A U.S.-operated drone has killed al-Qaida’s second-in-command Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in Pakistan, giving a major blow to the terror network that relied heavily on the deceased leader for its global operations.
Unnamed U.S. and Pakistani officials revealed Saturday that al-Rahman, a 43-year-old Libyan operative, was killed in Machi Khel village in Pakistani’s North Waziristan region on Aug. 22, according to The Associated Press.
The death of al-Rahman, also known as Jamal al-Shitaywi, has been reported for the second time in less than a year. Last October, Pakistan officials told DPA news agency that al-Rahman had been killed in a drone attack in the same region in Pakistan. However, neither U.S. officials nor al-Qaida confirmed the alleged killing then.
A former Libyan jihadist acquainted with the deceased recently told CNN that al-Rahman had been at the “nerve center” of al-Qaida’s global terrorist operations. “He has become their CEO, the only person that al-Qaida cannot afford to lose,” Noman Benotman, a former jihadist, was quoted as saying.
Al-Rahman’s death is significant also because he represented the new generation that al-Qaida intends to cultivate to lead the way after bin Laden’s killing, according to The New York Times. Al-Rahman was second to al-Qaida’s new leader Ayman al Zawahiri after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. The State Department had offered up to $1 million for information about him.
Al-Rahman’s killing will hit the terror network hard as it had already been rendered weak after bin Laden’s death. “Zawahiri needed Atiyah’s experience and connections to help manage al-Qaida,” an unnamed U.S. official told AP.
“There’s no question this is a major blow to al Qaida. Atiyah was at the top of al Qaida’s trusted core,” another official told CNN.
Al-Rahman was a key aide of bin Laden before the latter’s death. Electronic files captured in the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, showed that bin Laden would issue instructions to al-Qaida operatives around the world through al-Rahman. Bin Laden’s plans passed on to al-Rahman included the plot to attack the United States on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, according to The Washington Post.
CNN’s terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said al-Rahman had played a growing operational role for al-Qae]ida in recent years. In 2008 he helped handle Bryant Neal Vinas, an American al-Qaida recruit who helped al-Qaida develop a bomb plot against the Long Island Rail Road in 2008, he said quoting a U.S. counter-terrorism source familiar with Vinas’ subsequent interrogation.
Reports suggest that bin Laden communicated through al-Rahman also about an al-Qaida plan to attack Europe in the fall of 2010.
Former Libyan jihadist Benotman, now an analyst at the Quilliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, saw al-Rahman as one of the sharpest jihadist operatives he had ever encountered. Al-Rahman and Zawahiri had recently developed a strategy to rebuild al-Qaida by reorganizing its relations with its affiliates, rebranding its message to expand its support base and repositioning its energies to take advantage of the fast pace of events in the Arab world, including in Yemen where al-Qaida’s affiliate has taken advantage of chaotic conditions to expand its operations in recent months, he said.
When U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Afghanistan in July, he said the defeat of al-Qaida was “within reach.”
“We made an important start with that in getting rid of bin Laden,” Panetta was quoted as saying.
Official announcement of al-Rahman’s killing from the U.S. State Department and confirmation by al-Qaida are still awaited. Reactions from Pakistan’s government and its main intelligence agency, the ISI, are also expected.