The United States and their allies have been on a tear lately against Al Qaeda. First, it was the heroic Navy SEAL’s operation in the heart of Pakistan that netted Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden after a thirteen year manhunt. A month later, the terrorist organization’s charismatic and disguised prone East African commander, Fazul Mohammed, was shot and killed by Somali soldiers at a government checkpoint in Mogadishu. And now, Al Qaeda’s deputy commander in Pakistan, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, has been found and killed by an American drone attack in North Waziristan.
The last few months have not been kind to the world’s most feared terror group. The deaths of three key operational Al Qaeda individuals are a success that not only holds a tremendous symbolic value to everyone who has been victimized by the organization’s violence; they are also a tactical accomplishment that provides the United States counterterrorism community with a unique opportunity to pound Al Qaeda’s core leadership into the ground.
Defense secretary Leon Panetta may have been overly optimistic to conclude earlier this year that the terrorist group is close to strategic defeat — Ayman al-Zawahiri, after all, is still issuing tapes to its affiliates. But the killing of Abdul Rahman last week does give the secretary’s remarks more credibility.
Rahman, who joined Osama bin Laden’s ranks in 1990, was no ordinary terrorist. Born and raised in Libya and known by his friends as an Islamist with extremist credentials in his early years, Rahman utilized his beliefs into action by opposing the now defunct Libyan government of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. Unlike most of his colleagues, Rahman fully grasped the ideological, religious and militant components of the jihadist environment, knowing when to flee when trouble was near and when to turn up the notches when the enemy was either distracted or weakened.
After being chased from Libya by Gaddafi’s anti-Islamist crackdown, Rahman decided to do what most jihadists did in the late 1980s — he made his way to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation. His stamina on the battlefield, his intellect and his ability to impress his superiors soon put him on Bin Laden’s radar. Rahman was rapidly promoted in the Al Qaeda ranks over the next few years.
Over the course of his jihadist career, Rahman was responsible for some of the most crucial operations against the West in Al Qaeda’s history. Before it made its splash on the world stage in 1998 — when the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed — Rahman attempted to draw Algerian Islamist fighters into Al Qaeda’s global orbit. While he failed miserably in the effort — the Algerian fanatics actually detained Rahman for being too moderate — the mission exported Al Qaeda’s brand name into the Maghreb at a time when Islamic militants were engaged in a bloody insurgency against the Algerian armed forces.
Far from being deterred by his imprisonment at the hands of Algeria’s radicals, Rahman escaped and returned to Afghanistan, advising Al Qaeda on issues on all ends of the terrorism spectrum, from recruitment to finances to grand strategy.
His work in the organization was especially valuable after the United States toppled the Taliban government and eliminated the group’s safehaven in Afghanistan. Trapped in the mountains of western Pakistan and besieged by American forces only a few miles from the border, Rahman and his Al Qaeda colleagues would use Pakistan’s tribal areas as their new staging ground, rebounding themselves and extending their outreach to local Pakistani militant groups. Relationships were forged between Arab jihadists and their Pashtun hosts, forming a level of protection that would prove vital as Pakistani soldiers and American drone aircraft worked in tandem to flush out their operatives.
Perhaps more interesting than Rahman’s terrorist activities was his view of what he was trying to accomplish. As opposed to Osama bin Laden, who was obsessed with mimicking the 9/11 attacks, or a low level fighter who dreamed to strap on a suicide bomb, Rahman was working with Ayman al-Zawahiri to improve the organization’s tarnished image in the Arab world.
As Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was cutting of the heads of foreigners in Iraq, driving suicide bombers into marketplaces and killing people on an indiscriminate basis, Rahman was begging Bin Laden’s Iraqi affiliate to stop killing purely for violence’s sake. Murdering fellow Muslims, he argued, was an act that would turn the Arab masses against Al Qaeda’s campaign against the West, depriving it of popular support and undercutting the very Ummah that the jihadists were supposedly trying to defend.
Rahman was also instrumental in attempting to bring Al Qaeda’s many affiliates, whether in Iraq, Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, under the centralized control of Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan. He was the point man for much of the correspondence and directives that were issued between Bin Laden and his various franchises, and a man that both sides trusted.
If indeed Rahman was killed, a claim that Pakistan has yet to confirm officially, Al Qaeda has clearly lost a man who garnered the respect of his commanders and the admiration of his followers. If he, however, is still alive, it is quite obvious who should be at the top of the CIA’s kill or capture list.