'Core al-Qaeda' Myth Dangerously Perpetuated After Paris Attacks

WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for last week's massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, is more than just an "affiliate" of "core al-Qaeda," but you'd hardly know it through statements still being made across Washington.

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to even hear the name of AQAP's leader at a White House or State Department briefing -- but you'll hear plenty about the "core al-Qaeda" for which he is general manager.

AQAP said it planned the Kouachi brothers' attack upon "the order of our general amir, the generous" Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of "core" al-Qaeda, "following the will of Sheikh Usama bin Laden."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that AQAP's claim of responsibility "is another clear indication of the wanton brutality of that organization."

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called them "the most dangerous affiliate associated with AQ core."

Earnest referred earlier this week to "the success that we have had in truly decimating core al-Qaeda that used to exist and operate with impunity in the region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the kind of threat that we face now from individuals who in many cases are being radicalized through social media and carrying out either lone wolf attacks or are individuals who have traveled to the region and gotten some expertise and returned to the fight.”

In a world where the face of the war on terror has evolved with alarming alacrity over the past few years, the administration mantra has remained as static as President Obama's May 2013 speech at the National Defense University.

“Today, the core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11,” he said, calling the threat “more diffuse” with al-Qaeda affiliates such as AQAP.

Yet al-Qaeda's "core" ensured that AQAP was essentially a regional headquarters instead of an affiliate.

Zawahiri had to fill his old position as No. 2 in the organization after Abu Yahya Al Libi was killed in a 2012 drone strike. His choice? The leader of AQAP.

Nasir al-Wuhayshi, according to UAE newspaper The National, doesn’t clear 5 feet in height. But he’s got jihad in his blood: the Yemeni attended religious schools, went to Afghanistan, became bin Laden’s personal secretary, oversaw al-Qaeda training camps, and hid in the caves of Tora Bora with his boss. When bin Laden went into hiding in the Abbottabad compound, Wuhayshi was one of the few to know his whereabouts.

The 38-year-old was held by the Yemenis for a few years before a prison escape, started a Yemen chapter of al-Qaeda, then announced the launch of AQAP to merge with Saudi extremist groups in a 2009 press conference.

Despite Obama’s drone strikes on Yemeni targets, AQAP has flourished under Wuhayshi’s leadership and looked for new ways to attack, including the underwear bomb aboard a 2009 Detroit-bound flight that made it past security. AQAP is also behind the slick English-language magazine Inspire, which encourages “open-source jihad” with detailed guidance and material support that the administration refers to as "lone wolves." It was from this magazine that the Boston Marathon bombers found their deadly explosives recipes. Wuhayshi has deemed Western jihadists to be even more valuable than Middle Eastern ones because of their proximity to the “enemy.”

“Wherever there are mujaheddin, there is danger awaiting the disbelievers,” Wuhayshi said in 2010. “The mujaheddin are one body and if one of them is somewhere you would find fear and terror spreading in that place.”

Days before August 2013 Obama’s declaration of a defeated al-Qaeda core to Camp Pendleton Marines, Wuhayshi and Zawahiri jumped on a conference call with more than 20 leaders of brothers-in-arms including Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda members in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and new loyalists including al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.

Wuhayshi’s title with al-Qaeda is general manager for international operations, giving the jihadi with a reputation for ruthlessness and respect from the ranks as a close associate of bin Laden a green light to order terror attacks at will. CIA Director John Brennan confirmed Wuhayshi's move up in a March 2014 speech.

Yet Wuhayshi seems to be living in comfortable Capitol anonymity, as the name of dead recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki gets far more screen time.

As the AQAP video circulated this week, some outlets even erroneously referred to the speaker, high-level commander Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi, as the leader of the terrorist group in Yemen.

"There's a tremendous amount of cross-pollination among the groups. I am not persuaded that the command of al-Qaeda has broken down. It depends on what you thought the command of al-Qaeda was to begin with. It has always been a rather loosely affiliated organization," Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute testified before a House Homeland Security subcommittee last July.

"We should remember that Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is also the operational commander for Zawahiri at this point. We've seen cooperation between Shabaab and AQAP. We have these very credible reports of cooperation between AQAP and Jabhat Nusra. We have reports of cooperation between AQIM and Boko Haram," Kagan said.

"This is a movement. It is a global movement. Its organizations are complex, but we should not imagine that these organizations are in any way stovepiped from each other."

Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in May that Wuhayshi "is, by all appearances, an all too competent leader."

"Jihadists who are, by any reasonable definition, 'core' al-Qaeda members are dispersed throughout the world," Joscelyn stressed, adding Wuhayshi is "as 'core' as they come, having served as Osama bin Laden's protege and aide-de-camp."

Wuhayshi's general manager position "is a 'core' function in al-Qaeda's hierarchy, that is, within the 'general command,'" he said. "The general manager of al-Qaeda is given broad powers to oversee the organization's operations."

"What many refer to as al-Qaeda's formal 'affiliates' are really branches of al-Qaeda that have been assigned to fight in these regions."

Yet the administration stands by its "core."

"I think an unrealistic standard, to try and prevent every single attack of terrorism from happening anywhere in the world. That's certainly I don't think something that's possible. We have always said that as al-Qaeda core was weakened, that we were increasingly concerned about the affiliates, about al-Qaeda leaders going to Yemen, the Maghreb, other places," Harf said at the State Department this week.

That "core" also continued its expansion in 2014, with the announcement of a new South Asia chapter in September intended to ”raise the flag of jihad” in India and beyond. Zawahiri said the formation of the new wing had been underway for “nearly two years” as existing jihadi leaders in South Asia were brought into the al-Qaeda fold to form the new branch.

Khorasan, branded a major threat in Syria last year, is no splinter cell but a chapter of al-Qaeda in Syria, led by the former commander of al-Qaeda in Iran who waited for the green light from the "core" to move in and set up shop.

By steadily bringing its "affiliates" into the "core" despite political protestations that these are simply splinter groups or loose associations, al-Qaeda has ensured that its "decimation" will take a lot more than drone strikes in Waziristan.