Atiyah Abd al Rahman. Image from the Rewards for Justice website.
Atiyah Abd al Rahman, a top al Qaeda leader who long served Osama bin Laden, was reportedly killed on Aug. 22 in Waziristan, Pakistan, according to multiple press reports. Both the Associated Press and Reuters cite US officials as saying that Rahman has been killed. Matt Apuzzo of the AP reports that a US official would not confirm how Atiyah had been killed, but the AP story notes that on same day, the CIA launched a drone strike in Waziristan.
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal would neither confirm nor deny Atiyah’s reported death. One senior US intelligence official observed that verifying the deaths of top terrorists is difficult and the US has gotten it wrong in the past. Atiyah himself, the official pointed out, was reportedly killed in 2010. Still, this official said, it is certainly possible that the new reports of Atiyah’s demise are accurate.
Al Qaeda typically releases martyrdom statements for its top leaders after they have been killed. No such statement has been released to commemorate Atiyah. But martyrdom statements can also take days and sometimes weeks for al Qaeda to produce. It is possible that al Qaeda simply has not released its commemoration of Atiyah yet.
If Atiyah is dead, then it is another major blow to al Qaeda’s central leadership. Documents recovered during the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound revealed that Atiyah was involved in planning a spectacular terrorist attack against the US. Atiyah and bin Laden wanted the strike to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Atiyah has been described as al Qaeda’s “operations chief” in some press reports, and his role in plotting terrorist attacks has been repeatedly noted. But according to one senior US intelligence official contacted by The Long War Journal, Atiyah was al Qaeda’s “general manager” and also served as Osama bin Laden’s “chief of staff.”
While Atiyah was involved in plotting attacks, the official said, he was not really the “operational commander.” In the nascent plot to attack the US on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, for example, Atiyah would pass messages back and forth between Osama bin Laden and operatives elsewhere, but the tactical details of the plot were left to other al Qaeda commanders.
Atiyah was also given a senior role in managing al Qaeda’s finances, the official said. Only the most loyal and trustworthy terrorists would be given such a role.
In July, the US Treasury Department designated as terrorists six members of an al Qaeda network based inside Iran. [See LWJ report, Treasury targets Iran’s ‘secret deal’ with al Qaeda.] One member of the network named in the designation is Atiyah.
Some members of the network are based outside of Iran, but funnel recruits and cash through the country. The network operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government,” according to the Treasury Department.
Atiyah is al Qaeda’s “overall commander in Pakistan’s tribal areas and as of late 2010, the leader of al Qaeda in North and South Waziristan, Pakistan.” The Treasury Department added: “Rahman was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.”
The Iran-based network is headed by another terrorist, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil (aka Yasin al Suri). The Treasury Department’s designation notes that “Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005.” Khalil’s activities include moving “money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan,” where they serve senior al Qaeda leaders. One of the senior al Qaeda leaders Khalil funnels money and recruits to in northern Pakistan is Atiyah.
After the 9/11 attacks, Atiyah sought refuge inside Iran, along with other senior al Qaeda operatives. By some accounts, the Iranian government held Atiyah under a loose form of house arrest beginning in 2003. The details of the house arrest are murky, however, and other accounts note that the al Qaeda leaders continued to operate.
The Iranians ultimately allowed Atiyah to leave for northern Pakistan, where he assumed a senior leadership position and was reportedly killed.