushing to a judgment about them, and I think Yemen is so
complicated that we - you know, a little bit of caution in concluding what
exactly that operation looked like is called for.
GROSS: So the U.S. has recently increased the number of its drone attacks in
Yemen, and recently, through one of those attacks, it killed one of the men
believed to have plotted the attack against the USS Cole in the Port of
Yemen in October 2000. Who was this guy?
SCAHILL: Right, his name was Fahd al-Quso, and it's sort of an interesting
story because he was clearly involved with the plot to bomb the USS Cole,
but his job that day was not to drive one of the boats to attack the USS
Cole but rather to film the bombing as it happened, to use it for propaganda
purposes, and he actually overslept and didn't make it in time to actually
film the bombing.
But over the past decade, since the Cole was bombed, he sort of has been one
of the influential elders of the al-Qaida movement within Yemen and has sort
of acted as a mentor to some of the younger operatives. And he's infamous,
and famous, for his role in the Cole bombing.
And he had been arrested at one point by Yemen, and the United States was
pursuing him as one of its most wanted terror suspects around the world. And
then a few years ago he went totally underground. He popped up a few months
ago and gave an interview to a Yemeni journalist, and then the U.S.
apparently tracked him down and killed him in a drone strike.
And we know for certain that he's dead because al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula released a martyr bio of him. It's interesting, Terry, about AQAP
and al-Qaida in general - they often do confirm the deaths of their leaders.
They generally don't lie about that, and they will issue martyr bios for
So it's pretty clear that Fahd al-Quso was killed and was killed by a U.S.
GROSS: I guess they do that because it's such a good thing to be a martyr.
SCAHILL: Well, I do think that, you know, there's this saying...
GROSS: In their eyes. I'm not endorsing this.
SCAHILL: No, I understand what you're saying. It is interesting, from
Afghanistan to Somalia to Yemen, I've heard similar things from various
insurgent groups and - or Islamist militant movements, and they often will
say we love death like you love life, meaning you the Western world. We're
not afraid to die, and you, you cling to your life as your most prized
And it's an interesting window into that mentality.
GROSS: So you know, somebody else killed by a drone strike in the recent
past was Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who was American-born, used
YouTube to get famous and spread his radical message. And he was an American
citizen. So that was a drone attack too, and he was a member of AQAP?
SCAHILL: Well, yes to your first question. I mean, it was a drone attack,
and we believe from the information that's been made public that it was a
CIA drone attack rather than the U.S. military running the operation, so it
- meaning that it was a very targeted strike. And he's been on a CIA and
Joint Special Operations Command hit list, as far as we know, since late
2009, when the U.S. first tried to kill him.
On the issue of AQAP, I - you know, I've spent time with Anwar al-Awlaki's
family. I interviewed journalists that are very close to al-Qaida in Yemen
and talked to them about this question, and I think it's more complex than
simply stating that he was a member of al-Qaida or al-Qaida in the Arabian
I would say that he was a guy that was radicalized by his experience after
9/11. He was a preacher who actually was saying things that many secular
anti-war activists were saying about the sameness of violence, that the
attacks on Washington and New York did not justify the deaths of civilians
in Afghanistan or Iraq any more than the deaths of Palestinians or Iraqis
justify the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
And his family members will even acknowledge that they believe he was pushed
into the al-Qaida fold. And so you can draw a trajectory where he gets more
and more radical as the campaign against him intensifies, as he's locked up
in prison, as the drone strikes begin, to the point where one of his last
videos, Terry, is Anwar al-Awlaki sitting in front of the al-Qaida flag and
basically daring Barack Obama to invade Yemen.
So was he a member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula at the end of his
life? It's entirely possible. But I think his story is more complicated than
simply saying, well, he joined al-Qaida, and therefore he was a legitimate
target. He was never, to our knowledge, charged with any crime in a U.S.
court, and so I think it raises a lot of really serious issues about the
direction we're going in as a nation.
Remember, another American citizen was killed alongside him, a young man
named Samir Khan, who was from North Carolina, a Pakistani American, and
then two weeks later, Anwar al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, who also was a U.S.
citizen, born in Colorado, was killed in another U.S. strike, and it's
unclear who the target of that strike even was.
