On Friday, Jan. 24, we published a piece criticizing State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf’s comments on al Qaeda. Ms. Harf’s response to our post is published, in full, below.
In her initial email, Ms. Harf accused us of “cherry pick[ing] quotes from one of my briefings to criticize me ….” We responded that we in fact used the reporter’s questions, and her responses, in full. In a follow-up email, Ms. Harf outlined her criticism of our piece.
Here is Ms. Harf’s response:
You are correct, you pasted the whole quotes in the article – your analysis just completely misconstrued or entirely misread them. Comments highlighted below in response to your two accusations [LWJ note: Ms. Harf’s comments are not highlighted but are included under the block quotes from her briefing. She begins by quoting herself from the press briefing. We included these quotes in our article.]:
MS. HARF: Okay. I’ll take a look or a listen to that when I get back.
And look, this is not new rhetoric we’ve heard from Zawahiri. He’s – core al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides Zawahiri, has essentially the entire leadership been decimated by the U.S. counterterrorism efforts. He’s the only one left. I think he spends, at this point, probably more time worrying about his own personal security than propaganda, but still is interested in putting out this kind of propaganda to remain relevant.
I was making the point that of the high-value core al-Qaeda leadership targets the United States has had in our sights, Zawahiri is the only senior AQ leader left from the group that planned 9/11 – from core al-Qaeda as we’ve known it. Of course, al-Qaeda core does replace leaders that get taken off the battlefield, but they are replaced in general with younger, less experienced fighters who don’t have the same kind of operational background and who don’t have the same ability to plan external attacks. They are obviously still very dangerous – especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and when they partner with other local terrorist groups – but they are by any definition a shadow of what the group used to be. You would be hard-pressed to name another senior AQ leader in the Af-Pak region at Zawahiri’s, or Abu Yayha al Libi’s, or Atiyah Abdul Rahman’s level (I could go on and on…).
And when you read my full statement there, it’s clear that I’m talking about the core al-Qaeda leadership being decimated, not the entire group. It defies logic to argue that I think Zawahiri is literally the only core AQ fighter left. Having spent six years at the CIA – including three as our spokesperson talking about exactly these issues – your line that: “Beyond AfPak, however, Harf’s statement demonstrates that she has zero understanding of al Qaeda and its network” is as offensive as it is inaccurate.
And to your point about other AQ affiliates, I have spoken at length in my press briefings over the last several months about the fact that, as core al-Qaeda in AfPak is weakened, it has metastasized, and we’re increasingly worried about it in places like Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Nobody is arguing that al-Qaeda is confining “its leaders to a small patch of ground in the Afghan-Pakistan region.” But I was asked a specific question about Zawahiri, and I answered it in the context of the specific core group he leads.
So we’ve seen al-Qaida in the past try to take advantage for propaganda purposes of local – of conflicts in places like Iraq, places like Yemen, and places like Syria, to use that for propaganda purposes. But beyond that, I don’t know of more of an operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria.
QUESTION: So you’re not seeing any kind of operational command and control between core al-Qaida and what the militants in Syria —
MS. HARF: I’ll check with our folks. Not to my knowledge. But again, I want to check with our team just to make sure what the exact – on operational. We certainly know that elements in Syria take – al-Qaida elements in Syria take inspiration from folks like Zawahiri and from some of the language that we hear from him, and that, I’m sure, it’s the same kind of language that’s on this audio that I will take a look at when I get off the podium.
I was stating a fact here – that I don’t know if Zawahiri has operational command and control of terrorist elements in Syria. I wasn’t saying he doesn’t – I was just saying I don’t know. So your entire argument that: “Harf claims that there is no ‘operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria'” is just patently false. I said I didn’t know and that I needed to check with our team.
You can read our rebuttal to Ms. Harf here.