Doubts raised in Pakistan over reports of Atiyah’s death

Atiyah_Rahman.jpg

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.

Update:

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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12 Comments

  • ritrow says:

    Based on AQ’s history since 9/11, the best evidence that Atiyah is dead is that he is not Egyptian.

  • Villiger says:

    Still, the statement that “”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.”, really fundamentally undermines the whole credibility of the AFP story.
    Bill, noting all that you say as a good summary of past experience, we also need to recognize that given the mood in Pakistan post-Geronimo, the ISI would be loathed to admit the extra-sovereign killing of yet another ‘high-level’ AQ foreigner on Pakistani soil by the US, drone or not.
    AQ on their part, would also be loathed to admit the steady decimation of their top structure for obvious reasons of demotivating the whole AQ/Taliban militia.
    Yes, we’ll wait and see, but lets be clear that there are very strong motivations in the opposition, ISI included, at this moment to ensure a cover-up.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Villiger, I read that more as a criticism of Atiyah’s portrayal as AQ’s #2 (Both Thomas Joscelyn and I are critical of the designation, see Tom’s report at LWJ on Atiyah).

  • Marlin says:

    All the back and forth about whether he was killed or not aside, this article would seem to confirm that he was a key al Qaeda player.

    “There’s no question this is a major blow to al Qaeda. Atiyah was at the top of al Qaeda’s trusted core,” the official said.
    Intelligence garnered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, showed that Rahman had emerged as bin Laden’s key deputy in the years before his death.
    It was mainly through Rahman that bin Laden continued to issue instructions to al Qaeda operatives around the world. These messages, U.S. intelligence agencies established, were passed on in the form of draft e-mails copied onto thumb drives that were smuggled out of the compound by a courier. Bin Laden’s plans sent on to Rahman included the idea of attacking the United States on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, according to the Washington Post.
    […]
    The Libyan will be very hard to replace.
    “Rahman has been at the nerve center of al Qaeda’s global terrorist operations,” Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist acquainted with Rahman, bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders, told CNN in an interview earlier this week. “He has become their CEO, the only person that al Qaeda cannot afford to lose.”

    CNN: Bin Laden’s key deputy seen as very hard to replace for al Qaeda

  • villiger says:

    Bill, thanks–i see what you’re saying. The ISI would also be peeved that he was an Iranian ally rather than beholden to them.
    I think all this attempt to rank these guys as No 2, 3 or 4 is a complete fallacy in the first place. What seems to be becoming clear is that he was/is a key part of their matrix and an agile operator, enabler and ‘commander’.
    But enough said about AQ. What worries me is this lack of appreciation by the wider American public that, as far as AfPak is concerned, AQ and Taliban are joined at the hip.

  • Charu says:

    The contrast between the Pakistani reaction to Kashmiri’s alleged death and to the Atiyah killing report is interesting, to put it mildly.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Villiger, on our attempts to rank AQ, I agree. See this from some time ago:
    //www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2009/12/on_al_qaedas_3_1.php
    I find it humorous that the same pundits who mocked the so-called #3 designation are now so quick to roll it out for Atiyah and others.

  • Mr T says:

    They may have to stop making a # 3 and just go with a # 2 and a # 4. The threes don’t last long.
    Interesting the tie in to the Abbottabad raid. It will be nice to see what kind of info they got out of there and how many operatives they took out because of it and how many organizations they infiltrated based on the info.
    I am sure they are still working it so I wouldn’t want anything disclosed at this point but I am keen on finding out just how much was there, how safe Bin Laden felt, and was there any info that ties his hiding to the Pakistanis at any level.
    I haven’t got a sense that there were or are a lot of followup raids based on the intel found there. Maybe this is one of them although it seems a little late.

  • JRP says:

    So what is the present consensus of opinion regarding Kashmiri (Dead or Alive) and Rahman (Dead or Alive)? If one had to bet the ranch, for each, which is it?

  • Villiger says:

    Bill, really one has to lol. They all jumped onto the bandwagon No 2 like a bunch of lemmings as if they, and the world, have known all along that he was No 2.
    Really questions the validity of their reporting. That is why we come here….every day.

  • ElTig says:

    Just ran across this AP report saying that John Brennan has given first on-record confirmation that Atiyah has been killed.
    //hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_US_COUNTERTERRORISM_ADVISER?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2011-09-01-03-21-46
    Any thoughts on this Bill?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    ElTig,
    Jones swore up and down Hakeemullah Mehsud was dead in early 2010 until Hak appeared on a tape announcing the failed Times Square plot. If Brennan told me how he could confirm Atiyah’s death, I’d give it more credence.

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