THE LAST REFUGE: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. By Gregory D. Johnsen. W.W. Norton & Company. 352 pages. $27.95.

This is the story of the rise and fall and resurgence of al-Qaeda in Yemen, written from actual battle notes in English and Arabic.

It is an insider’s account of what happened inside training camps and safe houses spanning more than three decades. Gregory D. Johnsen introduces readers to people, villainous and heroic, caught up in war in Yemen involving the U.S. and al-Qaeda. He brings us to the place where zealots who fled Pakistan and Afghanistan met with former Guantanamo detainees to plot attacks against the U.S.

Yemen was not at the top of America’s list of concerns, he notes. It was thought of as a tiny country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

“The Last Refuge” is a play-by-play detailing the relationships among those we have heard about, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, Nasir al-Wulhayshi as well as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The exile of bin Laden and role of American politics is considered.

Johnsen treats the story as a chess game, explaining moves and countermoves in terms of strategy and importance. Injuries and events are described in excruciating detail, as if watching them on video, including public executions.

The story takes on an element of science fiction when he describes how 36-foot Predator drones reach their targets, thanks to cellphone signals. Such an attack took out Abu Ali al-Harithi, whom U.S. intelligence labeled “The Godfather.”

Johnsen describes debates at the White House, ideology and more. The FBI, CIA and other agencies were not in sync on what to do, he explains. Intrigue, betrayal, espionage, death and strategy are woven throughout the book, making it a fast-paced page-turner. The list of principal characters at the back helps enormously.

This is a must-read for those who want to understand the history and significance of al-Qaeda in today’s world.

Reviewer Doretha Walker is an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University.