GROSS: What questions does it raise when a drone attack kills somebody in
Yemen who is actually an American citizen, even if they're plotting against
SCAHILL: The first question that as a journalist I would ask, and many
constitutional lawyers are asking, is if you believe that this American
citizen has done something that is a crime or an act of war against the
United States, explain it. Indict him. Charge him with a crime. Demand his
The United States never charged him to any - to our knowledge, it's never
been made public - with any crime. So to me, taking off a journalism hat for
a second and just as an American citizen, it's deeply troubling that we
don't know how American citizens end up on what are essentially hit lists.
And it raises constitutional questions, it raises moral questions.
It was President Ford, coming out of the era of assassinations and coups of
the '60s and '70s and the scandals with the CIA and Watergate, it was Gerald
Ford who issued an executive order banning the United States and its
employees from committing assassinations. And every president since has
upheld that executive order.
But this administration has taken it to the extreme and basically has
declared the world a battlefield, and anyone that is determined by some
committee within the National Security Council to represent a national
security threat to the United States is an enemy combatant.
GROSS: So who makes up the list of targets? Is it the National Security
SCAHILL: Well, no one knows exactly how this is determined, and this is the
subject of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union and other
legal organizations. What I understand from the reporting that I've done on
this is that we have a committee that is embedded somewhere within the
National Security Council, and they vet these lists of people that are
And some of these individuals come through the Joint Special Operations
Command, which is the premier elite U.S. military unit pursuing terrorists
around the world. They'll propose military targets. Or the CIA will propose
targets to this committee within the National Security Council. And
sometimes the president signs off on them, as in the case of Anwar
al-Awlaki, but there's a pre-cleared list of people. And this has been true
since the early days after 9/11 - there's a pre-cleared list of people that
if they are found, they can be killed on-site.
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeremy Scahill, and he's
the national security correspondent for The Nation. He's also the author of
the bestseller from a few years ago, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's
Most Powerful Mercenary Army." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll
talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Jeremy Scahill.
He's the national security correspondent for The Nation. He's also the
author of the bestseller "Blackwater," and he's been doing a lot of
reporting about Yemen. He was in Yemen last January.
U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have escalated in the past few days. Eleven
militants were reported killed on Saturday in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike.
What do you know about those 11 people?
SCAHILL: Well, first of all, I'm very skeptical of reports that say, you
know, 11 suspected militants were killed, because we don't have reporters on
the ground that are going to the scene and are evaluating who was killed.
The United States is relying entirely on its own imagery from its drones and
satellites, as well as intelligence on the ground from Yemeni military
officials and Yemeni government officials and intelligence officials who
have an agenda to make sure that the United States believes that all the
people that they're killing are suspected militants rather than, say, an
important tribal leader.
And I bring that case up because there was a case where it appears as though
the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, fed the
United States bad intel, telling the U.S. that there's an al-Qaida group
meeting in a particular area, and they killed an important tribal leader who
happened to be an opponent of the regime.
So that's sort of a long-winded way, Terry, of saying that I - I'm not
saying that those people were not al-Qaida operatives or that they weren't
militants, but what I'm saying is we have no way of independently verifying
who these people are that were killed.
Colleagues of mine who are in the south of Yemen right now and are on really
the front lines of this drone war, my friend Iona Craig, who's a great
reporter for the Times of London, was just saying to me that she met
civilians who were severely burned from the drone strikes and that one
civilian that she talked to said there were 26 people killed in the strike
that he survived and was severely burned in.
So I think because we don't have reporters there, the door is wide open for
propaganda about who's being killed. Certainly there's an al-Qaida presence
in Yemen. Certainly there are people that would love to bring down a U.S.
airplane and are hell-bent on trying to destroy, you know, any U.S.
interests that they can.
But there are also a tremendous number of innocent people, the vast majority
in the South, innocent people, that are now living under an increasing
bombardment. And I'm very concerned about the prospect for blowback in our
operations in Yemen.
GROSS: What kind of blowback are you concerned about?
SCAHILL: Well, when I was in Yemen earlier this year, I managed to - this
was before this escalation really started, but I saw it in its early stages.
I made it into Abyan Province, which is really one of the central places
where this fighting is happening now.
