State Department deputy spokesperson mischaracterizes al Qaeda

Yesterday, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf made two ridiculous claims about al Qaeda during a briefing with reporters. First, she claimed that there are no “operational” links between al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and jihadist groups in Syria. And second, she said that Zawahiri is the only remaining member of “core” al Qaeda. From the briefing [emphasis ours]:

QUESTION: Okay. And then, secondly, there were some reports that Ayman Zawahiri has recorded another message – it’s on militant websites – telling militants to unite in Syria. Are you aware of these and do you have any response?

MS. HARF: I haven’t seen it. I think – a few points: Obviously, we are concerned about the terrorist threat in Syria. We’re concerned about al-Qaida affiliated elements from taking advantage of the situation there to conduct terrorist attacks. I haven’t, quite frankly, seen the Zawahiri message. Did you say it was an audio message?


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.

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.

But beyond that, again, we’ve been very clear that because of the Assad regime’s climate it’s created in Syria, we are increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat. Certainly.

First, Harf claims that there is no “operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria.” There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that this isn’t true.

Zawahiri stepped into the leadership dispute between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) last year. He demanded that the leaders of both organizations file a report with him. They each complied. He then issued a ruling in late May that ISIS and its emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, disagreed with and openly defied. The dispute with ISIS is more nuanced than most analysts let on, but it is obviously a very serious disagreement. (We have covered this in-depth, and will have more on this in the near future.)

But even if we were to assume that all of ISIS has now gone rogue (and there are good reasons to think this isn’t true), Zawahiri retains the loyalty of the Al Nusrah Front and al Qaeda operatives embedded within other extremist groups.

There is simply no reason to believe that the Al Nusrah Front is anything other than a loyal branch of al Qaeda. When the leadership dispute with ISIS went public last year, Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri. Other parts of the State Department know this. When Julani was designated a global terrorist in May 2013, Foggy Bottom noted: “Although al Nusrah Front was formed by AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS] in late 2011 as a front for AQI’s activities in Syria, recently al Julani publicly pledged allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader.”

In December, Julani granted an interview with Al Jazeera. He explained that as far he was concerned, Zawahiri’s word on the leadership dispute was final. Julani said:

Very briefly, a difference occurred and this happens between brothers in the same house. The outcome of this difference was what you heard in the media. This difference was conveyed to our and their emir Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, may God protect him. He resolved the difference as you have heard. There is no longer anything that is hidden from the public. The issue was much exaggerated; it is much simpler and easier but took a much larger size and it began to be circulated on the Internet and other media. The issue is much smaller. We are proceeding along the road on the basis of our plan. The difference reached the conclusion that was heard by all. It was resolved by Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri and things stopped there.

Of course, from the perspective of some leaders within ISIS, including its emir, the dispute was not resolved. But Julani’s words show just how much he defers to Zawahiri. According to Julani, Zawahiri has the final say on leadership issues. Is this not an “operational” link?

Julani went on in his interview with Al Jazeera, explaining that Zawahiri “has given us a large margin to decide on our own” how to operate. This does not mean that Zawahiri has given up control of the group. It means that Zawahiri is following the old al Qaeda saying, “centralize the decision, decentralize the action,” which has long been the group’s modus operandi. Zawahiri doesn’t need to micromanage every single decision Julani makes. Basic modern organizational theory (and common sense) should tell us that it is inefficient for him to do so. But it is still within Zawahiri’s purview, according to Julani himself, to decide how much latitude Julani and his subordinates have.

Moreover, Julani said, Zawahiri has been giving direction for their efforts. “Dr. Ayman, may God protect him, always tells us to meet with the other factions,” Julani said. “We are committed to this and this is a basic part of the principles of jihadist work in general, including work by al Qaeda.”

If Al Nusrah’s story isn’t enough, how about the story of Abu Khalid al Suri (Mohamed Bahaiah), a senior leader in Ahrar al Sham and longtime al Qaeda operative who was named by Zawahiri as al Qaeda’s mediator in the dispute between the ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front? Zawahiri has issued guidelines to the jihadist groups in Syria to settle their dispute, which both al Suri and Julani have echoed. And, in December, the US Treasury Department identified al Suri as “al Qaeda’s representative in Syria” and said that he was funneling cash from Gulf donors through Syria “to al Qaeda.” This sounds operational to us.

Second, Harf claims that Zawahiri is the only member of “core al Qaeda” remaining. This is not true even with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can easily identify additional “core” al Qaeda members in South Asia. (For instance, Zawahiri discussed the leadership dispute between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front with his shura council. This was revealed in Zawahiri’s letter. Harf is assuming that no such council exists.)

