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Why The Future Of Yemen Is So Important.

New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins recently returned from Yemen, where he met with demonstrators who have called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immediate resignation. Filkins explains why Yemen's uprisings are particularly worrisome for U.S. counterterrorism officials.



Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Why The Future Of Yemen Is So Important


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, journalist Dexter Filkins, spent several weeks in Yemen covering the
protest movement that is demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave office.
As inspiring as this youthful movement is, counterterrorist experts in the U.S.
are worried that if chaos follows Saleh's departure, al-Qaida fighters in Yemen
would be freer to plan attacks on America.

Filkins' article, "After the Uprising: Can Protestors Find a Path Between
Dictatorship and Anarchy," is published in the current edition of the New
Yorker. Before joining the New Yorker in December, Filkins covered the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.

His war reporting won a George Polk Award. His book, "The Forever War," won a
National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Dexter Filkins was in a
studio in Istanbul when we recorded our interview this morning.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you for joining us from
Istanbul. So of all the Middle East revolutions, why did you choose to go to
Yemen and cover the uprising there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Journalist, New Yorker; Author, "The Forever War"): I don't
know. It's a very, very interesting, unbelievably complicated, but also
important place. If you remember, I mean, let's - we'll obviously talk about
the revolution, but, you know, two attacks in the past year and a half or two
years have come out of Yemen - two attacks by al-Qaida into the United States.

There was - you know, they were planned there, or they originated there in some
way. And so there's this kind of very direct, kind of, Western interest in the
place, in addition to the fact that it's caught up - in a pretty thrilling and
wonderful way - it's caught up in the middle of, you know, the Arab awakening,
and they're trying to overthrow a leader who is repressive and has been in
power for 33 years when most of this country was not even alive. I mean, this
is a very young country.

So it's really interesting. I mean, there's just a lot going on there. But I
think what distinguishes it is that there really is this kind of direct,
American interest and engagement in it. It's not just kind of theoretical or,
you know, we're worried about Egypt becoming, you know, this or that if Mubarak

This is very, very direct because there's a pretty active al-Qaida phenomenon
in the countryside.

GROSS: And there seems to be some direct connections for you between Yemen and
other countries you've reported on. For example, you reported on the Iraq war
for years, and you say that Saddam Hussein was Yemen's President Saleh's
mentor. What was their relationship?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think it was - I think it was, you know, mentor to
protege. But, I mean, it was fascinating. When I was - I went to a couple of
rallies that President Saleh had in Yemen, just recently - I mean, just as
recently as a couple weeks ago.

He was having - I mean, as the anti-government demonstrations were unfolding,
and as they were growing, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of
people, he was kind of rallying. He was concocting his own demonstrations.

And so he would stage these enormous rallies that were essentially celebrations
of himself, and they were as - it was as if you were in a time capsule, and you
woke up, and you were in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein in, you know, 1995 or
something. I mean, it was - it just felt like a Baath Party rally. The flags
look exactly the same.

So it was a bunch of, you know, Arab - senior Arab leaders standing on an
elevated platform wearing Ray-Bans and listening to people cheer to them how
much they loved them and adored them and how much - how willing they were to
sacrifice their souls and their lives for this regime.

And so - and it was completely staged. I mean, it was ridiculous. I mean, if it
didn't feel like a Baath Party rally, it would feel like a, you know, I guess
the other metaphor would be, you know, the Supreme Soviet in 1936 or something,
I mean, it was something Stalin would be very familiar with.

But here is a crowd of 50,000 people, you know, just screaming, you know,
adoringly at the leader. And of course, they were all being paid and all

GROSS: How do you know they were all being paid? How did you find that out?

Mr. FILKINS: They told us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: I mean, they - and actually, this is a really funny aside, which
didn't make it into the story, but I went to a kind of pro-government rally,
and, you know, it kind of went as it was supposed to go, and everybody was
supposed to be paid who had been there.

And then apparently - and I say apparently because I couldn't quite nail it
down, although I think it did happen - some of these people didn't get paid,
and so they started chanting the anti-government slogans, as if they were, you
know, down at the university demanding the president's ouster. As soon as they
discovered they weren't going to be paid, they turned against the government.

But so - but the Baath Party connection, I mean, there really was a direct
connection between Saddam and Saleh, so direct that Yemen in 1990 - I think it
was 1990, just before the Gulf War started in 1991 - Yemen was the only Arab
state that voted against the U.N. resolution to expel Saddam, by force, from

And so they suffered. Their economy, which has suffered catastrophically
because of that vote, they were...

