The Long War Journal’s reply to Marie Harf

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.

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  • Buddy Butler says:

    Ms.Harf is clearly a rookie or a liar.Or both.Whenever she is at the podium I, in order to not have my intelligence insulted, turn the channel.

  • DonM says:

    The original “use of force” authorization by congress after 9/11 that legalized the broad anti-terror campaign that followed had some restrictive language pertaining to those “responsible” for the specific attack. The AQ organization led by OBL was identified as the responsibly entity ever since.
    But domestic political considerations have resulted in great contention in how we define the AQ entity. Those that want to limit the campaign against AQ seek to narrow it’s scope and definition. Those that support a broad campaign to suppress or eliminate the Islamist terrorist threat have a very broad definition of the AQ organization.
    We saw this play out on the war in Iraq where the Hayes book on Saddam’s “Connections” espoused one side legitimizing the Iraq war ties to AQ, and John Kerry’s “no connections” statement in the 2004 campaign trying to delegitimize reason’s for our involvement there.
    More recently there is President Obama’s portrayal of AQ when making statements earlier in 2013 about ending the state of war (regarding AQ), administration efforts to minimize AQ numbers within Afghanistan, the NYT reiterating that Benghazi was about a video, and otherwise efforts to portray AQ as depleted, if not nearly defeated. They are shaping the political ground work for a general retreat in the confrontation with AQ – not because AQ is no longer a threat, but because they see the public tiring of war and want to harness that for political advantage.
    The problem is the ominous facts on the ground across North Africa, the Middle East, and even the AfPak region are not cooperating. So we see efforts once again to minimize the network ties across the AQ Network with this or that group not really being AQ, and “core” AQ being a laughable side show. Thus, if not really AQ, by the original 9/11 “use of force” legislation they need not engage the North African nascent groups, AQIM, the AQ Syrian elements and others. And so they will argue they are inoculated from the political charge of being soft on AQ.

  • Im surprise she didn’t blame it on a video. She is clearly carrying Obama and his regimes water. Obama now considers anyone linking themselves to AQ as the Jayvee team. Obama is clearing out the brass in the military that don’t spin the facts his way and he’s loaded up his regime with the likes of Harf who are so clueless always using the phrase, I’ll have to check with my staff on that. Haven’t we heard this from Sebelius, Carney and company?

  • David says:

    My hat is off to you and your team. When I started reading your blog years ago, I had my suspicions about where your allegiances lay and what your agenda was.
    Having read this piece I have no doubt that you are truly a journalist and are out there speaking truth to power. While I am sure that you do have to tow some lines and do what it takes to maintain a good relationship with some of your sources, you are by no mean simply parroting the party line, nor are you forwarding a particular agenda.
    Keep up the good work, and keep looking for the bigger picture. I think we are all going to look back on this in a few years and realize that the War on Terror was simply a convenient cover to position military forces around the world during what will be recognized by later generations as the opening moves in world war three.

  • Anthony Celso says:

    Tom and Bill:
    If Zawahiri is operationally significant in Syria explain why his “network” (ISIS and Al Nusra) are fighting each other and why did ISIS leader al-Baghdadi repudiate his decision to keep the “Al Qaeda’s” Syrian operations separate. Such a rejection would be unthinkable during the bin Laden era. Zawahiri’s supervision was even rejected by Egyptian Islamic Jihad leaders in the 1990’s many of whom sought in prison reconciliation with the Egyptian state and a nonviolent path to jihad based on preaching. Zawahiri’s writings are full of recriminations over Egyptian jihadists who misunderstand the nature of jihad and the necessity of violence. If Zawahiri really is a player in Syria, Al Nusra, ISIS and the multiplicity of Islamist groupings will cease their fighting. Lets see what happens! I rather doubt it.
    Zawahiri is brilliant man but his leadership skills are poor and he strikes me as a man who is frustrated and just does not understand why people will not follow his dictates. The lack of centralized coordination within jihadi groups is a persistent characteristic of modern jihadist struggles that failed repeatedly in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Algeria, Syria and Egypt. AQIM’S central leadership entreaties to Its local leaders in Mali were completely rejected as local commanders ruthlessly pursued a sectarian-extremist and localized agenda to create a mythical and unobtainable pure ummah. This like Algeria and Egypt in the 1990’s backired.
    Zawahiri’s has opportunistically latched on to the Syrian jihad as a last ditch effort to maintain relevance. It completely contravenes his earlier position that sectarian conflicts divert precious resources from the “correct” far enemy strategy.
    You guys are doing tremendous work at LWJ reporting key events. Your journal is critical in the study of the phenomena of Islamist terrorism and there is no better day-to-day source of information about the ongoing war on terror. Your dispute with Ms. Harf, however, is petty and silly sideshow.