Beyond AfPak, however, Harf’s statement demonstrates that she has zero understanding of al Qaeda and its network. For The Long War Journal’s view of al Qaeda’s international network, as well as the issue of a “core” al Qaeda, see Tom Joscelyn’s testimony before Congress in July 2013:

In my view, al Qaeda is best defined as a global international terrorist network, with a general command in Afghanistan and Pakistan and affiliates in several countries. Together, they form a robust network that, despite setbacks, contests for territory abroad and still poses a threat to U.S. interests both overseas and at home.

It does not make sense to draw a firm line between al Qaeda’s “core,” which is imprecisely defined, and the affiliates. The affiliates are not populated with automatons, but they are serving al Qaeda’s broader goals. And al Qaeda has dispatched “core” members around the globe. As the 9/11 Commission found, Al Qaeda’s senior leaders have always pursued a policy of geographic expansion. The emergence of formal affiliates, or branches, has been a core al Qaeda objective since the early 1990s. While the affiliates have varying degrees of capabilities, and devote most of their resources to fighting “over there,” history demonstrates that the threat they pose “over here” can manifest itself at any time.

In addition to its affiliates, al Qaeda operates as part of a “syndicate” in Central and South Asia. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2010, “A victory for one [member of the syndicate] is a victory for all.” Al Qaeda and its allies control territory inside Afghanistan today. If additional parts of Afghanistan fall to the syndicate in the coming years, it will strengthen both al Qaeda’s ideological messaging and operational capability.

For the sake of argument, let’s take Harf’s statements seriously and accept that al Qaeda has a “core” that is distinct from its far-flung, loosely organized affiliates. If this is correct, then how does she view Nasir al Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s general manager, who isn’t even based in the Afghan-Pakistan region (he is in Yemen)? He also leads al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Does Harf consider Wuhayshi “Core al Qaeda”? If not, why?

There are plenty of other old-school “core” al Qaeda leaders who are still in the business. We won’t list them all, but will give you two other examples. Take Saif al Adel, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. If al Adel were in Iran, would Harf consider him to be “Core al Qaeda,” or must he be in Pakistan to qualify? And wouldn’t that mean that there are two core al Qaeda leaders left? The Obama administration has previously identified al Qaeda’s network inside Iran as being a “core pipeline” for al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. Known, longtime al Qaeda operatives run the operation inside Iran.

How about Abu Anas al Libi, the “core” al Qaeda leader who, according to a report written by the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office and published by the Library of Congress, helped establish al Qaeda’s network in post-revolution Libya prior to being captured by US forces in Tripoli in early October 2013? Or is he not core al Qaeda because he isn’t based along the Afghan-Pakistan border?

While the US drone program certainly has killed plenty of top al Qaeda leaders as well as many jihadists the Obama administration would not define as core al Qaeda (think about that for a minute – why are they a threat worthy of a drone strike if they aren’t part of a cohesive al Qaeda network?), the network is by no means finished.

Al Qaeda doesn’t confine its leaders to a small patch of ground in the Afghan-Pakistan region as the Obama administration would like for you to believe.

Based on any reasonable definition, Zawahiri isn’t the only “core” al Qaeda left standing.

And al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Zawahiri, still oversee the group’s efforts inside Syria — particularly the Al Nusrah Front, but also other assets.

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  • Anthony Celso says:

    Tom and Bill:
    I will not attempt to defend Marie Harf’s responses–she is spokesperson and not an anti-terror expert. However, the current state of Al Qaeda operations in Syria reflects Al Qaeda’s chronic organizational and ideological dysfunction with two branches competing and at times fighting each other. Zawahiri operationally controls very little of today jihadist struggle. His famous 2005 letter to Zarqawi rejects AQI’s late leaders sectarian agenda which is today a Al Nusra central fixation. Obviously Zawahiri has changed his focus in a futile effort to maintain his relevance. Do you guys honestly think Zawahiri’s entreaties will result in a ceasefire between ISIS and Al Nusra? It will be as successful as his prior efforts. ISIS repudiation of Zawahiri decision to prevent its incorporation of Al Nusra is vivid proof of the Egyptian’s irrelevance. Regarding AQAP emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi’s elevation as AQ’s general manager is also a strong indicator of the central headquarters weakness vividly and pathetically displayed by AQ’s Abbottabad letters. Al Qaeda is losing its Syrian struggle because of its addiction to counterproductive takfiri violence to create an Islamic utopianism. They will not stop which is the central paradox of modern jihad’s quest where repeated failure breeds resilience in a futile quest for a purified ummah. Resilience is not strength but irrational fanaticism.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Tony, I suggest you actually read what Tom & I wrote. Clearly you are in the Harf camp. We’ve written our response.
    I’d also note that AQ’s “repeated failure” has led it to expand into theaters it couldn’t dream of prior to 9/11. If that is what repeated failure looks like, I would hate to see AQ succeed.