GROSS: What was the connection?

Mr. FILKINS: The connection - well, they, I think it was on the order of about
a million Yemenis were working in different places in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia,
the UAE, places like that. And they were expelled by Saudi or all the countries
that were basically supporting the U.N. resolution to expel Saddam expelled -
when the Yemeni government voted against the resolution, they expelled all the

And so that was a million people who had been, you know, working in relatively
well-paying jobs and bringing money home. So they really took a hit for that.
But that's how strong the connection was.

GROSS: And one other thing I want to ask you about, about the pro-Saleh rally
that you attended in Yemen, when he was introduced, you quote the introduction,
and the introducer says: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of all the Yemeni
people, the preserver of unity, savior of the nation, peace be upon him, His
Excellency Ali Abdullah Saleh. It sounds like the kind of intro James Brown
used to get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah, well, I had a good - I had a really - I was lucky that
day. I went to this rally. It was in the big - I think it's called like the - I
don't know, the Stadium of the Revolution. And I just had a very favored spot.
I was up on the viewing stand, and it was really hard for me to get there, but
I was basically - you know, at some point I was two feet from the president

So yeah, I got to see it all very, very up close, including him. So yeah, it
was pretty exciting.

GROSS: So my guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan for the New York Times. He's now with the New Yorker. His article
in the current edition of the New Yorker is about Yemen.

Now, so we were talking about the pro-government rally that you attended. You
also met with the woman who basically organized the opposition. And you should
pronounce her name for me.

Mr. FILKINS: Her name is Tawakul Karmen.

GROSS: Tawakul Karmen. Now, what was her - what's her background, and what was
her motivation for organizing the protest movement?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I should just say - you know, she's just an extraordinary
person, I mean woman. When you - you know, you go to a country like this -
somebody like me, you drop into a country like this, which kind of exists out
of time. It's a closed society. It's not open, by any means.

It's - the status of women there is, you know, centuries behind the West. I
mean, women wear, you know, head-to-toe chadors, everything but their eyes. You
don't really see women at all on the streets.

And somehow, you know, you meet a person, and you're just kind of amazed. And I
said this to her when I met her, when I met Tawakul, the leader of the
movement. I said: How did you happen? You know, like how did you turn out this
way? You know, and it is an amazing thing.

And so - but she's a very interesting women, but she, on the first night, or on
the first night of the first Arab revolution in Tunisia, which was January
14th, I think on the next night, she and like 10 other people went out to the
square in front of Sana'a University and started to demonstrate and started
just initially just to praise the Tunisian revolution.

And 10 people on the first night. And so, on the next night, it was 50 people.
And then the night after that, it was 300, and then, you know, a week later it
was 1,000. And then she was arrested, put in jail for three days. The
demonstrations kept going. They decided to let her go. And here we are, you
know, there are days - I think last Friday, there were probably more than a
million people demonstrating. And it started with 10 people. So it was just

But she - not to go on too long, but she - I met her at her house, and
afterwards, you know, one night at 11 o'clock or something - and what was
really striking was, you know, in trying to answer this question how did you
come to be, on her kind of mantel there were four framed pictures. And it was
Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Hillary Clinton and Martin Luther King.

And she was fascinating because she said to me, you know, for the last couple
of years, the last three years or so, you know, every change that she sought -
she would demonstrate, she and other people would demonstrate in front of the
president's palace, and they would demand, kind of, you know, to release this
journalist or for more press freedom or whatever.

And she said: You know, and then I saw the president of Tunisia fall, and it
hit me like a lightning bolt, you know, the whole regime has to go. And so she
headed for the square.

GROSS: Now, obviously a lot of the demonstrators are men. It's a country in
which women take a very background kind of role in things, in public life. So
how do the men who are demonstrating react to her as a leader?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a great question. I - somebody had mentioned Tawakul
to me pretty early on after I got there, and I got there kind of in early, mid-
February. And the demonstration was still pretty small.

And so I was just, you know, looking around, trying to figure out what was
going on. And someone said to me: You've got to find Tawakul Karmen. She's one
of the leaders. You know, she's a woman.

And so I had a hard time finding her. I didn't have her phone number. And I was
out there one night at the demonstrations, and it was like 10 o'clock at night.
And there were maybe 1,000 people there. It wasn't really big.

And suddenly, you know, in this ocean of men, this woman climbs up on the stage
and grabs a microphone and starts calling for the downfall of the regime. And
the people want the regime to fall.

And so right when Tawakul jumped up on the stage, you could just see the men
kind of look at each other and go: You know, who's that? But they followed her,
you know, and she was completely - I mean, she didn't miss a beat.

I mean, it's a weird thing because you go to these demonstrations. They've
changed a little, but 99 percent of the people at these demonstrations are men.
You know, there might be 100 women and 15,000 men, you know, and one of the
leaders is a woman, and they follow her. So it's pretty extraordinary.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's now writing
for the New Yorker magazine. His article in the current edition is about Yemen.
Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our conversation with Dexter Filkins, who spent
several weeks covering the protest movement in Yemen, which is demanding the
president leave office. Filkins article, "After the Uprising," is published in
the current edition of the New Yorker.

When we left off, we were talking about Tawakul Karmen, a young woman who is
one of the leaders of the protest movement.

While you were in Yemen, Karmen was arrested and detained for 36 hours. She was
released unharmed, but there was a threat delivered to her through her brother.
Would you explain what the threat was and what that has to say about the
regime's method of delivering the message to people that they're in danger?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, the first thing I should say probably is that - and I talked
about this with Tawakul, is that Yemen is, it's a repressive government, but it
is not a kind of nightmarish government. It's not Gadhafi's Libya. It's not as
repressive as Saudi Arabia.

It's kind of sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't, and it's not uniformly
draconian. So there's a little bit of space. You know, she felt, you know, free
to criticize him freely and say basically whatever she wanted.

In fact, she joked about it at one point. She said: You know, the thing about
this country is you can say whatever you want, but nothing ever changes.

But she - so she went out there on January 15th. She started to demonstrate,
she and 10 other people, and the demonstrations started to grow, and then she
was arrested by these plainclothes, you know, creepy guys, no IDs, no nothing,
taken away.

Now, you know, she could have never been heard from again, frankly. I mean,
that’s happened in that country. They held her for three days, and for reasons
that aren't really clear, they let her go. And, you know, I don't know if
somebody intervened on her behalf, whether the Americans did or whatever, but
they let her go.

And then, again, a kind of odd thing about this country and the regime is - and
you see this in other countries. You know, there are so few elites that they
all tend to know each other, even if they don't like each other.

And so the president, President Saleh, passed a message to Tawakul's brother,
who is a poet, whose name is Tarak(ph), and he was kind of a pro-president guy.
And he said: Look, nobody disobeys me. And control your sister. And if you
don't, I'm going to kill her.

And Tarak dutifully passed the message on to his sister. I think he, Tarak,
broke with the president at that moment. And Tawakul just kept right on going.
So, pretty amazing. And I think the last I heard, Tarak was composing anti-
government poetry and reading it aloud at the demonstrations.

So it's strange. I mean, she definitely had a death threat. Demonstrators have
been shot and killed in the streets. But it's unpredictable. You know, it's
just - you just don't know whether the government's going to be nice today or

GROSS: Is there a disagreement in the protest movement over whether to include
the Islamist party in Yemen? And, you know, the Islamists in Yemen are - that's
one of the really big concerns of the United States because al-Qaida has a big
presence in Yemen, and there have been al-Qaida-initiated attacks on the United
States that came from Yemen, initiated, that originated in Yemen.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. There is - I mean, that was a pretty live issue when I was
there. And I should sort of step back. People said to me, you know, 100 times
when I was in Yemen, they said: Look, Yemen, you have to remember Yemen is not
Egypt. It doesn't - it's not Tunisia. It doesn't have a middle class. It
doesn't have an intelligentsia. It doesn't have those things. It's basically a
rural society.

You know, most of the people live in the countryside. Most of the population is
very, very young. It's uneducated. It's illiterate. So - and it's deeply,
deeply conservative. So in a place like Egypt, where you have just this kind of
giant middle class that's super-educated and exposed to the West and has a lot
of the - shares a lot of values with us, that's not necessarily true in Yemen.

And so what you had and what was pretty - you know, it was - I never really
worked it out in my head, and I don't think they worked it out, either, but you
had - the demonstrations in the beginning were led mostly by the students and
by young people.

And these are, you know, really educated, privileged, smart, sophisticated
kids. And they knew what they wanted. And people like Tawakul, I mean, they
want - you know, they basically want what we want. You know, they want freedom
and democracy and a free press and all the things that they've been denied.