  • David says:

    Really explained a lot, thank you.

  • bruce marsh says:

    This whole argument is inane. AQ’s leadership is in Saudi Arabia.

  • . says:

    I would argue that the top five to ten managers, operatives, and tacticians from each affiliate be considered part of the “core” of al Qaeda.

  • JT says:

    “one side legitimizing the Iraq war ties to AQ, and John Kerry’s “no connections” statement in the 2004 campaign trying to delegitimize reason’s for our involvement there.”
    It has been a while since I heard this re-writing of history. The justification for war (and all of its debate beforehand) was how much of a risk Saddam Hussein was. Many forget that his regime was still shooting at US and British planes almost daily while they were protecting the north no fly zone from the Free-Kuwait war. Saddam made the entire world (Kerry included) believe he still had WMDs (that he had used previously against his own people).
    It was only after the invasion and frustration with actual war and its consequences did some argue that AQ was not there. True. But no major player claimed that AQ was there. AFTER the invastion, AQ showed up for the fight. But you still heard (and to this day, incorrectly) that we should not have gotten rid of Saddam because AQ was not there. Never claimed. Not a stated rationale for the invasion. Only second guessing by those who tend to believe no war is ever worth it.
    Using similar logic, one would question all of the drone strikes, especially against a US citizen, and certainly the action in Libya, which was only to “protect civilians, not to take out Gaddafi.” Yet credit was taken for his dismissal and no blame for problems there . . . .

  • Chu Te says:

    While applauding The Long War Journal for its pursuit of substantive and truthful knowledge and correct perspective, maybe focusing on Marie Harf is not the right thing to do. This personalizes the discussion to her, when she is only the spokeswoman. She may be a credentialed professional, but in this role as briefer it is impossible to know everything to reflexive depth.
    As the spokeswoman for the Department of State, she is required to talk to the press, on the record, about all manner of topics every day. She depends upon her staff, and material submitted by other staffs throughout the larger organization.
    It might be a more useful tact to simply analyze the material presented independent of whoever is briefing it.

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    Ms. Harf appears to known, quite clearly, what she wants to be true.
    Her statements, her sentence “construction” (or not) appear to be evasive stumbling, trying to re-shape reality to conform to her desires.
    How long has she been at State? Is she an Obama Administration hire?

  • derp says:

    wait, is someone seriously claiming that AQ didn’t figure prominently in the discourse legitimizing the the Iraq invasion?
    I hate to link to Wikipedia and all, but…
    I find the parallel between that and the illegal escalation of the no-fly zone in Libya to be hilariously disingenuous.

  • Bungo says:

    That’s about 4 hours out of your life you’ll never get back. Sorry about that. Anyway, a few thoughts:
    A lot of this is, obviously, a matter of definitions and how someone wants to spin the story. The administration obviously wants to spin it that AQ is a decimated, decentralized collection of jihadists who have very limited capability for large pan-global terrorist attacks. I think everyone has their own opinion on this and that’s understandable since AQ doesn’t really have an annual public board of directors meeting where all investors can see the details of the balance sheet.
    The lines between all of these different groups and the connections between them are, arguably, blurry and difficult to conclusively define. They do, after all, try to operate in some degree of secrecy.
    However, I thought it was pretty common knowledge that AQ Proper doles out funds to any and all of the affiliates as necessary AND that the leaders of these affiliates typically swear allegiance to Zawahiri !?!
    Also, was it not too long ago that the Administration let it be known that we, to some degree, learned of, or even eaves-dropped in on an internet conference between several of these affiliate leaders AND Zawahiri !?!
    The administration is obviously down-playing the whole AQ “scare” since, at the end of the day, there’s probably not a whole lot they can do about it at the moment. But then again, the administration has special forces operating in about 100 foreign countries right now, so who knows. I’m thinking they’re keep any AQ fear on the QT until they can claim some sort of “victory” and get some political mileage out of it. That’s a pretty normal, human response I guess.

