Atiyah Abd al Rahman. Image from the Rewards for Justice website.
One day after unnamed US officials claimed that senior al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al Rahman was killed last week in Waziristan, Pakistani officials and an Afghan Taliban commander based in Pakistan’s tribal areas have expressed skepticism that he is dead. From AFP:
A senior Pakistani security official in Peshawar told AFP: “We have checked this news report with informers and have worked on it. I doubt the authenticity of this news.”
Another security official in Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan, said he had received no information on the killing.
“For me it is just a rumour. Frankly speaking, we are even not aware that a man with this name is working as deputy chief of al Qaeda,” he added.
The officials said the remote, mountainous area, just four kilometres from the Afghan border, is inaccessible.
“In such cases we rely on information sent from informers. We have not received any type of such a report,” the security official in Mir Ali town, North Waziristan, told AFP.
An Afghan Taliban commander in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region who is in regular contact with al Qaeda described the news report as fake.
“It is a fake story. It’s not true,” he told AFP from an undisclosed location.
As we continually stress here at The Long War Journal, without hard confirmation that an al Qaeda commander has been killed, reports such as the recent claims about the death of Atiyah should be viewed with caution. Keep in mind that the US officials are not telling us why they believe Atiyah is dead, nor have any US officials gone on the record to definitively state they believe he is dead.
There are four things we look for when trying to assess whether a senior terrorist leader has been killed. Do friendly forces possess the corpse? Has a martyrdom statement been issued? Is there other supporting information to lead us to believe he is dead? Have senior officials gone on the record to claim the leader was killed? More on this below:
The physical possession of the body. This is rare in the case of Predator strikes in Pakistan. Unless a special operations team is sent in and takes physical possession of the body (such as with Osama bin Laden, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, or Abu Musab al Zarqawi), or local forces grab the corpse (such as recently happened with Fazul Mohammed), it is difficult to confirm with 100 % certainty that a terrorist leader was actually killed.
A martyrdom statement. When any of their top leaders die, Al Qaeda and allied terror groups almost always release a statement announcing the death. For instance, the deaths of Abu Laith al Libi, Abdullah Said al Masri, Abu Khabab al Masri, Abu Jihad al Masri, Tahir Yuldashev, and many others were confirmed only after martyrdom statements were released. And while some people believe that such statements can be used to deceive Western intelligence services, I haven’t detected a single case of this happening. The closest instance of a statement being used to deceive may be the recent case of Ilyas Kashmiri, but it is still unclear whether the purported statement that announced his death was legitimate. In one other instance, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan delayed the announcement of the death of Tahir Yuldashev by nearly one year (but that was an omission as opposed to deception).
Supporting information. This can include communications intercepts, detainee interrogations, or statements from terrorist leaders close to the target. This type of confirmation is far less convincing than the possession of a corpse or a martyrdom statement. For instance, some Taliban commanders said Baitullah Mehsud survived the August 2009 Predator airstrike, but he was declared dead three weeks later. Also, in 2006, the US believed it killed Abu Khabab al-Masri, Abd Rahman al Masri al Maghribi, Abu Ubaidah al Masri, Marwan al Suri, Khalid Habib, and Abd al Hadi al Iraqi in a Predator strike. Pakistan even claimed it had DNA evidence to support the claims they were dead. But none of the commanders were killed; all have since resurfaced and have been killed, captured, died of natural causes, or are still on the battlefield.
Official confirmation. Another indicator used to assess the likelihood that a senior terrorist leader has died is whether Western or “friendly” government officials have announced the death on the record. But this can be a double-edged sword. For instance, Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, often claims that top terrorist leaders are killed in Pakistan, only to be proven wrong. His track record is terrible; I’d estimate he is correct in perhaps one in 20 pronouncements, and that may be generous. Also, several times over the past few years, US and Pakistani officials have announced that Movement of the Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud has been killed. General Jones and others were confident that Hakeemullah was killed in early 2010. The media reported Hakeemullah’s death as a fact (except for us here at LWJ; we took a contrary position). They were proven wrong when he appeared on a propaganda tape claiming credit for the failed Times Square bombing.
So, all of that being said, Atiyah may be dead. But we can’t be sure as we don’t possess a corpse, nor has al Qaeda released a martyrdom statement (at the time of publishing this post). No US or Pakistani official has gone on the record. And two Pakistani intel officials and an Afghan Taliban commander discount the reports. The bottom line is, it is too soon to pronounce with certainty that Atiyah is dead.
Al Qaeda has released a Ramadan statement that was recorded by Atiyah some time before he was reported killed. The statement and accompanying introduction on jihadists forums does not mention Atiyah’s death, and refers to him in a manner that indicates he is alive. See LWJ report, Al Qaeda releases Ramadan tape by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, for more details.
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