Key Al-Qaida Operative Killed, U.S. Officials Say

Aug 28, 2011
Originally published on August 28, 2011 2:42 pm

U.S. officials say that a CIA drone strike Aug. 22 killed al-Qaida's freshly minted second-in-command. Atiyah al-Rahman was a Libyan who was a key Osama bin Laden associate for decades.

Al-Rahman was killed in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, officials say, and they seem fairly confident they got their man. There are often reports about drone strikes against core al-Qaida leaders, but the terrorists end up surfacing later. That has happened in al-Rahman's case, too, but this time U.S. officials seemed to be pretty sure. They wouldn't say whether they had DNA evidence that last week's attack actually killed him.

Al-Rahman isn't a household name, but he was a key al-Qaida operator. He has been at bin Laden's side since he was a teenager. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the death of bin Laden in May, Ayman al-Zawahiri became the group's No. 1 man; al-Rahman emerged as his deputy.

Officials say al-Rahman figured prominently in the trove of documents Navy SEALs found in the bin Laden compound in Pakistan in May. The documents indicated that al-Rahman was the man bin Laden relied on to get messages to other al-Qaida leaders; al-Rahman also acted as liaison with other al-Qaida affiliates.

These affiliates have been increasingly focusing on attacks against the United States. One such affiliate group is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the same group that launched the failed Christmas Day airline bombing in 2009 and was behind the foiled cargo package plot last Thanksgiving.

Al-Rahman was also allegedly in charge of getting bin Laden's audio tapes and videos out to the rest of the world.

Al-Rahman's death, if it is true, comes at an interesting time for al-Qaida. It is going through its first leadership transition ever. Bin Laden has been the only leader the group has ever known and now, all of a sudden, al-Qaida's core operation will have to see if it can continue without him. Officials say the next six months are critical in the transition. They see it as a window of opportunity with "potential to end the group."

Counterterrorism officials say that while the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. is frayed right now, one of the few things on which they can agree is a short list of three to five leaders who are so vital to al-Qaida's operation that their death could, in their opinion, doom the group. Al-Rahman was on that list.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

U.S. officials say they have killed another key al-Qaida leader. The group's second in command and operational commander was the target of a series of drone attacks. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here with more about the man who was targeted. So, Dina, tell us about this strike against al-Qaida.

DINA TEMPLE: Well, the man at the center of this latest drone strike is named Atiyah al-Rahman, and he's a Libyan who was a key bin Laden associate. He isn't a household name but he is really a key al-Qaida operator. He'd been at bin Laden's side since he was a teenager, he fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And when the Navy SEALS went and killed bin Laden in May, Ayman al-Zawahiri became the group's number one, and Rahman, this guy they said they killed, became his deputy.

YDSTIE: So, he was a bin Laden confidante. What was his role in al-Qaida?

TEMPLE: Well, when the bin Laden compound was raided in May by these Navy SEALS, they found all these documents and these documents showed that Rahman was the man bin Laden relied on to, for example, get messages to other al-Qaida leaders and to act as a liaison with other al-Qaida affiliates. And that's really important because these affiliates are the ones who have been increasingly focusing attacks on the United States; affiliates like al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula - that was the group behind the Christmas Day airline bombing a couple of years and the foiled cargo plot last Thanksgiving. And Rahman was also in charge of getting bin Laden's audio tapes and videos out to the rest of the world. So, clearly, he was really a key operative.

YDSTIE: And are U.S. officials confident that they actually got him?

TEMPLE: Well, you know, officials say that Rahman was killed last week in Waziristan, Pakistan in this CIA drone strike, and they seem fairly confident that they got him. That said, you know, there are often reports about drone strikes against core al-Qaida leaders and then these guys end up surfacing later. And in fact, that actually happened to Rahman last year. They said he was dead and clearly he wasn't. And he was reported killed this time in a very remote part of Pakistan. So, it's unclear how the U.S. can be so sure they got him. The officials we spoke to seemed pretty confident but they wouldn't say whether they had DNA evidence or something more dispositive like that. Usually, the way we find out definitively is al-Qaida announces it, and that hasn't happened yet.

YDSTIE: So, if they do have him or if they did kill him, what does it mean for al-Qaida?

TEMPLE: I mean, here's why it's interesting. Al-Qaida's going through its first transition ever. Bin Laden has been there since the beginning and now all of the sudden, the group is having to see if they can continue without him. And U.S. officials see the next six months as this really critical time because of the transition. They see this as a window of opportunity. And this is how they put it: a window of opportunity to crush the group. And if you talk to counterterrorism officials, they'll tell you one of the few things that the Pakistanis and the U.S. are agreeing on right now is a list of three to five key leaders who are so vital to al-Qaida that if they were killed, the group could well fall apart. And Rahman is considered one of the people on that list. It's kind of amazing when you think about it 'cause there are about 4,000 al-Qaida operatives around the world, which is the number most officials use. But if you were to take out these three to five leaders, the officials say, that might well be enough to make the group collapse on itself. So, if this drone strike really did kill Rahman, it's a really big deal.

YDSTIE: Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE: You're welcome.

YDSTIE: That's NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston.

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