US and Pakistani officials said al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, had been killed in Pakistan, delivering another big blow to a terrorist group that the US believes to be on the verge of defeat.
Since US Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed him in May, US President Barack Obama’s administration has been unusually frank in its assessment that al-Qaeda is on the ropes, its leadership in disarray. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last month that al-Qaeda’s defeat was within reach if the US could mount a string of successful attacks.
“Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them,” Panetta said, “because I do believe that if we continue this effort, we can really cripple al-Qaeda as a major threat.”
A Libyan national, al-Rahman never had the worldwide name recognition of bin Laden or bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al--Zawahiri. However, al-Rahman was regarded as an instrumental figure in the terrorist organization, trusted by bin Laden to oversee al-Qaeda’s daily operations.
When the SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, they found evidence of al-Rahman’s deep involvement in running al-Qaeda.
Since bin Laden’s death, counterterrorism officials have hoped to capitalize on al-Qaeda’s unsettled leadership. The more uncertain the structure, the harder it is for al-Qaeda to operate covertly and plan attacks.
Al-Zawahiri is running the group, but is considered a divisive figure who lacks the founder’s charisma and ability to galvanize al-Qaeda’s disparate franchises.
A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to summarize the government’s intelligence on al-Rahman, said al-Rahman’s death would make it harder for Zawahiri to oversee what is considered an increasingly weakened organization.
“Zawahiri needed Atiyah’s experience and connections to help manage al-Qaeda,” the official said.
Al-Rahman was killed on Aug. 22 in North Waziristan, according to a senior administration who also insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
A Pakistani intelligence official said al-Rahman died in a US missile strike in Machi Khel village in North Waziristan on Monday last week.
The US official would not say how al-Rahman was killed. The Pakistani official did not say how the country’s main intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, knew that al-Rahman was dead.