  • David Salmon says:

    imho, Ms. Harf’s original statement was ambiguous and imprecise, not good qualities in a press spokeswoman. In fact, your criticism is essentially that she -was- ambiguous: her fault, you say, is that her statement failed to take account of contemporary al Qaeda figures outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. No, it did not. But it was largely accurate in terms of al Qaeda’s original leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
    I have followed LWJ and Pakistan/Afghanistan news as long as you have, I imagine. Your reporting is of great value. But you seem to have a penchant to fighting with press spokespeople. I recall an episode or two with ISAF, I think. I expect it’s deserved, on the whole, but you undermine your credibility when you posture this way. I doubt she is the nitwit you suggest. If she is, prove it by better evidence.

  • Lee says:

    another attempt by the Obamination quasi
    intelligentsia to play with word games subjectively. It’s all about administration self serving political means for a political end, which
    is not for the public good.
    you’re on the watch list. snowden on the mark.

  • JT says:

    derp –
    Internal memos about the possible cooperation between Hussein regime elements and AQ is different from AQ “being there.” This is a relatively minor point, however. I will stand corrected for not stating that such claims were not made “publicly prior to the actual invasion.” These claims were publicized after the invasion had already occurred.
    I invite you to read the second reference used for the article you cited. It is the actual justification narrative from a speech by the president. Actual chronology is very important when looking at history. When claims are made (publicly) is as important as what is being claimed. Everyone was wrong about the WMD, by the way. And a lie is only a lie if the speaker knows the information is incorrect when saying it.
    Here is the link to a key reference cited by your referenced article. See what the focus is:

  • DonM says:

    My point was many official statements around AQ (such as those of Ms. Harf and some those by Bush Admin officials) have a political agenda behind them.
    Statements such as; “AFTER the invastion, AQ showed up for the fight.” is one side of that. Wikipedia emphasizes “no operational ties” with a proof point, then generalizes “no ties”. But the truth is in how you define the words.
    The facts are;
    AQ underwrote and helped organize Ansar Al Islam which was one of the many iterations (names) of the Islamist Kurds.
    Zarqawi (and about 100 fighters) co-habitated with them after the 2001 US Afghan invasion.
    Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Saddam supplied Ansar Al Islam with weapons, amo, and funding. AI fought the PUK extensively in this period. The PUK was a key enemy of Saddam. It seems Saddam bought them off, and turned them against a mutual enemy. Of note; AI did not conduct any operations against Saddam’s regime.
    Zarqawi’s organization was responsible for Amb. Foley’s assassination in Jordan in 2002. Members of Zarqawi’s org (involved in the assassination) were apprehended by lower level Iraqi security officials on tips from the Jordanians, but set free on Saddam’s order. The reason given was “they will fight the Americans”.
    So “no operational ties” is a true statement in that they did not conduct “joint operations”. But that is somewhat of a straw man. Just because they operated separately doesn’t mean the obvious cooperation did not occur, and certainly Saddam and AI had “ties”.
    Whether the ties and cooperation Saddam had with peripheral AQ groups justifies a war with Iraq is a different matter. But the notion that they never existed is a result of a political agenda here in the US, as were statements of potential future joint operations between Saddam and UBL.

  • Derp says:

    JT, I hate to be a spoiler to the narrative but from the very link you have supplied and from the mouth of the president himself:
    ” We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy — the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.
    Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints. ”
    Now I’m not a discourse analyst or anything, but there appears to be something of a thematic at play here….


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram