When senior American officials confirmed Saturday that a senior al Qaeda operative, Atiyah abd al-Rahman, had been killed in Waziristan, Pakistan last week, familiar headlines proclaiming that "al Qaeda #2 official killed" flashed around the world. But Atiyah abd al-Rahman was not a figure of global notoriety, like Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. commandos in May, and bin Laden's designated successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Nevertheless, counterterrorism analysts say that the significance of Atiyah's loss to al Qaeda has, if anything, been understated.
"While there is no doubt that bin Laden's death was the more significant blow politically, Atiyah's death may have a larger impact on how the al-Qaeda network functions," writes counterterrorism analyst Brian Fishman at Foreign Policy.com's AfPak channel.
Atiyah, who was born in Misrata, Libya around 1970 and served with bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was a key communications link connecting al Qaeda cells hunkered down in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and North Africa, Fishman explains. "Atiyah was not the ultimate decision-maker," Fishman writes, "but he was the information crossroads."
For example: In 2006, the U.S. military declassified a December 2005 letter written by Atiyah to the then leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that it had obtained.
The letter "indicated not only that Atiyah had been an influential player in jihadi circles for years, but that he had a freedom of movement from Pakistan into Iran that was, if not unique, then very rare," Fishman, who works at the New America Foundation, writes. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury Department officially designated Atiyah as a terrorist only last month, classifying him as a member of an al Qaeda fundraising/logistical support cell whose chief, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, resides in Iran.
Given that al Qaeda cells were already hampered from using electronic communications, and their freedom of movement severely restricted by U.S. surveillance, drone strikes and other means, Atiyah's killing in a U.S. drone strike Aug. 22 is likely to make his al Qaeda interlocutors in the organization even more paranoid and concerned for their own security. "His contacts must nevertheless now wonder what U.S. intelligence personnel knew [of] his activities and communications that might now put them at risk," Fishman writes. "In a network reliant on trust, that suspicion creates a host of challenges for regenerating Atiyah's functional role."
The upshot? Less communication and coordination among the disparate al Qaeda offshoots operating in Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, and its "core" of fewer than 100 members operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan. "Atiyah's death will hasten al-Qaeda's inexorable shift into a social movement that shares strategic guidance overtly but operates in self-contained cells," Fishman writes. "Analysts have exaggerated this trend in al-Qaeda for years; in this case, however, life is imitating commentary."