Atiyah Abd al Rahman.
A senior al Qaeda leader who serves as al Qaeda’s ambassador to Iran, and is wanted by the US, is reported to have been killed in a Predator airstrike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan two days ago. The report has not been confirmed.
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal did confirm, however, that two important al Qaeda operatives have relocated to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northern Pakistan.
The first is Atiyah Abd al Rahman, a Libyan national who has been based in Iran and served as Osama bin Laden’s ambassador to the mullahs. Unconfirmed press reports indicate that Rahman was killed in an airstrike earlier this week.
The second is Fahd Mohammad Ahmed al Quso, who is wanted for his involvement in the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the USS Cole. Quso was reportedly killed in an airstrike in northern Pakistan in September, but US intelligence officials have not been able to confirm that Quso is really dead.
From Iran to northern Pakistan
Atiyah Abd al Rahman may have been among one of four “militants” killed in an Oct. 7 airstrike on a compound and a vehicle in the village of Khaisoori in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. Another operative identified as Khalid Mohammad Abbas al Harabi was also reportedly killed.
“We have received reports that Al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al Rahman has been killed in the Oct 7 drone attack,” a Pakistani intelligence official told DPA. “Together with him another low-ranking Al Qaeda operative Khalid Mohammad Abbas al Harabi also died.”
However, US intelligence officials would not confirm the report when asked by The Long War Journal. They noted that while Atiyah Abd al Rahman is thought to have been operating in the area of the airstrike, his death has not been verified.
Khalid al Harabi is an alias for Khalid Habib, al Qaeda’s former military commander who was killed in a US Predator strike in October 2008. Habib served as the leader of Brigade 055, al Qaeda’s military formation in Afghanistan, after the death of Abu Laith al Libi, and also served as the leader of the Lashkar al Zil, or the Shadow Army.
The Pakistani intelligence official cited by DPA described Khalid al Harabi as a “low-ranking” al Qaeda operative. Al Harabi was not “low-ranking,” so the Pakistani official may have been referring to another al Qaeda figure. In any event, Khalid Habib has been dead for two years.
Atiyah Abd al Rahman is one of at least several high-level al Qaeda operatives who have relocated from Iran to northern Pakistan in recent years. Saad bin Laden, Osama’s presumed heir, moved to northern Pakistan from Iran in late 2008. Some time later, Saif al Adel, who is a member of al Qaeda’s military committee, followed suit. Osama bin Laden’s spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, also left Iran for northern Pakistan earlier this year. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s spokesman freed by Iran.]
The US State Department’s Rewards for Justice page for Atiyah Abd al Rahman notes that he was al Qaeda’s “emissary in Iran as appointed by Usama bin Ladin.” Atiyah “recruits and facilitates talks with other Islamic groups to operate under” al Qaeda and “is also a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Ansar al Sunna.”
Atiyah “joined Usama bin Ladin in Afghanistan as a teenager in the 1980s,” the State Department reported. “Since then, he has gained considerable stature in al-Qa’ida as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar.”
Atiyah “became acquainted with [Abu Musab al Zarqawi],” the deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in the western city of Herat in the late 1990s. “He retreated with Usama bin Ladin to the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in the fall of 2001,” according to the State Department.
Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al Quso.
From Yemen to northern Pakistan
Another al Qaeda operative reportedly killed in recent drone strikes is Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al Quso. As with Atiyah, US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal could not confirm Quso’s death. They did confirm Quso’s presence in northern Pakistan.
Quso has long been wanted by the FBI. Quso has been detained and released by the Yemeni government on multiple occasions. Quso was most recently freed in 2007, and it was suspected that he was still operating inside Yemen. A tape released by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in May of this year featured Quso along with a former Gitmo detainee who has become an AQAP military leader. In the tape, the AQAP leaders threatened to attack American targets, including warships. [See LWJ report, Former Gitmo detainee featured as commander in al Qaeda tape.]
It is not clear when Quso relocated to northern Pakistan. It is just the latest wrinkle in his story.
In January 2000, Quso helped deliver thousands of dollars to a top al Qaeda planner known as Khallad in Bangkok. Khallad, whose real name is Tawfiq bin Attash, helped al Qaeda plan both the Sept. 11 operation and the attack on the USS Cole. It is not clear what the money was used for, as Quso and Khallad gave varying accounts when they were later interrogated. On that same trip, Quso met with two of the 9/11 hijackers in Malaysia.
According to the 9/11 Commission, Quso was supposed to film the attack on the USS Cole from a nearby apartment, but missed it. He was later detained, but escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2003. He was recaptured in 2004, and either escaped from prison or was set free by the Yemeni government in 2007.
Press accounts in 2009 and 2010 tied Quso to the notorious al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who is operating from Yemen. It is likely that Quso is still in northern Pakistan, if he was not killed in an airstrike there in September.
Stepped up pace of drone attacks
The US hit targets in Mir Ali three times this week, and has struck at targets in North and South Waziristan 29 times since Sept. 1. This unprecedented increase in strikes takes place as the US is seeking to disrupt a plot by al Qaeda modeled after the November 2008 Mumbai terror assault. Al Qaeda operatives were to carry out a terror assault against several major European cities, using armed gunmen. The plot was reportedly ordered by Osama bin Laden.
The US has been pounding targets in the Datta Khel, Miramshah, and Mir Ali areas of North Waziristan in an effort to kill members involved in the European plot. Al Qaeda and allied terror groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Group, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and a host of Pakistani and Central and South Asian terror groups host or share camps in the region.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.