And what I was hearing as I traveled around the south of Yemen were reports
from tribal leaders, from civilians, even from sort of pro-U.S. government
officials within the Yemeni government that American bombs were not hitting
the right targets, that there were cluster munitions, these sort of flying
land mines, if you will, that were laying unexploded in various villages
around the south in Yemen.
And many Yemenis were very angry at the strikes that had already taken place
and had stories of civilians being killed. In fact, one Yemeni tribal
leader, Terry, told me: How is it that I can go and see Wuhayshi, the leader
of AQAP, sitting in a restaurant in Shabwah Province, and no one
drone-strikes him, but you hit a village full of Bedouins that had nothing
to do with al-Qaida? Like, who's giving you your target lists? And I heard
that over and over.
And so you have this situation now where because the strikes have not been
precise, and the Obama administration started bombing Yemen in December of
2009, because they have not been precise in many cases and have killed
civilians, what I saw was Yemenis starting to say the enemy of my enemy is
If the United States is saying that they're fighting AQAP, but they're
killing our children and our grandchildren and our wives, then we - we're
GROSS: We've been talking about U.S. drone attacks in Yemen targeting
terrorists and suspected terrorists. It's not just drone attacks that he
U.S. is using now to target terrorists. What are some of the other ways that
our military presence in Yemen is expanding?
SCAHILL: Well, in the past week, Terry, the United States military
announced, quietly, but announced that it was sending U.S. trainers back
into Yemen. Somewhere between 50 and 100 U.S. soldiers are going to be on
the ground in Yemen operating alongside of Yemen's military and security
The U.S. basically created a counterterrorism unit in Yemen made up of
Yemeni soldiers, and U.S. Special Forces troops for years have been in Yemen
building up these units, and the idea behind it was that the U.S. didn't
want to send troops into Yemen but believed that there was a substantial
threat posed by al-Qaida figures in groups in Yemen, and so they wanted to
encourage the Yemeni government to start taking a more active role in
actually hunting down and killing these people.
But what happened, Terry, is that these forces that the U.S. built up, and
it began in the mid-2000s, ended up not fighting terrorism but actually
defending the failing regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So they were never
operating in the territories where al-Qaida figures were believed to be but
rather being used to defend the U.S.-backed regime of Saleh as it was
crumbing to pieces.
And so there was a lot of resentment from Yemenis. They call them the Saleh
family military, the U.S.-backed units. They call them the Saleh family
military, not the national military. Anyway, so the U.S. builds up that,
they have trainers on the ground, and then you have a network of Saudi
informants that are inside of Yemen.
And then you have U.S. airpower in the form of drones, as we've mentioned,
but also cruise missiles that are being launched off the coast of Yemen from
vessels or submarines that are there ostensibly to fight pirates in the Gulf
of Aden, and there have been a number of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. In
fact, the most deadly strike that we know of in Yemen to date, authorized by
the Obama administration, was his first strike in Yemen, and that was on
December 17, 2009, and it was not the CIA, and it was not a drone.
It was cruise missiles launched from the sea, and it slammed into this
village called Al-Majalah, which is in south Yemen, and the U.S. had
intelligence that was given to it by the Yemeni government that there was an
al-Qaida training camp there and storage facilities for weapons.
Well, it turned out that that wasn't true, and the U.S. bombed this village
and killed 46 people, and we know the names of all of the people that were
killed. I went there myself. I interviewed a woman who lost her entire
family. An old man, 17 of those 46 people that were killed were members of
his family. There were five pregnant women among the dead.
It was a huge scandal in Yemen, and what ended up happening is that when the
WikiLeaks cables came out, we discovered that General David Petraeus, who's
now the director of the CIA, was in a meeting with the president of Yemen
shortly after that strike where they conspired to cover up the fact that it
was a U.S. bombing, and the Yemeni president famously told Petraeus,
according to this U.S. cable, we'll continue to lie and say the bombs are
ours and not yours.
And that kicked off - that bombing, Terry, kicked off a sustained almost
three years of bombing by the United States in Yemen in the form of drones,
cruise missile strikes, and the backing of these so-called elite
counterterrorism units that actually have done very little to fight
terrorism and a lot to fight the pro-democracy movement in Yemen.
