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.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.