And what's strange is - what's been difficult or kind of, I think, difficult
for them but kind of strange to witness is that as the movement has gotten more
popular, and it certainly has, it's become a popular movement, it's - there's
these tensions with the rest of the society, which is basically very, very
conservative and very religious, and that includes the Islamists.

And there's an Islamist party there. And I was there. I mention this in the
piece. There was this extraordinary moment when a guy named Abd al-Majid al-
Zindani, who's an imam and a cleric, and he got up and spoke in front of the
students. I mean, you know, in that day, there must have been 10,000 people
there. There was a huge crowd. And, you know, kind of a stir went through the
crowd. And he got up on the stage, and he started to speak, and he said: The
caliphate is coming. You know, the caliphate is coming - and very Islamist

And so it was the first time I'd seen that. And then after that speech, just by
chance because again, this is in a sea of people, I happened to see Tawakul,
who's not Islamist at all and, you know, is pretty secular in her outlook.
She's a woman. She's a liberal.

I saw her, and she was furious. You know, she said: We had a big fight about
this, you know, the rest of the leaders and I, over whether to allow Zindani to
speak. And she said: I was against it. You know, this is not a religious
movement. This is a youth movement. It's secular. And so you can see the
tensions kind of already coming to the fore.

GROSS: So are there people within the movement who think the Islamists should
be included? I guess so if they let Zindani speak.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, yeah, but I think it's even bigger than that. I think it's
that the movement itself, as it becomes more popular, it necessarily becomes
more religious, more Islamist, because that's the way society is.

And so I think it's going to be - you know, if - and I don't like to predict
the future because it's usually not a good idea, but I'm - I'll put it this
way: I'm concerned that the people like Tawakul, the liberals, you know, small
L, the people who generally have a secular outlook and want to have a kind of
secular state, I'm worried that they're going to get pushed aside.

As the movement becomes more of a mass movement, it will become more Islamist,
almost necessarily.

GROSS: And if it becomes more Islamist, does that leave the door open to al-
Qaida to have a more official place at the table?

Mr. FILKINS: I don't know. I mean, personally, I think when you look at these
Arab - the revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world, whether it's in Yemen
or Egypt or anywhere else, I think - I mean, I think it's a catastrophe for al-
Qaida. I mean, I think, you know, they've thrived on these closed, repressive
societies for years. And now, suddenly, the fresh air and the sunlight are
coming in, and I think they're in trouble.

So I don't think they're going to get a seat at the table that way, but I do
think they - al-Qaida thrives on chaos and despair, and, you know, there's
certainly no shortage of that in Yemen.

GROSS: My guest, Dexter Filkins, will be back in the second half of the show.
His article about Yemen, "After the Uprising," is published in the current
edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back but with journalist Dexter Filkins. He
spent several weeks in Yemen covering the protest movement that is demanding
the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Filkins article, “After the
Uprising: Can Protesters Find A Path Between Dictatorship And Anarchy,” is
published in the current edition of The New Yorker. Before joining the magazine
in December, he covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York

What are some of the options that the Obama administration sees when they look
into the future of the Yemen?

Mr. FILKINS: I think they're all bad. I mean that's the problem. I mean here's
the problem. You had a guy in power for so long, 33 years. You know, 1978, I
mean, you know, Jimmy Carter was president in 1978.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: He’s been in power for so long and that he has gutted and
basically hollowed out every institution in that country. So in reference to
the government and to the armed forces, he's hollowed out those institutions
and replaced them with, you know, his family and cronies. And so, you have I
think 27 or 28 family members spread throughout the government. So his son is
head of the Republican Guards. You know, his nephew is the head of the
Mukhabarat. I mean you just go, you know, he has another relative who is head
of the oil ministry, another one who's head of the national airline. I mean
it's just one thing after another, so it's just a big giant family business.

And so, if you get rid of the family, you get rid of the state and then it all
falls apart. And so that's what they're wrestling with. It's like look, if we
get rid of the Saleh family and the whole clan, how can we devise something
that will prevent the state from completely collapsing? You know, and that's
not, you know, that's not easy, and I think it's why it's kind of taken – I
mean this has been a very slow motion revolution in Yemen. You know, I mean
this has been going on for two months now, people have been demonstrating in
the streets.

GROSS: And Yemen is a particularly important place in terms of the United
States' safety because it's a home to so many members of al-Qaida. And it's
interesting that the president of Yemen has been helpful officially to the
United States in the campaign against al-Qaida and the United States has bombed
al-Qaida sites in Yemen and there was some kind of deal made where Saleh said
that U.S. could bomb but he would take credit for the bombings.


GROSS: He told Petraeus that the U.S. could continue missile strikes against
al-Qaida as long as the Yemeni government could take credit for them. That was
a revelation from WikiLeaks. So is he playing both sides? Because on the one
hand he’s allowed his country to be a home to many al-Qaida cells, and at the
same time he's allowing the United States to bomb al-Qaida.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think the most generous interpretation to Saleh – and I'm
not, I mean I'm not sure I would endorse that, but I think the most generous
interpretation he is just he presides over an extremely weak state, and so al-
Qaida thrives, you know, outside the reach of the state and he can't stop them,
he can't control them. So he's decided to allow the United States a great deal
of latitude in attacking al-Qaida.

The problem there - and this is true across that part of the world, you know,
whether it's Karzai or, you know, the Saudi's or somebody else - the United
States isn't popular. So if the word gets out - and it has gotten out - you can
never keep these things secret. But I think the idea is if it is known that the
Yemeni government is allowing the United States to bomb and fire missiles at
targets in Yemen - which often miss their targets and kill the wrong people -
that will be really, really hurtful and harmful to the Yemeni government. So,
you have this bizarre shorthand going on, which was in the WikiLeaks cables.
It's hilarious, you know, where Saleh is saying to Petraeus, you know, look,
you keep bombing and I’ll keep saying we did it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: So and there’s all sorts of weird, you know, weird bits of
dialogue like that, but it's very, very complicated. And I'll just give you one
example of what's happened there and it's, you know, it's like out of a spy
novel. But last May, there was an American's strike. I think it was a Predator
drone strike fired at some al-Qaida people outside of the capital of Sanaa. It
hit its target. It killed some al-Qaida people. It also happened to kill the
deputy governor of a province, of Marib province. His name is Shabwani, and it
killed the deputy governor. And so within, you know, within hours people in
Yemen knew that there was a, they knew that there had been a strike, an
airstrike, probably an Americans strike. I mean every taxi driver in town

And so I had a conversation with an American official in Washington about this
very strike. And I said look, you know, it looks like you killed some of the
people you wanted to but then you killed the deputy governor and it backfired
on the Yemeni government and they went crazy and they’ve stopped allowing the
United States to do these strikes. And the answer that came back from this very
senior American official was well, the deputy governor was killed because, he’s
part of, basically he's part of al-Qaida. So you actually - and he said that's
not uncommon. You have many parts of the Yemeni government in the local areas
have relationships with al-Qaida. And so that's how complicated it is.

I mean it's just really, really complicated. But anyway, the end result of that
strike, which was in May of last year, that was May of 2010, so almost a year
ago, was Saleh basically said to the United States no more. You know, we can't.
These are too politically difficult for me. You know, you guys are dropping
your bombs and you're killing, you know, you killed one of my deputy governors
so we can't allow it anymore. And so they're not allowing the Americans to do
anything and then when you talk to the Americans about what the Yemeni
government is doing the Yemeni government is not doing anything against al-
Qaida. They go to the Yemenis, the Americans do, the go to the Yemenis, they
give them targeting information, they give them maps. They say here’s a list of
names, go take these people out. Yemeni government doesn't do anything. And so
the bottom line is for the past 11 months basically, almost a year, you had
almost no counterterrorist operations going on against al-Qaida in Yemen.

GROSS: Meanwhile, last year, 2010, the Defense Department spent $150 million to
train and arm Yemeni security forces. Are there fears in the Obama
administration, in the U.S. military that those weapons could be turned against
us or against the demonstrators?

Mr. FILKINS: I think it's the latter. I think it's the latter. I had a lot of
conversations about the training program that we’re doing. We're providing them
with helicopters, night vision goggles, weapons, you know training, all sorts
of stuff. And the first complaint of the Americans, I mean I talked to this one
guy who was involved in the program and he said look, you know, I can't tell
you the number of times that we've gone to the president, President Saleh, and
we’ve put information on his desk and we've said here are the bad guys. Go get
them. And he says thanks, you know, and then nothing happens. And he said, you
know, we just can't get him to do anything. And so long pause and he said, you
know, if he's not using these guys that we are training against the bad guys
what's he want them for? And he said, you know, my concern is that, you know,
we're training this whole big force to basically protect the warden. That's how
he put it, to protect the president.