GROSS: Jeremy Scahill is the national security correspondent for The Nation.
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview
with Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation.
We're talking about the terrorist threat to the U.S. from Yemen and the
increasing U.S. drone attacks and military presence in Yemen.
The group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is based in Yemen. The country's
president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was considered an ally of the U.S. in
fighting terrorism, stepped down in February after months of protests
against him. He'd been in power for 33 years. The man who had been Saleh's
vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, is now the president.
What kind of agreement did the Obama administration have with President
Saleh while Saleh was still in office?
SCAHILL: First of all, I think we need to understand, you know, anyone who
knows anything about Yemen or has spent time there or followed its history
knows that Ali Abdullah Saleh is a master chess player, and he knows Yemen
far better than the United States knows Yemen. And so he would create a
relationship with the United States where he essentially convinced both the
Bush administration and the Obama administration: I'm your buddy when it
comes to terrorism. I'm going to give you free access to this country. You
can do strikes against al-Qaida people, but I want you to build up our
military forces here.
And he - Saleh essentially made an agreement with the Obama administration
to get an increase in his counterterrorism funding in return for allowing
the United States to conduct various operations of its own, unilaterally.
And so, effectively, counterterrorism funding for his regime became like
crack cocaine. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. His
government was extremely corrupt. This was their cash cow, claiming that
they were fighting terrorism.
And so what you've seen over the past 10, 12 years of history between the
United States and Yemen is Ali Abdullah Saleh, when it was convenient for
him, allowing the al-Qaida threat to flare up, looking the other way when 23
al-Qaida people broke out of the prison that they were supposed to be held
in, actually allowing weapons to be smuggled into al-Qaida areas so that
they would attack a police station, and then coming back to the United
States and saying, oh, we really need more funding to go and fight these
I mean, it may sound cynical, but anyone who has been studying Yemen knows
it's 100 percent true. It's kind of crazy that he was playing this game. And
the United States played into it, to the point where even when the world was
seeing the brutality of that regime, the gunning down of protesters in the
streets, a few months before Ali Abdullah Saleh fell, John Brennan, the
senior counterterrorism adviser to the president, said that relations
between the two governments had never been stronger.
GROSS: There's a new president in Yemen now, and he's the former vice
president from the Saleh government, and his name is Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
So what do you know about him?
SCAHILL: Well, you know, I was in Yemen right before the quote-unquote
"election" took place that put Hadi in power. And I say quote-unquote
"election" because I don't believe that asking people to vote yes or no is
actually an election. And there was only one candidate there. And it was
sort of a hilarious to see the fact that his party actually spent money
campaigning when he had no opponent. So, you know, he was a guy who was part
of the old system, and had - and I wouldn't say he defected to the
opposition, but he had started to flirt with the Yemeni opposition when it
became clear Saleh's regime was going to fall.
And I think that there was a mediated solution between the very powerful
tribal sheiks that make up the opposition and the Saleh regime and his
political party and his family, that Hadi would be an acceptable figure to
both sides in the transition, because Saleh would allow - would still be
allowed to keep his control through his family over the security
intelligence forces, and also to read Hadi the riot act if he was going too
strongly against something that Saleh believed in.
And then for the opposition, it was really their only way to get Saleh out.
Their priority was, like, he can't be president anymore. So Yemen is in a
position right now where I think that there's a lot of forces vying for
power. And for Saleh and his people, Hadi was an acceptable candidate
because he wasn't going to clean house and was going to keep in place the
key figures who have been supported by the United States in the fight
It's interesting because Saleh's family members still run all of the most
elite and powerful intelligence and military units in the country, and
they're very close to the U.S. counterterrorism leadership.
GROSS: So the U.S. is using drone attacks now to target militants in Yemen -
suspected terrorists. And we have a military ground presence - a small one,
but a military ground presence there. We're not at war with Yemen. How would
you describe our relationship with Yemen?
SCAHILL: I think that we're seeing the future of U.S. war fighting in Yemen.
I think this is the model that has emerged over the past decade, where
President Obama wants to draw down large-scale military occupations, as in
Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are going to be, for decades to come, fighting
special operations forces, CIA war of attrition against terrorism or against
anyone determined to be an enemy of the United States. And I think Yemen is
very symbolic of the direction we're heading in terms of U.S. national
The relationship with Yemen right now is one where the United States is
dealing with the fact that, for a decade-plus, it supported a regime that
was pilfering the resources of the country, repressing its own people,
jailing journalists, cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrators and
stealing from people across the country - and on the other hand, the United
States escalating its bombing campaign.
There's an elite class within Yemen that goes to conferences called Friends
of Yemen and looks at World Bank studies and International Monetary Fund,
but that's just the elite. To the average Yemeni, the United States must
seem like a strange friend, supporting the worst among its people, and then
dropping bombs that so often don't seem to hit the right target. And I think
that that is going to, going forward, going to be a big part of how the
relationship between rural, poor Yemenis and the United States is defined.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeremy Scahill, and he's
the national security correspondent for The Nation. We're talking about his
reporting on Yemen and his reporting from Yemen. He was there in January.
He's also the author of the bestseller from a few years ago, "Blackwater:
The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army."
Jeremy, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This
is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Scahill. He's the national security correspondent
for The Nation. We're talking about Yemen, the targeted U.S. drone attacks
against militants and suspected terrorists there, the small military
presence that we have in Yemen.
Yemen has a group called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, that is
kind of an offshoot of al-Qaida, but it seems like bin Laden didn't really
fully endorse it. What is AQAP?
SCAHILL: Well, AQAP I would describe more as an affiliate of al-Qaida
central. The real direction that al-Qaida is taking now is to have these
sort of regional affiliates that have quite a bit of autonomy. And when bin
Laden was in, you know, in hiding in the last years of his life in
Abbottabad, Pakistan, it appears as though these affiliates started to
really take more seriously the idea that they were their own independent
show and that they weren't answering to the big boss anymore.
And so you saw, in 2009, AQAP rise up, and it was jointly founded by Saudis
and Yemenis. And they sort of set out to declare the liberation of the
Arabian Peninsula. And so there was a far more internally focused agenda in
Yemen that also was against the Yemeni government, which was a very unusual
position for al-Qaida.
In fact, in the recently released bin Laden notes that were translated and
distributed by West Point Military Academy, the Center for Combating
Terrorism, you see that bin Laden was frustrated with this and was saying
you shouldn't be attacking these Arab governments. You should be focused on
the global jihad, on attacking U.S. interests, and was very frustrated with
the al-Qaida leadership in Yemen.
This was also true in Somalia, where there is a group called al-Shabab,
which recently pledged its allegiance to al-Qaida - a lot of frustration
from al-Qaida central with them. There's al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb,
which is in Mali and Mauritania and elsewhere in North-Central and Western
Africa. So all of these regional nodes for al-Qaida are sort of
semi-autonomous organizations that have their own local agendas, and in a
broader sense, some of their operatives are part of the global jihad.
GROSS: So, how successful has al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP -
been in Yemen, either in its attempts to, you know, undermine the government
there, or to attack the United States?
SCAHILL: I think that the - with a relatively small amount of money,
al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has succeeded in shaking into a state of
fear the most powerful nation in the world. I think that the U.S. policy in
Yemen is a radical overreaction to the proportion of the threat. I think
they've been very successful at shaking an empire. And I don't say that with
any sense of joy. I say it almost in disbelief that we are so afraid of a
few hundred people. And it would be atrocious if an airplane was brought
down by an underwear bomber. But let's be clear: This group does not pose an
existential threat to the United States, and we are acting as though it
does. And I think that that's one of the core problems of our response to
In terms of their success within Yemen itself, I think that, unfortunately,
U.S. policy and the Yemeni government policy of the past 10 years has
created a propaganda bonanza for AQAP to recruit. AQAP has tried to rebrand
itself for the sort of Taliban-style movement within Yemen, has declared
emirates in certain towns in South Yemen, and has begun providing services
that the central government is not: electricity, water, food programs.
They're engaged in their own sort of counterinsurgency.
And so I think that, you know, we've seen a tripling of the size of the core
members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from, let's say, three or 400
in 2006 to over 1,000 today. And there are also other organizations that,
you know, may or may not be directed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
There's one, for instance, Terry, called Ansar al-Sharia, which exist in the
south of Yemen, the Partisans of Sharia Law.
GROSS: And so they're related to AQAP?
SCAHILL: Well, you know, one of the leading AQAP clerics in Yemen a year or
so ago gave an interview in which he said that the - he said, effectively,
that the al-Qaida brand has been so tarnished around the world, that we need
to rebrand ourselves. And he began suggesting that the movement in Yemen
call itself Ansar al-Sharia, the Supporters of Sharia Law.
And part of the cleverness of it - and bin Laden actually talked about this
kind of rebranding himself - is that he didn't want President Obama to be
able to say we're at war with al-Qaida. He wanted him to have to say we're
at war with Islam. And so if Obama says, you know, we're at war with the
Partisans of Sharia Law, it sounds like, well, we're at war with your system
of laws and governance. And so it was actually quite clever.
So there was definitely a suggestion by AQAP people that this be the term
used. And then what you saw happen, it really was - it was beginning when I
was in Yemen in January of this year - is that Ansar al-Sharia was a much
larger group than AQAP, started popping up in towns around the south of
Yemen. One that I made it into is called Zinjibar. And they began taking
over these towns and announcing themselves as the new government. And they
actually renamed some of those towns.
Now, who are these people that are Ansar al-Sharia? There certainly is a
core element from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and no doubt that AQAP
is trying to take advantage of the popularity of Ansar al-Sharia.
But my understanding from very well-connected Yemen terrorism analysts, and
also tribal leaders in the south, is that Ansar al-Sharia was largely a
response to the corruption of the Saleh regime, a response to the attacks by
the Saleh regime security forces and the Americans, and that there were many
tribes that delegated young people to join these uprisings.
So I was told by one well-known Yemeni security analyst that the vast
majority of Ansar al-Sharia are angry tribesmen, not AQAP, and that they're
operating out of revenge and they're operating out of a sense that the state
is done and that they need to build one in their own vision of Islamic
Sharia law, which can bring order in chaos. That's, essentially, their
selling point. We'll give you bread. We'll give you electricity, and we'll
give you law and order. If someone steals your car, his hands are going to
get chopped off, and - as opposed to if someone steals your car, you have to
bribe someone to get it back.
GROSS: That sounds like the Taliban.
SCAHILL: It's very much like the Taliban. I mean, I almost never compare any
movement to the Taliban. But I do believe that Ansar al-Sharia modeled
itself after the Taliban, and really is engaged in a campaign of trying to
win hearts and minds. And yet, Terry, as you and I are speaking today,
there's a war going on in South Yemen that began just a few days ago, where
U.S.-backed Yemeni forces have started shelling these places in the south,
where Ansar al-Sharia has been basically operating as the government. U.S.
strikes are targeting, you know, the leadership of Ansar al-Sharia, as well
as people from AQAP, and you have ground battles going on.
You have a ground war going on between U.S.-backed Yemeni forces, a
smattering of U.S. soldiers that are alongside them, and these various
groups. And who is Ansar al-Sharia? We should be able to answer that
question before we declare war against them, because it could be that the
vast majority of them are people that are not members of al-Qaida. And then
that raises serious questions about what the U.S. is even doing fighting
GROSS: Now, you said earlier that you thought the United States was perhaps
overreacting to the threat posed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and
other terrorists and militants in Yemen. So I just want to ask you about
that. First of all, I know that downing a U.S. plane is not an existential
threat to the United States, but think of the disruption to American life if
planes were downed, if parcel bombs succeeded in exploding and people were
afraid to go to the post office or afraid to open their own mail.
But also, I think one of the U.S. goals is probably to prevent Yemen from
becoming the kind of failed state in which al-Qaida has a home. Al-Qaida's
just, like, free and any other, you know, radical Islamist group is free to
set up training camps to recruit, to plot, against us, against other Western
SCAHILL: Those are all excellent points and I'm very sympathetic to
everything that you said, but let me be clear on what I'm saying here. I
believe that what the United States is doing in Yemen right now, in terms of
the forces that it's supporting inside of Yemen and the military campaign
that it's conducting, is going to make it more likely that Yemen becomes a
safe haven for those kinds of groups, is going to make it more likely that
you will have an increase in the number of people that would want to
participate in such plots against the United States, rather than diminishing
the threat. I don't want any terrorist attack to happen against the United
States and when I say that I think that we're overreacting, I actually
should probably correct myself.
I think that we're encouraging the very threats that we claim to be
fighting, because we're giving people legitimate agenda or reason -
motivation - to fight the United States. When people have the perception
that they are under attack they bond together and I think that that's what
we are doing right now.
We're uniting internal enemies, with each other, against us inside of Yemen
and that, to me, is a very, very frightening scenario. If you want to ask me
on a technical level, Terry, because I think it's important that you're
pointing this out, on a technical level what would I do or what do I think
should be done to address the fact that someone wants to bring down an
airplane over the United States and blow up hundreds of U.S. citizens with
an underwear bomb?
What should we do about that? Well, I think drone strikes is not going to
solve it. I think killing a bomb maker in Yemen may mean that that man will
never make a bomb again, but there are many others like him who will step in
and take his place. We have a dearth of intelligence on the ground in Yemen.
We have outsourced our intelligence operations to the Saudis, who have their
own agenda, and the Yemeni government and the Saleh family that has its own
agenda. And so if we don't take seriously, the fact that technology is not a
replacement for human intelligence, we are going to be more vulnerable than
ever. And I think that that is the real crisis in Yemen: We don't have good
GROSS: Do you have any sources in the CIA or the military who agree with the
conclusion you've just made?
SCAHILL: Absolutely. I am, you know, I'm certainly no hawk. You know, I
regularly am in debates with, you know, people from the sort of pro-war side
of the aisle, and I am stunned by the number of people that I know within
both the special operations community and the intelligence community who are
saying I think that our policy is failing in Yemen.
You know, I think people in the military in particular, in the special
operations world, are very concerned about what they're seeing happen now in
Yemen, because their job is to be the premier counterterrorism force of the
United States and they've watched, over this decade, as the threats in some
of these countries have grown rather than diminished.
And I'm not saying that these people are signing off 100 percent on
everything I say, but there are echoes of what I said in what I hear from
them. And part of what I'm saying to you is informed by my discussions with
people who work on Yemen for the U.S. military and for the intelligence
GROSS: Who is creating the policy in Yemen? Is that coming directly from the
White House or the CIA, the military? Like who?
SCAHILL: You know, I think - I mean the honest answer is I don't know, but
my best sense from the reporting that I've done and the analysis that I've
heard from people within government and military, is that John Brennan is
the chief driver of U.S. policy toward Yemen. Of course, he, when he was in
the CIA, was in Saudi Arabia. He spent a tremendous amount of time working
on Saudi and Yemeni issues in the intelligence community and in government.
And I think he's really driving that policy. There's been a...
GROSS: I'm just going to interrupt you and say that...
GROSS: ...he's the Obama administration's chief counterterrorism official.
SCAHILL: Yes, of course. As far as on an agency level, you know, I would say
that there's been friction between the CIA and the joint special operations
command over who is supposed to be taking the lead in combating terrorism in
Yemen and that has created sort of leak wars where you'll have leaks that
appear in Washington Post or other media outlets that are intended to sort
of imply that the CIA should be given more supremacy over the military in
terms of those operations.
I think it's a bit of a divided community, but the single official, I think,
most responsible for driving this policy would in fact by John Brennan.
GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for
The Nation. We'll talk about some of his experiences reporting from Yemen
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for
The Nation. We've been talking about the terrorist threat to the U.S. from
militants in Yemen and the increasing U.S. drone attacks and military
presence in Yemen. So you spent some time in Yemen in January. You've said
it took you like three years to get a visa in order to get in.
A lot of the reporting I've been reading about Yemen comes from reporters
based in Washington, and it's about Washington policy in Yemen. There hasn't
been - I think it's fair to say there hasn't been that much on the ground
reporting from Yemen. Would you agree with that?
SCAHILL: There hasn't been and part of it is because the Yemenis stopped
letting journalists in after 2009 when the underwear plot first happened.
They basically shut the country down and it was very difficult for
journalists to get in. So many of the journalists who report from the ground
there are very young Arabic students who are really learning, as they go,
journalism and some of them have done fantastic.
Iona Craig is an amazing reporter. Adam Baron is a fantastic reporter. Laura
Kasinof of the New York Times, great reporter. And, you know, there's a
handful of them and that's it. And, you know, Yemen is sort of a forgotten
country that if we ignore it we do so at our peril, I think.
GROSS: Tell us something else about your reporting on the ground that you
think you couldn't have learned if you weren't there.
SCAHILL: Wow, that's an interesting question. Well, you know, I know my mom
listens to your show and she probably won't like to hear this, but I really
enjoyed chewing the drug khat in Yemen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCAHILL: And I don't mind if this is on the air, because I actually also
have a point to make about this. So they have this sort of narcotic-like
leaf that is chewed throughout the horn of Africa and in parts of the
Arabian Peninsula and almost every Yemeni chews it.
And it's funny, because you see all these half-done construction projects
all over Yemen and part of the reason why is that people get up, you know,
around 7:00 or so. They go to work. By 10:00 they're talking to each other
about which kind of khat leaves they're going to chew. By noon they've sent
someone to go and get their khat leaves, or they have gotten them
And by 2:00 people have a pouch full of khat in their mouth and they're
sitting in tea houses or in diwans, in their living rooms, and they're
chewing khat and they're talking about the world. And they call it building
castles in the sky. And so I went to so many khat chews. I went to khat
chews with senior Yemeni officials, with Saleh's inner circle.
I went to khat chews with members of the U.S. security forces there. I went
to khat chews with pro-al-Qaida figures. I went to khat chews with tribal
leaders. And you sit there and you talk to people for eight hours and it's
people argue, and they agree, and they laugh, and they sing, and you have a
window into this incredible ritual in Yemen that is such a big part of their
And I would not have gotten access to the places I went, I wouldn't have
been able to talk to the people that I did, I wouldn't have been able to
travel as freely as I did in Yemen if I wasn't going to those khat chews and
negotiating permissions or talking to people and listening to them.
And the reason that I'm so struck by that experience is because the United
States bans its employees in Yemen from chewing Khat. Every other government
allows its ambassadors and other diplomatic figures to go to khat chews.
That's where you learn everything in Yemen, is at a khat chew. No one's
going to send you an email telling you anything. You have to go to a khat
chew, sit on the floor, and chew with people into the night.
And that's how you get intelligence. That's how you get permission. That's
how you get anything done.
GROSS: So you brought it up - describe what the high is like.
SCAHILL: I would say that it's an upper. It really opens up incredible, kind
of, creative circuits in your brain. You sometimes find yourself talking
very fast. You find yourself becoming completely just intertwined with
someone else's story that they're telling and imagining it, and your
imagination becomes vivid. And you also start to make grand plans with
We're going to do this. You know, many a meal was planned as I was talking,
you know, chewing khat. It's like tomorrow night we're all going to do this
and, you know, we don't do it, but it's an imagination.
GROSS: So do you think that being high on khat affected your reporting? I
mean, obviously it gave you sources you wouldn't otherwise have. It gave you
information you wouldn't have otherwise had. It might've affected your
interpretation of what you were getting.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCAHILL: No. I don't think so, at all. I mean I would - you know, one of the
reasons we started chewing khat when I was there was because we found that
we couldn't get anything done because everyone would close down for business
at 2:00 and we couldn't get any interviews with anyone. So once we started
going to khat chews we could book interviews with people for the morning,
you know, when we were completely sober.
I wasn't doing formal interviews with people while chewing khat. I was
arranging things. But, you know, I definitely recorded a lot of
conversations when we were chewing khat and they were very interesting. And
when I got back I went through all of my notes. So I really think it had a
positive impact on the reporting, but I understand while you're asking me.
If someone was running around the United States on LSD and then say, hey,
here's my serious reporting you'd say, oh, come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Well, exactly. Well, Jeremy Scahill, thank you so much for talking
SCAHILL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeremy Scahill is national security correspondent for The Nation.
You'll find links to his articles on our website freshair.npr.org where you
can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter
_at_nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------
Received on Fri May 18 2012 - 11:43:14 EDT