  • Vann Jones says:

    The Administration made a mistake months ago talking in terms of AQ’s demise, and the State Dept’s spokesperson unncecessarily parroting more of the same is unfortunate.
    However, as a long time CbT practitioner myself, in government and now in industry, she and Mr Celso are technically correct AND the authors are, too. Absolutely, the old guard core in addition to Zawahiri includes Wahayshi and Qasim al-Rimi in Yemen and Sayf al-‘Adl al-Musri somewhere out there. There might be inside reporting about their tangible C2 link with Zawahiri, but if so, no much out there in open source other than the laughable “[AQ] conference call” a number of months back.
    This distracting dispute is about AQ-ism and it other malignant forms persisting since UBL became a household terrorist, versus the lazy application of AQ to anything having to do with Sunni Muslim violence. To underline Mr Celso’s terrific points, Zawahiri risked profound loss of face–which should have been exploited in countering the takfiri death & destruction narrative–in ordering ISIS to stand down, when he, al-Julani, al-Baghdadi et al knew it had nothing behind it. To say there is anything more than aspirational links between OG AQ to events in Syria simply juxatposes (dangerous) rhetoric with C2, inflates AQ’s efficacy and reach (as well to other places such as Mali and Somalia), and misunderstands the threats.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    When your satellite dish goes out, you become bored. And when you become bored, you become a state department spokesperson. And when you become a state department spokesperson, you become arrogant and think you’re smarter than everybody else. And when you become arrogant and think you’re smarter than everybody else, you become an elitist. And when you become an elitist, you begin to lie. And when you begin to lie, you look foolish and stupid. You should become ashamed, but you don’t.

  • DonM says:

    The notion of Zawahiri as some feckless stooge spewing irrelevant bombastic shrill is a self serving image of those that seek a retreat from our war against these terrorists.
    While ISIS may be recalcitrant, they do not have dominion over the other AQ groups in Syria.
    The fact is (portrayed here in numerous LWJ articles) groups all across North Africa and the Middle East seek Zawahiri’s recognition and approval, if not outright sanction and support. None of them are seeking this from Baghdadi.
    That Zawahiri endowed the AQAP leader with a broader operations management responsibility is hardly a sign of weakness. He is positioning in Yemen a source of direction and support closer to the action of the numerous nascent jihadi terrorist groups. They thus become stronger – by his hand.

  • DonM says:

    Also in regard to Zawahiri’s hand behind events, I recall a report (but don’t have a source) not long after the Sept 11, 2012 attack in Lybia. The report was that as the 9/11 anniversary approached, he publically lamented that no one had retaliated for the death of one of the al Libi characters killed by a US drone in Pakistan.
    The TM lists;
    Abu Yahya al Libi Date killed: June 4, 2012
    Abdullah Said al Libi Date thought killed: December 17, 2009
    Abu Laith al Libi Date killed: January 29, 2008
    The Benghazi attack has been described by some as rapidly organized. One has to wonder if his public noting was cause for action.
    Can anyone confirm the Zawahiri statement on al Libi and the timing of its release – if it actually occurred?

  • . says:

    Marie Harf needs to spend more time reading the Long War Journal.

  • blert says:

