Gregory D. Johnsen GS, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton, is a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen. He is the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia and writes the blog Waq al-Waq. He spoke with PAW intern Allie Weiss ’13 about the CIA and the fight against terrorism in Yemen.
What role should the CIA take in the fight against terrorism?
The U.S. has great technological tools — these drones that can do great things.
What I’m worried about is that the CIA is moving away from [collecting human intelligence], and ... we’ll be hamstrung by our lack of human intelligence on the ground. That, I think, is directly responsible for the number of civilian casualties that we see in a place like Yemen.
What has been the effect of civilian casualties in Yemen?
The U.S. has been carrying out strikes in Yemen since December 2009. They’ve certainly killed a number of people within al-Qaeda, but they’ve also killed a number of civilians. These civilian casualties are, I think, the main reason we’ve seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula go from a group that had 200 to 300 individuals in December 2009 to a group that is now, according to the best estimates by the U.S. government, at least 1,000 fighters and most likely more.
You argued in your recent op-ed for The New York Times [Nov. 19, 2012] that the C.I.A. is gradually shifting toward becoming a “paramilitary organization.” What do you think is the ideal role that the CIA should take in the fight against terrorism?
The CIA has always, since its founding, had a paramilitary aspect. But in recent decades what we’ve seen is that the CIA has shifted away from that, and has gone into gathering more human intelligence and disseminating that throughout the government. We have a variety of organizations doing overlapping jobs. So in Yemen, for instance, we have JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), which is running a drone program over Yemen. The CIA also runs a drone program over Yemen. And what we find is that the U.S. has great technological tools, these drones that can do great things that up until this point haven’t been possible. But one of the things that we’re finding is that all of these great technologies are still dependent on human intelligence on the ground. It doesn’t matter if a drone can stay up in the air for hours if the intelligence on the ground, and the target that it has on the ground, isn’t correct.
What I’m worried about is that the CIA is moving away from [collecting human intelligence], and that if President Obama and others don’t bring it back in and address what I call “drift,” then we’ll continue to have great technological advances, but we’ll be hamstrung by our lack of human intelligence on the ground. That, I think, is directly responsible for the number of civilian casualties that we see in a place like Yemen, which then of course leads directly to the increase in radicalization of people within Yemen.
How should the CIA approach issues in Yemen specifically, which has seen a rapid expansion of al-Qaeda in the past few years?
I think the U.S. needs to do two things — very small shifts that I think can make a very big difference. Right now the U.S. carries out two types of strikes within Yemen via drones. They carry out what are called high-value target strikes, and they carry out what are called signature strikes. What I would suggest is that the U.S. needs to move away from signature strikes, which are those strikes in which the identities of the people on the ground that are being targeted aren’t necessarily known, but the people fit into what the U.S. has determined to be “a pattern of life.” I’d like to see the U.S. stop doing these, which I believe are responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties. Taking signature strikes off the table, and using high-value target strikes much more judiciously, would, I believe, severely limit the number of civilian casualties we’re seeing within Yemen. At the same time, it would dry up some of the radicalization factor of people joining al-Qaeda. And when the U.S. isn’t turning out so many strikes within Yemen, this would also open up more space for Yemeni tribesmen to stand up and fight against al-Qaeda themselves, because those are the individuals who actually can defeat al-Qaeda.
The second thing is that the U.S. needs to do a better job of human intelligence gathering and collecting, so that when it does carry out the very limited and very rare high-value target strikes, it actually hits who it is that it’s aiming at. It’s one thing to call for more human intelligence on the ground, but that’s something that is going to be a very long-term project. But I think it is very important to do if the U.S. doesn’t want to be fighting the same war in Yemen in another decade.
What has been the effect of civilian casualties on Yemen?
The U.S. has been carrying out strikes in Yemen since December 2009. That same time, Christmas day of 2009, is when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula put a suicide bomber on a plane over Detroit. Thankfully, he failed in his attempt to bring down the plane. But since then, the U.S. has carried out several attacks in Yemen. They’ve certainly killed a number of people within al-Qaeda, but they’ve also killed a number of civilians. These civilian casualties are, I think, the main reason we’ve seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula go from a group that had 200 to 300 individuals in December 2009 to a group that is now, according to the best estimates by the U.S. government, at least 1,000 fighters and most likely more. One of the major reasons for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula growing that strong that fast are the civilian casualties. There are other reasons, but I maintain that that’s one of the major factors.
As President Obama prepares to enter his second term, what can he do to improve the fight against terror and the situation in Yemen?
The U.S. isn’t going to rethink its Yemen policy and isn’t going to start seeing Yemen as anything other than a terrorist threat. Taking signature strikes off the table, limiting the high-value target strikes, and increasing the intelligence on the ground are things that are in the ballpark of what the administration wants to do. They’re tweaks to the policy and tweaks to the approach, but they are small and possible tweaks that I think would make a big difference on the ground.
How do the citizens of Yemen feel about the U.S. presence in the country?
Yemen at the moment is a very broken and divided country. The feeling on the ground in one place is so completely different from the feeling on the ground in another place that it’s almost impossible to generalize. In the U.S., the debate tends to be about drone strikes and technology, because we lack the sort of legal or ethical framework. [Those issues are] what a lot of people are concerned about, and that makes sense from the U.S. point of view. In Yemen, the debate is much more about the casualties. The Yemenis don’t necessarily care if they’re being killed by a drone, by a plane, or a missile coming in from a ship — what they know is that Yemenis are dying, and that’s the primary topic of concern.
How much communication exists between U.S. diplomats and Yemeni citizens?
Ambassador [Barbara] Bodine of the Wilson School has talked very eloquently about risk aversion and risk management. We’ve seen this with Benghazi and other places, and unfortunately we have a situation in Yemen where there are very real security concerns, and at the same time U.S. diplomats are not really getting out [to interact with Yemenis]. They’re talking to some people within Sana’a, but it’s a very limited circle. It’s very tough to make very good policy that way. A lot of the diplomats in Sana’a, who are very good and very talented people, are unfortunately really limited by the security restrictions, some of which are in place for a good reason. It’s a difficult situation.
What do you see as the future of U.S.-Yemeni relations?
Yemen is going through a very difficult transition. The president lost his position because of the uprisings in 2011. In Tunisia we saw Ben Ali go into exile, in Egypt we saw Mubarak go to prison, and in Libya we saw Gadafi get killed, but in Yemen it’s been a very different situation. Although Ali Abdullah Saleh is no longer the president, he’s still very much an active political figure — he’s an opposition politician. So Yemen has this lurching transition that is going to be very difficult to manage, and I’m not quite sure if the ideas proposed by the United Nations and the U.S. are really going to work in the way that they imagine. I would think that the next year will be very tense and difficult for Yemen, and a very difficult one for the U.S. to manage.