former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, now a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.
The CIA is building a secret air base in the Middle East to serve as a launching pad for armed drones to strike Yemen. Since December 2009, U.S. strikes in Yemen have been carried out by the U.S. military with intelligence support from the CIA. Now, the spy agency is preparing to carry out drone strikes itself alongside the military campaign. The Wall Street Journal reports the CIA, in coordination with Saudi Arabia, has been ramping up its intelligence gathering efforts in Yemen in recent months to support a sustained drone campaign. We speak with Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and now a graduate student in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Yemen, where a major expansion of U.S. counterterrorism efforts are underway. The Associated Press reports CIA is building a secret air base at an undisclosed location in the Middle East that will serve as a launching pad for armed drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. Since December 2009, U.S. strikes in Yemen have been carried out by the U.S. military with intelligence support from the CIA. Now the spy agency is preparing to carry out the drone strikes itself, alongside the military campaign. The Yemen program is modeled on the CIA’s covert drone program in Pakistan. The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA, in coordination with Saudi Arabia, has been ramping up its intelligence gathering efforts in Yemen in recent months to support a sustained drone campaign.
When asked about drone strikes in Yemen, the White House spokesperson said last week Yemen was key to its counterterrorism operations.
REPORTER: On a separate issue, the drone strike in Yemen. Where does Yemen fit into this country’s counterterrorism effort?
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: Well, it’s a very important part of our counterterrorism effort. We’ve made clear — we have not in any way been secretive about it. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an important threat to the United States and to our interests around the world, and we have worked very closely with the Yemeni government to go after al-Qaeda because of the threat that it represents. It’s a very — it’s a serious issue.
AMY GOODMAN: That was White House spokesperson Jay Carney. To discuss this, we’re going to Cairo to talk to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen. He’s at the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University.
Welcome to Democracy Now! So the CIA is taking over these drone strikes. Talk about this program.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. I think what we’re seeing is that the U.S. is really being seduced here by what it thinks will be a quick and seemingly easy solution to the very difficult problem of al-Qaeda. This is something that the U.S. has done in Yemen before. Right after September 11th, the U.S. worked very closely with the Yemeni government. There was an early drone strike in November 2002 that really broke the back of al-Qaeda in Yemen. It killed an individual named Abu Ali al-Harithi, as well as a number of other people who were in the car with him. And after — about a year after that, in November 2003, al-Qaeda in Yemen had basically disappeared. But then after a jailbreak in 2006, the organization slowly reconstituted itself, to the point where we’re at now.
And so, what we have, I think, is that the U.S. believes that what it did in the early days of the war against al-Qaeda, it can do now. I think the problem with that is that if it continues to pursue the same strategy, just trying to pick off these leaders, continuing to kill these leaders, it will get the same results, and that is that these men will continue to be replaced. The simple, but I think very difficult, truth is that there’s just no magic missile solution to the problem of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about targeting people based on their patterns of life, Gregory Johnsen?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. This is one of the rather disturbing things that came out in the Wall Street Journal report, and it’s disturbing for a number of reasons. Earlier, the U.S. was targeting people that they knew to be militants, that they knew to be members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And we should be clear, there is a membership organization, if you will, and that is, that to be a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, you have to swear an oath of allegiance to the current emir or the current leader of the organization, an individual named Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The problem in Yemen is that you really have to think of Islamists in the country almost as on a spectrum. So al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is just one point along that spectrum. So there are many more Islamists, many more people in Yemen, who went off to fight in Iraq or went off to fight in Afghanistan, who aren’t members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And the reason they’re not members is because there’s some very serious theological differences going on between these militants about whether or not Yemen is a legitimate theater of jihad. So what the U.S. is doing by targeting these individuals based on patterns of life is essentially expanding this war. So when the U.S. starts to hit people who aren’t members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, then I think the real worry is that it expands this war to the point where so many people join up with al-Qaeda or so many people start fighting with al-Qaeda against the United States that it becomes a war that the U.S. just can’t kill its way out of.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a piece in The Atlantic magazine called "The CIA Plans Summer Blockbusters in Yemen" by Conor Friedersdorf, in which he wrote, "it’s unwise to grant one man, or one branch of government, carte blanche to kill anywhere on earth, especially with its secret intelligence agency.
"Remember? The Church Committee established the folly of this approach years ago in its landmark report on CIA abuses abroad during the tenures of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, declaring the necessity of better oversight [so] that similar excesses would never [happen again]."
He says, "As America obsesses over tweets of a Congressman’s penis, it is somehow still controversial to insist that shooting missiles or dropping bombs inside yet another country should be subject to robust public and Congressional debate. But what do you fear more, that elected officials forced to deliberate on these matters would be too restrained? Or that American leaders given extraordinary, effectively unchecked powers on a global scale will eventually abuse them in some horrifying way?"
That from The Atlantic magazine, by Conor Friedersdorf. Your response, Gregory?
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Yeah, I think that’s a very good point. And I’m certainly not a legal expert, but my argument would, I think, parallel with that, and that is that not only is this, I think, a dangerous expansion of the U.S. — and we just don’t know what the consequences and motivations of targeting these individuals in Yemen will be.
The U.S. has, unfortunately, a very poor track record of getting the individuals that it aims at in Yemen. One of the early air strikes in December 2009 was supposedly targeting an al-Qaeda training camp; instead, it killed a number of women and children. Al-Qaeda used that to, I think, great effect in its propaganda. The last air strike that they carried out as part of that campaign in May 2010, instead of killing the al-Qaeda operative they were after, they instead killed the deputy governor of Yemen. His tribe, the Shabwani tribe, has reacted very strongly, and they continue to be carrying out cuts on electric lines, on gas lines out in the province of Ma’rib. So this is something where I think the consequences of hitting the wrong individuals in Yemen is something that hasn’t really been well thought out. And this could be something where you get a few of these individuals, but the cost of doing so really exacerbates the situation.
And I would point to the number of attacks that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has carried out in Yemen. We know for a fact that the air strike campaign that the U.S. ran in late 2009, early 2010, increased recruiting for the organization. That is, more people saw Yemen as being under Western military attack, and so they joined up with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
AMY GOODMAN: Gregory Johnsen, we’re going to have to leave it there. We thank you for being with us, former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen.