U.S. officials say that a CIA drone strike Aug. 22 killed al-Qaida's freshly minted second-in-command. Atiyah al-Rahman was a Libyan who was a key Osama bin Laden associate for decades.
Al-Rahman was killed in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, officials say, and they seem fairly confident they got their man. There are often reports about drone strikes against core al-Qaida leaders, but the terrorists end up surfacing later. That has happened in al-Rahman's case, too, but this time U.S. officials seemed to be pretty sure. They wouldn't say whether they had DNA evidence that last week's attack actually killed him.
Al-Rahman isn't a household name, but he was a key al-Qaida operator. He has been at bin Laden's side since he was a teenager. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the death of bin Laden in May, Ayman al-Zawahiri became the group's No. 1 man; al-Rahman emerged as his deputy.
Officials say al-Rahman figured prominently in the trove of documents Navy SEALs found in the bin Laden compound in Pakistan in May. The documents indicated that al-Rahman was the man bin Laden relied on to get messages to other al-Qaida leaders; al-Rahman also acted as liaison with other al-Qaida affiliates.
These affiliates have been increasingly focusing on attacks against the United States. One such affiliate group is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the same group that launched the failed Christmas Day airline bombing in 2009 and was behind the foiled cargo package plot last Thanksgiving.
Al-Rahman was also allegedly in charge of getting bin Laden's audio tapes and videos out to the rest of the world.
Al-Rahman's death, if it is true, comes at an interesting time for al-Qaida. It is going through its first leadership transition ever. Bin Laden has been the only leader the group has ever known and now, all of a sudden, al-Qaida's core operation will have to see if it can continue without him. Officials say the next six months are critical in the transition. They see it as a window of opportunity with "potential to end the group."
Counterterrorism officials say that while the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. is frayed right now, one of the few things on which they can agree is a short list of three to five leaders who are so vital to al-Qaida's operation that their death could, in their opinion, doom the group. Al-Rahman was on that list.