The U.S. believes it has killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the second-in-command of Al Qaeda, in a drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan on August 22. It is a painful loss for Al Qaeda, as his importance is arguably even greater than that of the group’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Obama administration will cite his death as evidence that the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda is near.
There is no firm confirmation of Rahman’s death. A Pakistani intelligence official confirmed to The Independent that Rahman has been killed. However, a Taliban commander in Pakistan insists, “It’s a fake story. It’s not true.” A Pakistani official in Peshawar has expressed doubts, claiming that no informants in the area could substantiate the reports. Rahman has been falsely reported as having been killed before, but the U.S. appears confident that he has been taken out.
Rahman was one of five terrorist leaders that the U.S. told Pakistan would be unilaterally targeted if it did not locate them by July. David Ignatius argues that Rahman was the most important Al Qaeda figure because “whatever thread still held al-Qaeda together passed from bin Laden through to Rahman.” He is not believed to have dealt with the details of individual operations, but he did work with Bin Laden on the general planning for a spectacular attack on the U.S. for the tenth anniversary of 9⁄11. He was the overall leader for Al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal regions, and handled communication between Osama Bin Laden and his commanders.
The killing of Rahman complicates the “secret deal” that the Obama administration says has been struck between the Iranian regime and Al Qaeda. In July, the Treasury Department blacklisted Rahman for his role as a liaison between the two. Osama Bin Laden previously assigned him to serve as the terrorist group’s representative to Iran, and he has been free to come and leave Iran to serve in that capacity. He found safe harbor in Iran as early as 2003. Rahman oversaw the funneling of Al Qaeda money and personnel into Pakistan from Iran. Overall, this is the biggest blow to the terrorist group since the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 1.
This is the third killing of a top-level Al Qaeda operative since Bin Laden was killed. On June 3, a drone strike killed Ilyas Kashmiri, a feared terrorist operative nicknamed the “commando commander.” He was important to Al Qaeda’s efforts to recruit Westerners, and was actively trying to find Americans to carry out acts of terrorism. One American recruit said he was the “main key, after Osama Bin Laden.” Kashmiri is thought to have had a role in a plot to bomb New York City subways in 2009 and was involved with plans for dramatic attacks in Europe in 2010 modeled after the Mumbai attacks. He was trained as a commando by the Pakistanis, and had been described as “the most effective, dangerous and successful guerilla leader in the world.”
Kashmiri’s death was closely followed by the June 11 killing of Fazul Abdul Muhammed, Al Qaeda’s operations chief in East Africa. Muhammed was at the top of the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists for his involvement in the 1998 embassy attacks. He also helped orchestrate the 2002 bombing of a hotel in Kenya and attempted downing of an Israeli airliner. He was killed when he accidentally arrived at a checkpoint in Somalia, and his death was described by one official as a “strong kick in the gut” to Al Qaeda. It is probably not a coincidence that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, has had to retreat from Mogadishu since his death.
It is thought that the deaths of Bin Laden, Kashmiri and Rahman in Pakistan will force Al Qaeda to move much of its operations to places like Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. As mentioned before, al-Shabaab is suffering major setbacks in Somalia. In Yemen, tribes have turned on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the U.S. is preparing for a drone campaign in the country. The Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, is linked to Al Qaeda and could offer safe haven. Al Qaeda has also established itself in the Sinai Peninsula, but an Egyptian military offensive there is likely. Libya could present an opportunity for Al Qaeda, but the National Transitional Council will be hesitant to accept the group when it is so dependent upon the West for support. The presence of Western special forces in Libya also poses a problem for Al Qaeda.
The Obama administration will point to Rahman’s death as proof that the war on Al Qaeda will soon be victorious. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, “We’re within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda.” The administration believes it can “cripple Al-Qaeda as a threat to [the U.S.]” if 10 to 20 leaders can be arrested or killed. General David Petraeus and incoming director of the CIA likewise said, “It does hold the prospect of a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling of Al-Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda is in a broken position, but it can heal with time. It will be difficult for it to recover from its losses this year and the losses to come, but it can if the U.S. gets complacent. A premature declaration of victory by the U.S. is exactly what Al Qaeda needs.