Our coverage of a recent press briefing conducted by the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, has struck a nerve. Since we published our piece on Friday, Jan. 24, Ms. Harf has responded to us in emails and on Twitter. We have published a reply from Ms. Harf, in full, here.
She says that we have “misconstrued” or “entirely misread” her comments. On Twitter, she accused us of making “false claims.”
Ms. Harf is flat wrong. We quoted Ms. Harf’s full comments, at length, for all of our readers to see. And our characterization was entirely accurate.
Ms. Harf’s response is telling and actually reinforces both of our key points. Zawahiri is operationally tied to terrorists in Syria and Ms. Harf mistakenly tried to dismiss his relevance. More importantly, the Obama administration has not offered a precise definition of al Qaeda’s “core” – even though this concept is the linchpin of the administration’s assessment of the al Qaeda threat. We encourage journalists to ask more questions about what administration officials mean, precisely, when they speak of al Qaeda’s “core.”
Al Qaeda, Zawahiri, and Syria
In her response, Ms. Harf does not dispute our well-documented claim that Zawahiri is, in fact, operationally tied to terrorists inside Syria. In her initial briefing she tried to downplay this possibility. She now claims, however, that our criticism of her comments is “patently false” because she said, in effect, “I didn’t know and that I needed to check with our team.”
We put Ms. Harf’s words (“Not to my knowledge”) in bold in our original piece, making it easy to see that she was speaking from her own personal knowledge. Still, it is absolutely clear from the transcript that Ms. Harf was trying to downplay the idea that Zawahiri had any operational relevance – not only in Syria, but also elsewhere.
Consider the full context surrounding her claim, “… I don’t know of more of an operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria.”
With respect to Zawahiri’s message, Ms. Harf began by saying, “I haven’t seen it.” She soon added, “I haven’t, quite frankly, seen the Zawahiri message.” But she also claimed that “this is not new rhetoric we’ve heard from Zawahiri.”
This is odd and shows how quick she was to dismiss Zawahiri’s importance. If she hadn’t seen, heard, or read a transcript of Zawahiri’s message yet, how did she know it was nothing new?**
Ms. Harf then proceeded to argue that the message she hadn’t seen was unimportant. We will again quote from the transcript of Harf’s press briefing:
…I think [Zawahiri] 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.
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.
So, from the State Department deputy spokesperson’s perspective, Zawahiri is more concerned about “his own personal security” than putting out propaganda (there is no room for an operational Zawahiri here). Zawahiri’s message was “nothing new,” and simply “propaganda” intended “to remain relevant.” It was also similar to other pieces of al Qaeda “propaganda” because the group tries “to take advantage … of local … conflicts in places like Iraq, places like Yemen, and places like Syria, to use that for propaganda purposes.”
Ms. Harf’s response, therefore, was an aggressive attempt to downplay the operational relevance of Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s senior leadership not only with respect to Syria, but also in other hotspots such as Iraq and Yemen. We obviously disagree.
It was after all of this that Ms. Harf said, “But beyond that, I don’t know of more of an operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria.”
Our interpretation of Ms. Harf’s comments was, therefore, spot on. The specific comment we criticized came after a string of similar claims, all intended to dismiss Zawahiri as more or less irrelevant.
What is the “core” of al Qaeda?
Sandwiched in between Ms. Harf’s reasons for dismissing Zawahiri’s message, she said this: “He’s – core al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides Zawahiri, has [sic] essentially the entire leadership been decimated by the U.S. counterterrorism efforts. He’s the only one left.”
This is clearly wrong.
In her response to our article, Ms. Harf offers, by our count, at least three different definitions of al Qaeda’s core (and possibly four). None of these definitions were in her original language, but we are happy to publish them now.
Ms. Harf’s alternative definitions of “core” al Qaeda are the following:
(1) The senior al Qaeda leaders who planned 9/11 are al Qaeda’s “core.” (“Zawahiri is the only senior AQ leader left from the group that planned 9/11 – from core al-Qaeda as we’ve known it.”)
(2) The al Qaeda “core” includes the leaders’ replacements. (“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.”)
(3) There is an al Qaeda “core” that includes not just the leadership, but also other members. (“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.”)
(4) The core of al Qaeda is the “specific core group” Zawahiri leads. (It is not clear what Ms. Harf meant, as it could mean any of the three definitions above. This is why we say that she has provided at least three different definitions of “core” al Qaeda.)
Ms. Harf’s original description of Zawahiri as the “only one left” in al Qaeda’s “core” could only possibly be true under definition #1.
Zawahiri is not the only one left if al Qaeda’s “core” includes replacement leaders, as well as other members besides the leaders. Ms. Harf concedes that the core does include these terrorists, thereby rendering her original claim wrong.
Ms. Harf says it “defies logic to argue that” Zawahiri is “literally the only core AQ fighter left.” We agree – and said so in our initial article, calling her original claim “ridiculous.”
If we take the first of Ms. Harf’s definitions literally – that the core of al Qaeda she intended to reference includes only “the group that planned 9/11″ – then we still run into a variety of problems. Even in this scenario, Harf’s argument is specious. As the 9/11 Commission found, the “details of the [9/11] operation were strictly compartmented” (see p. 250 of the commission’s final report). While it became generally known within al Qaeda that an attack was coming, most of bin Laden’s subordinates were left in the dark concerning the specifics. Simply put, most of al Qaeda in 2001 was not involved in the planning of the 9/11 attack and would, therefore, be excluded from a literal reading of Harf’s first definition of “core” al Qaeda.
As we pointed out in our original article, there are other al Qaeda leaders, besides Zawahiri, who were leaders within the group on Sept. 11, 2001 and remain active today.
An example is Saif al Adel, one of the masterminds of the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Al Adel remains a senior al Qaeda leader to this day and, according to the 9/11 Commission (see p. 251 of the commission’s final report), even opposed the 9/11 operation. No one would reasonably argue that al Adel isn’t a “core” al Qaeda leader and has been since prior to 9/11. (If we were to accept Harf’s first definition of al Qaeda’s “core” at face value, then al Adel would never have been “core” al Qaeda despite the fact that he helped execute al Qaeda’s most devastating attack prior to 9/11.)
If al Adel was “core” al Qaeda on 9/11 (and he was) and he remains a “core” al Qaeda leader today (and he is), then Harf’s comment is flat wrong. And it is.
Another “core” al Qaeda member at the time of 9/11, under any reasonable definition, would be Nasir al Wuhayshi. He was Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp, specifically picked to serve as the terror master’s protégé. Wuhayshi is the co-founder and emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has both threatened the continental US and waged an effective insurgency inside Yemen.
Careful readers will recall that Ms. Harf claimed that the war in Yemen is one of the “local” conflicts al Qaeda has tried to latch onto “for propaganda purposes.”
In early August 2013, it became widely known that Zawahiri had named Wuhayshi the general manager of al Qaeda’s global operations, which is certainly a “core” function. The relationship between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi goes well beyond mere propaganda.
We can easily point to additional examples of terrorists who were certainly important “core” al Qaeda members on 9/11 and who remain such today. There is simply no definition of “core” al Qaeda that validates Ms. Harf’s original comment about Zawahiri being the “only one left.”
There is still another logical problem with Ms. Harf’s response to our article. Ms. Harf writes, “Nobody is arguing that al-Qaeda is confining ‘its leaders to a small patch of ground in the Afghan-Pakistan region.'” But she also challenges us: “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…).”
Recall that, under her second definition of “core” al Qaeda, Ms. Harf said that al Qaeda’s “core” leaders 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.”
But two of the three terrorists she says we would be “hard-pressed to name” comparable replacements for were, in fact, themselves replacements for other senior al Qaeda leaders.
Rahman replaced other al Qaeda general managers who were killed or captured.
Abu Yahya al Libi was not a senior member of al Qaeda until after his escape from the Bagram detention facility in 2005. (He certainly did not have a hand in planning 9/11.) Al Libi replaced Rahman as al Qaeda’s “general manager.”
And now Wuhayshi has replaced al Libi.
Thus, we have repeatedly named senior al Qaeda leaders (Wuhayshi and others) outside of Af-Pak who are either equally important or not far behind the likes of al Libi and Rahman. Others within the Af-Pak region are being groomed. One need only look at the terrorists who publish in the Vanguards of Khorasan magazine to see this. Some of the ideologues within al Qaeda’s hierarchy in Af-Pak have actually served the group since the 1980s. The next al Libi within Af-Pak could easily be in the pipeline.
We could go on and on. In sum, all of our points stand. Some of the most important terrorists inside Syria loyally serve Ayman al Zawahiri. And the idea of “core” al Qaeda is a construct — one that, as it is currently employed, does not accurately convey al Qaeda’s international operations.
**As The Long War Journal will show in a forthcoming piece, Zawahiri’s message on the jihadist infighting in Syria was not merely “propaganda,” as Harf claimed. It was specifically cited by an influential Saudi cleric, Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, who proposed a reconciliation initiative for the jihadists in Syria. Abu Muhammad al Julani, the head of the Al Nusrah Front, then endorsed Muhaysini’s initiative.