And so there's I think, you know, the American officials in Yemen say we have
drawn very bright red lines and said to President Saleh you cannot under any
circumstances use these troops, these counterterrorism troops, against say
nonviolent demonstrators. You cannot do that. The moment you do that we will
leave. We'll pull the plug on the program. There are suspicions that they are
but at this point they're just that, just suspicions.

GROSS: Do you see parallels between Yemen and Pakistan in terms of the
ambiguity of the government’s position on al-Qaida?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes, I do. I do. I mean, you know, the Pakistan one is pretty
well-known, you know, unbelievably complicated but essentially you have, you
know, the United States providing, you know, more than $1 billion a year in aid
to the Pakistani government, which to fight the Taliban largely. And
simultaneously the Pakistani government is, it becomes clearer and clearer each
day, is helping the Taliban against the United States. So it's kind of very
complicated double game.

I don't think it's that pronounced in Yemen. But when you talk to people, when
you talk to people, I mean there is a bit of a - I don't know if double game is
the right way. But somebody put it to me this way, they said, you know, for us
or to Saleh, to President Saleh, the Americans, al-Qaida, you know, we're just
a couple more tribes he has to deal with. You know, this is a tribal society
and he’s constantly balancing one tribe against the other. And he said, you
know, al-Qaida's a tribe and like the Americans are a tribe. So he's just
playing everybody off against everybody else but the ultimate aim, of course,
is keeping himself in power.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, former war
correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. He's now writing for The New Yorker magazine and his piece in the
current edition is about Yemen, where he was for several weeks.

So let's take a 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 Dexter Filkins, former war
correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. He’s now writing for The New Yorker magazine and his piece in the
current edition is about Yemen, where he was for several weeks.

So you described Yemen as a very tribal culture and you met with one of the
powerful leaders of a tribal group. So tell us about the person who you met

Mr. FILKINS: Well, his name was Hamid Al-Ahmar and he was really, boy, he was
quite a character. I met him in his house, which looks like a castle. I mean
there's 20-foot high sandstone walls. It's, you know, marble floors and kind of
gigantic chandeliers and nothing understated. And his house surrounded by guys
with machine guns and, you know, RPGs and I mean a small army. And this is in
the middle of, you know, downtown, this is in the middle of the capital. And so
I met him. He’s, Hamid Al-Ahmar is an extremely ambitious guy. And if you had
to put your money on who would end up in some ways wielding the most power in
Yemen after Saleh leaves it will be Hamid Al-Ahmar - whether he’s formerly the
president, probably not, or something like the vice president or prime minister
or something. He'll be the man in the driver's seat. So I thought it would be a
good idea to go see him and, you know, I was led into his giant marble

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: ...and I sat down with him and quite a character. But and I
remember he said to me, he told me just to, he told me this hilarious story
about the president himself. And he said I think that President Saleh had a
very unhappy childhood. He said perhaps the most unhappy childhood in history.
And he said for his entire life he's been taking out this unhappy childhood on
all of us. And he said I think the president is never so happy as when he has a
very powerful person on his knees in front of him begging for his life. This is
what makes the president really happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Gosh.

Mr. FILKINS: So, I couldn’t tell. I thought he was joking but I think he

GROSS: Well, talk about hysterical stories, this person also told you that when
Saleh tried to travels to Europe, he’s in his 60s, that he carries Viagra in
his pocket.

Mr. FILKINS: Always. Always. Yeah. I mean, well, you know, and what was really
weird about Yemen is there this whole absolutely bizarre phenomenon of khat,
which is this kind of it’s like an evergreen shrub and everyday, you know,
probably three quarters of the country stuffs an enormous amount of cot in its
mouth in its cheeks so that their, people's cheeks are just kind of bulging
like there's a softball in it and get high. I mean it's a narcotic plant. So
and this starts about one o'clock or two o'clock and then, but so literally by,
you know, by mid-afternoon most of the country is high.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: And so it's not a powerful narcotic but it's pretty strange. And
so everybody kind of goes into this haze for about six hours and then, you
know, things start to pick up again later in the evening.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like when you met with this tribal leader he was chewing

Mr. FILKINS: He was chewing khat. Yeah.

GROSS: Did that affect the conversation do you think?

