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How Yemen Became a Battleground

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In recent weeks U.S. drones in Yemen killed more than 30 people suspected of being militants. Gregory D. Johnson tells the stories behind the new Al Qaeda homeland, in an interview with KUSP Rick Kleffel.

Author Gregory Johnsen. Photo courtesy of

Author Gregory Johnsen. Photo courtesy of Jeff Taylor

By Rick Kleffel | KUSP’s Agony Column

“..he would shell somebody with one hand and then embrace them with the other…”

— Gregory Johnsen

Gregory Johnsen is immersed in the world of ‘The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.’ I must admit that it was only as I wrote the review of the book that I realized the part that world-building plays here. That’s what enables Johnsen to turn news is story and history into a suspenseful, exciting and informative book.
For Johnsen, the book was all about the story, not just the news. As we discussed ‘The Last Refuge,’ the pleasures of the reading experience returned. realized that John creates the places that he describes so well that as a reader, after you’ve read the book, you can go back and visit the scenes in your mind. It takes a certain kind of talent to extract the story from all the data, and Johnsen and I talked about finding the story in the headlines.

Johnsen has traveled extensively in Yemen, and understands the importance of the differences between the culture there and our own culture. Moreover, he understands how the political history that you can read about helped shape the characters he wrote about.

johnsen-the_last_refuge-203x300Johnsen’s talents as writer are matched by his talents as a speaker. It’s one thing to write a deeply researched book, but as we spoke, I came to understand that he had internalized the research to such a deep level that he was able to call up analysis and story at the same time, and analyze his own process.

I probably could have talked to Johnsen for twice as long about this book, because there\’s a great deal of detail that is really enjoyable to read, but I wanted more to tease out the threads he uses to connect all the details. I have to say that the book is much funnier than you would expect, and we talked about the humor, which is matched, word for word, by the horror. The ineptitude of Al Qaeda is not what you read about in the paper or see on the news.

Johnsen himself has been in the news of late, writing essays for the front page of the New York Times, and we talked about the difference between writing the book and writing for the papers. When you read this book, or even, I think, listen to this interview, your vision of news from this part of the world is irrevocably altered.

- See more at: http://blogs.kusp.org/agonycolumn/page/3/#sthash.hbgTB1VD.dpuf

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