Heavy Blow to Al Qaeda

The reported death of one of Al Qaeda’s crucial leaders further debilitates the terrorist groups, says Bruce Riedel—but they’re still dangerous and surprisingly resilient.

08.28.11 2:00 PM ET

The reported death by drone of another senior Al Qaeda official, Attiyah abd al-Rahman, in Pakistan last week puts more pressure on the All Qaeda core leadership and on its various franchises around the Islamic world. It will also make Al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, more dependent on the group’s allies in Pakistan to keep him secure.

Attiyah spent his life in the global jihad. Born in Libya around 1970, he was an early recruit to the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, traveling there as a teenager and becoming a follower of Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s. After the Soviets’ defeat, he joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in his homeland and then went to Algeria to join the jihadist battle there against the Algerian military regime in the 1990s. When bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, Attiyah came back, too, and joined the Al Qaeda leadership plotting the Sept.  11 attacks.

Bin Laden trusted him and used him for important liaison missions with other jihadist leaders. He was Al Qaeda’s connection to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who created Al Qaeda in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and helped bring the country to the brink of civil war with his extreme violence and terror. Attiyah aided him in setting up his operations first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. In 2006, Attiyah wrote to Zarqawi on bin Laden’s authority urging the Jordanian to be more judicious in his choice of targets and to avoid polarizing Iraq’s Sunni Arabs against Al Qaeda. Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike shortly after. 

Attiyah was also a skilled operational planner. He was instrumental in the plot that used another Jordanian, Humman al-Balawi, as a triple agent in December 2009 to infiltrate the CIA base in Khost, Pakistan, that led to the death of seven CIA officers.

Backdropped by the mountains of Kunar Province in Afghanistan, the Kandaro Valley, part of the Mohmand Tribal Area, is seen in this aerial view in Pakistan, Saturday, Feb.28, 2009. Analysts said the six-month offensive had undoubtedly driven back the militants from towns and major roads in the remote, tribally ruled regions that border Afghanistan, while the United States said last year it had helped cut down the numbers of fighters traveling into Afghanistan to attack American and NATO troops. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) INSET: This undated photo made available by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center shows Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. U.S. and Pakistani officials said Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011 that al-Qaida's second-in-command has been killed in Pakistan, delivering another big blow to a terrorist group that the U.S. believes to be on the verge of defeat. (AP Photo/National Counterterrorism Center)

Emilio Morenatti / AP; National Counterterrorism Center-AP (inset)

The treasure trove of documents found in bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad apparently showed bin Laden still relied heavily on Attiyah to be a conduit to other terrorists and for operational planning. Clues in those documents probably led to his demise. Attiyah’s death comes only a few weeks after the killing of Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, Al Qaeda’s most important Pakistani operative. The death of bin Laden, Kashmiri, and now Attiyah leave the Al Qaeda core in Pakistan badly wounded.

That will put more pressure on the other franchises of Al Qaeda across the Islamic world to keep up the fight. Fortunately for Al Qaeda, they are doing better. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is benefitting from the collapse of law and order in Yemen to increase its safe havens, even taking over towns along the coast of the Gulf of Aden. AQAP is now reported to be trying to develop bombs mixed with the lethal poison ricin for its next attack on the United States; it already has tried twice to blow up aircraft in the U.S. over Detroit and Chicago.

Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, which was severely damaged by Zarqawi’s excesses and determined counterterrorist operations, is making a bit of a comeback. It recently launched a major offensive to retaliate for bin Laden’s death and staged dozens of attacks across Iraq two weeks ago. It is still a shell of what it once was but its resiliency is undeniable.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been the weakest link in the global terror network in recent years but it carried out a major attack in Algeria last week and was almost certainly involved in Friday’s bombing of United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, working with a local Nigerian jihadist group, Boko Haram. AQIM is also likely to benefit from the release from Libyan jails of hundreds of jihadists who were imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime. Like Attiyah, many are members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has long had very close ties to Al Qaeda.

Zawahiri will need to rely on Al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan to survive. He has put a great deal of effort into forging Al Qaeda’s ties to groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba to build a syndicate of terror groups in Pakistan that can provide aid and comfort for Al Qaeda and serve as force multipliers for its operations. They are crucial to Al Qaeda’s operations and survival.

Attiyah was never formally made No. 2 in Al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death and Zawahiri’s promotion to the top spot, and Al Qaeda has lost many so-called No. 3s in the past and recovered. But this year’s setbacks, starting with the commando raid on Abbottabad, are testing its resiliency and adaptability like never before.