    Jones and Celso are arguing from the ‘military’ point of view — as if Big Z was in a map room ordering his minions around, Pentagon style.
    One is better off thinking of Big Z as the ‘pope of terror’. His ambit is to be the author of the story arc that’s going to restore the Caliphate.
    Other than routine Arab squabbles, everything is progressing even better than OBL dreamed.
    1) He’s become immortal. This status is exactly what the private burial at sea was supposed to avert. Too late.
    Of course, the price of immortality is death. By 2011 this trade was set in stone.
    2) His NGO (AQ being the ultimate non-governmental organization) is such a highly regarded brand that stooges from the four corners adopt it.
    3) Against all predictions, the new American president has entirely adopted the moral justification for bloody jihad.
    This is his basis for making the Muslim Brotherhood his ‘blood brothers’ in politics. Even now, the US State Department is pushing Cairo to re-accept the MB. (!)
    Yet, at every turn, the Egyptians are finding yet new linkages between the MB and the Iranians and the fanatics in the Sinai — the very crew that’s busy blowing up Egypt.
    The President is trying to be liked instead of feared. His fellow travelers in Liberalism hold this to be a positive moral good.
    Having the odd experience of living in his grandmother’s condo, thirty-years ago, I can assure you that the President’s world view is entirely consistent with what the smart set thought — in Honolulu — all those years ago. Barry grew up in such an environment — and does not think — for a moment — that he will be ultimately proven right.
    In this, he’s walking down the exact same noble path as President Carter; who famously thought that Ayatollah Khomeini — being religious — was a better man than the Shah.
    President Obama does not perceive that his position is out of the mainstream — other than being ahead of his time — and generally smarter than the orthodox foreign policy crowd.
    Some taste of this is revealed by Gates in his ‘tell-much.’
    4) Married to this Presidential outlook is the melding of Islam into Communism.
    This latter situation is simply never addressed in the Western MSM.
    However, there are simply no end of AQ and other Islamist missives spouting agitprop that looks and reads like it came straight from Berkeley!
    Islamism really is a fusion of Islam and Communism. Arafat, a KGB asset — check out his Moscow advanced education/ indoctrination — was at the heart of the Islamist surge.
    Without Communist economic nostrums, modern Muslims have absolutely no prescriptions for what ails the Ummah.
    In the beginning, Mo’ established his government and philosophy by open brigandage. (aka piracy — on land ) It worked out fantastically well — until it didn’t.
    AQ is then, a religious revival — of a sorts. Big Z’s role is to be a bearded cheerleader. Franchisees are, and always have been, expected to play things as they see fit… and to sustain themselves as best may be.
    So, I’m way over into Thomas and Bill’s camp. The WH is in complete denial as to how far off the rails their ‘love me, love us’ project is.

  • Frank S says:

    This is directed towards blert:
    Do you have any evidence that you could link for me that Obama is in league with the muslim brotherhood? I’m no fan of bloody Barack, but isn’t that simply an old fox news narrative that was concocted to scare the elderly during an election? As news pours out of Egypt about al-Sisi, that tale becomes increasingly riddled with inconsistencies and an ever-deepening conspiracy. Don’t you think that aspect of your story should be revised? I see Obama in the process of installing a new military dictator in Egypt. One who has declared open war on the muslim brotherhood amid the tentative silence of the west.
    I just don’t get it. Besides a few domestic issues Obama is just as right wing in his foreign policy as Bush was. It seems like the only ones who continue to parrot the Obama-MB link this late in the game are the hawks who simply cannot come to terms with the fact that a black guy is (mostly) doing everything that they’re asking for.
    I think it’s important that we don’t forget that Obama wanted to get involved in Syria just as much as Romney would’ve. It wasn’t the democratic party that prevented the expansion of the long war, it was a result of the British parliamentary vote, and the supposedly massive influx of calls/letters to US congressman that voiced opposition towards doing that.
    All THAT being said, Bill’s right. What silly language for the white house to use. I mean, you can reasonably argue over Zawahiri’s theoretical ability to project power, being that we don’t really know what his situation is like. Obviously Zawahiri wouldn’t have the ability to raise a militia, arm them, and then send them to Syria without us noticing. That isn’t even entered into the equation. So the White House MUST be saying that his ability to issue orders has been greatly diminished. But it really is just a game of semantics if you’re going to classify his influence merely by his ability to communicate.
    Jihad is an ideology that, like the cliche goes, can’t be killed along with the man who carries it. Whether or not Zawahiri and Golani are exchanging christmas cards is a moot point when seemingly disparate groups around the globe are pledging allegiance to the guy and have no trouble adopting his philosophy over the internet.

  • Anti AQ says:

    And America continues to bury their head into the sand. I hope the next president is not as clueless as the current.

  • Gary Harrington says:

    Stories about AQ “gang colors” and pedigree are misdirection and play into the administration’s game. The big story is 40 years old.
    Most Americans’ can’t fathom why the Obama administration condemns the Egyptian Army’s method to take power. They are baffled how Islamophilia explains a equanimity on the Muslim Brotherhood’s methods.
    “Benghazi”, who lost Egypt, AQ definition and Syria are bipartisan scandals – the origins of which have been cooking for 40 years. Experts must explain that to readers – and the families of our wounded and dead warriors. Mideast scholar, Dr. Walid Phares could help do that persuasively and respectfully.
    “It’s a cookbook!”. Many will recall that famous line from the fictional Twilight Zone episode (To Serve Man), when the earth guy is shocked to discover the indecipherable book carried by the Friendly Alien was a cookbook! Earth was to become an entre – not a peace partner. Something foreign and non fictional has happened to America. The aliens are decidedly earthbound. Life imitates art.
    Some analysts see the latest Benghazi revelations as cautionary and therapeutic. I see the chaos, rather, as rabbit hole symptoms of a “cultural lobotomy”. Islamist strategies started with irresistible petro dollar influence in 1973 and a defined ideological infiltration of US academia, then government and the media. The misdirection and whiff of ‘blame the dead guy’ are unhelpful. Recommendations are not “exhaustive”. Bureaucratic aromatherapy to correct a national security lobectomy won’t cut it. We’re all gonna need a bigger better national security boat than for Hillary Clinton’s – or anybody’s – mere political fortunes. Here’s why.
    I keep expecting reporters like The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes or Foundation For Democracies’ Thomas Josceyln to “discover” and report Benghazi properly in its wider cultural, historical and political context. Are the rot and willful blindness now so complete that elite leaders and editors fear America cannot handle the truth about bipartisan complicity in the now dusty origins of our chaotic national security and foreign policy?
    Senator Marco Rubio’s State Department “blind spot’ comment comes closest to the Big Picture on Cairo, Syria and Benghazi. The most prescient diagnostic tool of WH/State/DOD/Intell “chaos”, foot drag, blur, blinding, and mollification can be found in the six tracks of terrorist strategies against America in Walid Phares’ 2005, “Future Jihad”. It’s a scholarly and cautionary “cookbook” about the American freedom and security goose.
    I invite you to reexamine pages 137 – 150 of Walid’s book. There, behold the patient and sophisticated Salafi, Wahhabi takfiri and Khumeinist recipes and origins of countless headlines behind 9/11, Benghazi, Boston, KSM, Cairo and Ft Hood. Isn’t it time to test Phares’ unifying theory with readers?
    I suggest Phares’ take on the 6 interrelated strategies of jihad defines and exposes the decades-old fruition of Cairo, Benghazi, and past bipartisan administration policy failures: political, ideological, intelligence, economic, subversive, and diplomatic. The bizarre hieroglyphs of high government newspeak are deciphered in Phares’ strategy analyses. Moreover, the subversive “behind the lines” tracks embrace and sling shot domestic secular Left zeal to use our own laws against prudent security measures and an inconvenient lexicon.
    Give Walid Phares his due: like the Arab Spring, he foresaw the subversive potential of a Progressive/Islamophile Bromance phenomenon early. He best warned us of Benghazi like consequences 9 years ago. “Future Jihad” is “cookbook” on the Western enlightenment goose.

  • M3fd2002 says:


  • Matt says:

    On Syria it is my opinion that since the formation of al-Qaida and since taking over al-Zawahiri is not had less influence. So while this groups pledge loyalty they do not listen to his directives as law, al-Qaida has always been compartmentalized in relation to command and control but even general directives are not obeyed. So you can say whilethese groups say they are al-Qaida it is questionable. Terrorists yes al-Qaida no so sure about it. Whether these groups are a threat to the US is doubtful, if you leave us alone we leave you alone if you become a direct threat we use interdiction. Narrower scope of CT.

  • Dave Robertson says:

    Quote “Harf’s statement demonstrates that she has zero understanding of al Qaeda and its network”
    Harf has no need to understand Al Qaeda – her role is to understand the spin from State Department and White House, and not deviate from that spin. Accuracy, clarity, and honesty are not important to the administration narrative.

  • Ben says:

    I think the most important point from the authors that needs to be addressed is one of semantics. Does Ms. Harf understand what she is saying when she uses terms like “operational” links? Who does she define as “core” al-Qaeda? And, more importantly, does she understand what she is talking about at all? Rather, I’d guess she was given a few talking points and has no personal insight into the issue at hand. This is typical of government types who have no experience in the intelligence or military communities to be able to understand what they are publicly acknowledging. Moreover, the terms Ms. Harf uses ignores the fact that there are significant nuances to this subject matter. Whether or not Zawahiri retains the level of command and control that his predecessors did isn’t really the issue. The issue is that the AQ organism has grown exactly in the manner that UBL would have liked it to. I think the authors of this article have it more right than wrong. Clearly, Ms. Harf has no idea what she is talking about and looked silly answering the questions about this subject.

  • To Bill and Thomas.
    Anas al-Libi isn’t mentioned because he’s in custody, hence, he’s no longer part of the “core” group. That’s why Harf doesn’t talk about him.
    I Totally agree with you about Saif al-Adel though. He was even interim leader following Bin Laden’s death. don’t forget about Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah either.


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