Mr. FILKINS: I don't know. I don't know. I guess so. But he, yeah, he had a
giant wad of khat in his mouth and, but was feeding me, you know, pastries and
almonds and things like that on a platter. None for himself. It suppresses the

GROSS: Now you said that if there is change in Yemen that this tribal leader
that you met with would likely be in the driver's seat whether he’s officially
an elected leader or, you know, or not. He could buy power too. I mean he’s a
billionaire in Yemen, which is like the poorest country in the region.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yes. He runs the big cell phone company there called and he
is, he’s a billionaire. The whole money thing in Yemen is so strange. You know,
it’s like Deep Throat in “All The President’s Men,” you know, he says follow
the money, you know. And that's what you have to do in the societies, you have
to follow the money to kind of figure out how the society really works. And so
you have Hamid Al-Ahmar who’s a billionaire.

But then you have really one of the strangest kind of social phenomenons I've
ever seen. Which is, you have the Yemeni government and the Saudi government
both essentially enacting this enormous system of nationwide bribery. I mean I
don't know how else to describe it. They have placed, on their payroll, most of
the tribal leaders in the country. And so, I mean I talked to tribal leaders
about this. And so if you were the head of a tribe or kind of a, you know, even
a mid-level leader in one of the big tribes in Yemen, you just get, you get a
lot of money from the government and you get a lot of money from the Saudi
government. And the purpose of this money, you don't have to really do anything
in return except to keep the peace, just kind of keep your people quiet. And
that's the way - I mean again, it's such a strange society, but that's how the
peace has been kept there for so long. You know, I mean that's basically how
Saleh has kind of managed it.

He's kind of kept the tribal leaders reasonably happy. The rest of the country
is impoverished and the Saudi's have kind of, you know, they're concerned about
what happens there too because it's right on the border, and so they've kind of
pitched in as well, you know. And so - really strange.

GROSS: Well, so this could be a recipe for civil war, maybe. Like you take away
the president, you take away his payments to the tribal leaders, and do the
tribal leaders get along or do they fight?

Mr. FILKINS: They fight. They fight. And I think that's the concern. You know,
somebody said to me - well, more than one person said to me, you know, 70
percent of I think the public revenues in Yemen come from oil. Oil will be gone
in 10 years or begin to run out. Most of the water will begin to run out in 10
years. And so, but in the short term, you know, as Saleh’s position in power
was threatened he started to beef up payments to the tribal leaders and he
started to pay them more and he started, he gave raises to the army and he gave
raises to, you know, this vast public sector that he has.

And so the government is running out of money. And so the foreign reserves, I
mean their currency is kind of the, the riyal it's kind of worthless on the
international market. So, but their foreign reserves are basically rapidly
disappearing. And so one person said to me at one point well, I think maybe
Saleh can make it through this political crisis but he sure as heck can't make
it through the economic crisis which is coming, you know, in two or three
months when this government runs out of money, basically.

GROSS: It sounds like things are actually getting very dangerous for the United
States in Yemen now - as the government becomes weaker and as the United
States, as a longer time collapses in which the United States cannot do strikes
against al-Qaida because it no longer has that agreement with the Yemen
government that it can do it - more al-Qaida fighters are coming Yemen.
According to a report by your former colleague Eric Schmidt, in The New York
Times, he says there's a small but steady stream of Islamist fighters coming
from other countries to Yemen and that U.S. Intelligence says that there’s
chatter indicating that al-Qaida is – al-Qaida in Yemen is planning another
attack against the United States.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Well, I think that's why the U.S. has been so engaged in
Yemen. I mean there's kind of Yemen as Yemen, and then Yemen as a potential
threat to the West and the United States. And so, yeah. I mean I think the
concern is that if the president falls and there isn't, you know, a very well
thought through transition plan, the place will kind of crumbled. And, you
know, again, al-Qaida thrives on that.

I don't know - you know, if you look back I think it was the Christmas Day
bomber 2009, that originated in Yemen. I think you had the guy in Texas at Fort
Hood who shot all those people, he was inspired by - was said to be inspired by
- Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaida-related cleric who is in Yemen as well. So
there's a lot of these lines go back to Yemen.

GROSS: And those postal bombings where there were...


GROSS: ...was it printers with explosives...

Mr. FILKINS: Printer cartridges.

GROSS: ...inside that were shipped to the United States.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, they were...

GROSS: That originated in Yemen too.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: They were shipped from Yemen anyway.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. And so that's the concern. I mean I think again, al-Qaida
sort of thrives in these large ungoverned spaces and so the fear is that as the
government gets weaker and as the government disintegrates - which clearly,
it's doing - I mean army units have already been pulled out of all sorts of
different places. You saw that spectacular thing last week where the ammunition
factory exploded. You know, the army had abandoned this giant ammunition
factory and then the looters descended on it and then it blew up. It killed 150
people. The fear is that we're going to see more of that because the government
is basically disintegrating before this revolution and that al-Qaida will be
able to take advantage of that.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's now writing
for The New Yorker magazine. His article in the current edition is about Yemen.

Let’s take a short break here, then we’ll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's now writing
for The New Yorker magazine. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for
The New York Times. His article in the current edition of The New Yorker is
about Yemen.

You’ve been covering the Middle East for a long time. What's your reaction to
seeing all of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa now?

Mr. FILKINS: It’s a pretty wonderful thing to see. I mean it really is. It's,
you go down - I mean I'm just thinking now when I got there in mid-February in
Yemen and, you know, again, these are closed societies. These are societies
where the government has done everything in its power to kind of - to keep
everything, you know, any hope of a better future or ideas of a better future
or ideas of a different way to live away from the people.

And here you had - you know, I remember when I landed in Yemen, I landed at the
airport and drove straight to Sana University. And here are, you know, 22-year-
old kids who are, you know, fighting, and in some cases dying, for all the
things that, you know, that we believe in - you know, for democracy and the
rule of law and for freedom of speech and press and those things - and it's
incredibly inspiring. I mean to see somebody like Tawakul Karman kind of, you
know, rise out of this and to be able to articulate a democratic vision, as
well as anybody in the West, is remarkable in its so inspiring to see.

And I think what's also been so clear, and particularly in a place like Yemen,
you know, the leaders just they’re stunned, you're just blown away. They just
don't know how to react, you know, they're like this never happened before. And
one of the things I did when I was in Yemen was I had gone to one of these
rallies that Saleh had, one of these pro-government rallies. And, you know,
they're bizarre spectacles. And I went and looked up - as you can do, just to
remind myself - on YouTube you can find the old video from 1989 of the Romanian
dictator, Ceausescu, going out. And this is, I think, probably just a couple of
hours before he's executed and his government is overthrown. He goes out on the
balcony, you know, out into the square, you know, whatever it was called, the
victory of socialism square and the giant crowd is out there - as he had done,
you know, a thousand times before - and the crowd, you know, cheered him

And in this case, the crowd just starts to jeer. And you see Ceausescu’s face
just kind of collapse. You know, he can't, he’s just, he can't believe it. And
it hasn’t quite come to that in Yemen, but you can feel it. You can feel it.
The government just doesn't know - none of these governments know what to do.
You know, they offer, you know, they dissolve their cabinet. They always do the
same stuff. But it’s incredibly inspiring. It really is. You can't help but be
moved by it.

GROSS: You covered the war in Iraq for years and when the Bush administration
decided to invade Iraq, many members of the Bush administration and
neoconservatives who supported the invasion, like Bill Kristol, said if we
topple Saddam Hussein’s government and help create a democracy there, democracy
will spread through the Middle East. That didn't happen. Iraq is still, you
know, trying to create democracy, slowly, but there's still a lot of fighting
between different factions in Iraq. It does not seem to have caused democracy
to spread through the Middle East. Many people say it really strengthened al-
Qaida. But now, ever since Tunisia, that has spread through the Middle East.
And I guess I'm wondering if you're comparing those two scenarios a lot.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yeah. Inevitably. Well, I think the first thing that’s
obvious, I mean here you have these really thrilling, wonderful, inspiring -
where the people are kind of rising up and saying, you know, enough. We're not
going to take these repressive leaders anymore. That's just an amazing thing to
see. And so - but the principle difference between say Yemen and Egypt and Iraq
is, you know, one was imposed from outside and the other, you know, bubbled up
from within. And you can, I mean, it never felt like that in Baghdad.

But the other thing I think, you know, to credit whether, you know, it's George
Bush or Bill Kristol or one of those guys. When George Bush asked the question,
as I think he did, why should we assume that democracy - that the Arab people
don't want democracy? Why should we assume that? Well, he was right about that.
I mean, when you hear people in the streets in Yemen, you know, 22-year-olds
articulate what they want, it’s a deep yearning that I think comes from
people's hearts and souls. And they know exactly what they want, and it's
basically the same thing we want. And so in that sense, it feels universal. It
really does. And I think they were right about that.

GROSS: Well, Dexter Filkins, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins’ article about Yemen, “After The Uprising,” is published
in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to the article on
our website,, where you can also download Podcasts of our

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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