Atiyah Abd al Rahman was a senior al Qaeda commander who became the group’s second-in-command. He allegedly maintained close ties to Osama bin Laden and liaised between different groups within the al Qaeda network. He was implicated in planning the 2009 bombing of a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Rahman was killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan in August 2011.
Rahman, whose real name was Jamal Ibrahim Ishtawi, was born around 1973 in Misrata, Libya. He graduated from the engineering department at Misrata College for Natural Resources, where he reportedly had a reputation for being a ‘hardliner’ and was said to have created some ‘friction’ among his peers.
Rahman is reported to have linked up with bin Laden as a teenager in Afghanistan, after leaving Libya in 1988 to fight the Soviet occupation. He became one of al Qaeda’s earliest members when he joined between 1988 and 1989. Rahman’s intellect saw him ‘quickly climb up the al Qaeda chain of command’ and his pious reputation was bolstered when he undertook a religious studies programme during a stay in Mauritania.
He moved from Afghanistan to Algeria in 1993 to act as a go between for al Qaeda and Algerian radicals in the civil war. According to Noman Benotman, former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who knew Rahman, al Qaeda wanted him to form an alliance with the jihadist Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
Benotman said in a CNN interview however that Rahman was ‘too moderate’ for the GIA. The group imprisoned him and searched for a mufti to issue a fatwa justifying executing Rahman. After five months spent imprisoned and threatened with execution, Rahman and other Libyan prisoners escaped the GIA, a prominent Libyan political exile told the Washington Post. Rahman left Algeria in 1997, reportedly heading first to Turkey before returning to Afghanistan. The experience reportedly left Rahman ‘disillusioned’ with the jihadist movement.
Benotman and Rahman spent a few days together in the LIFG’s safe house in Kabul in 2000. He described Rahman to be in a ‘reflective mood’, as the latter discussed the ‘failure of the jihadist movement to mobilise the masses’ due to its brutal tactics in the Arab world.
‘He was one of the few jihadists who really impressed me with his understanding of armed conflict and how important the intellectual dimension is to this conflict,’ Benotman told CNN.
It is unclear where Rahman went after fleeing from Libya, but he returned to Afghanistan after September 11 to take up a senior leadership role in the ranks of al Qaeda. He liaised between its groups in Iraq, Iran and Algeria. Bin Laden appointed Rahman as an emissary to Iran, which enabled Rahman to freely travel to and out of Iran. His responsibilities also reportedly included recruitment and building ties with other militant groups.
US intelligence analysts only learned in 2006 that Rahman was a leading al Qaeda figure through a letter written to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian fighter who ran al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. In the letter, Rahman rebuked Zarqawi for his campaign against Shiites and threatened to remove him as leader of al Qaeda in Iraq if he ‘continued to alienate Sunni tribal and religious leaders and rival insurgent groups’. Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by the US in June 2006.
Will McCants, an expert in the al Qaeda movement at the Center for Naval Analysis, told Wired: ‘[Rahman] is irreplaceable because he combined the skills of a diplomat, an operator, and a strategist – a rare combination in any organization. For that reason, he was one of Bin Laden’s closest confidants at the end of his life, even though he was less popular in the wider jihadi community than some of his more bellicose colleagues.’
Rahman allegedly helped Byrant Neal Vinas, a 26-year-old al Qaeda recruit from Long Island, to plan a bomb plot on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in New York City’s Penn Station in 2008. Vinas himself informed officials of the plot which led them to issue a terror alert on November 25 2008. He pleaded guilty to attacking a US military base and providing information to al Qaeda in January 2009.
The US government offered a $1m reward for information on Rahman’s location and described him as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar who was in regular contact with senior al Qaeda leaders.
‘Atiyah was the one affiliates knew and trusted, and he spoke on behalf of both [bin Laden] and Zawahiri. He planned the details of al-Qaeda operations and its propaganda. His combination of background, experience and abilities are unique,’ a US official told the Washington Post.
Rahman appeared in an al Qaeda video in September 2009 that marked the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The footage marked the start of him acting as a spokesman for al Qaeda.
He was used as bait to enable a triple-agent and suicide bomber gain access to a CIA base in Afghanistan. The bomber Human Khalil al Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and Islamist turned by Jordanian intelligence, used a video of senior militants including Rahman to convince the CIA of his bonafides. The US spies invited al Balawi to Camp Chapman in Khost but as he arrived he detonated his bomb killing 18 people.
Five CIA officers were among the dead, along with two former US Special Forces soldiers then working for Xe – the re-branded notorious private security contractor Blackwater. The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming it was in revenge for the CIA drone strike that killed the group’s leader Baitullah Mehsud earlier in the year.
Rahman released a booklet in summer 2010, urging jihadists to ‘open fronts’ and to integrate local elements into the global jihadist movement.
Pakistani officials initially thought a US drone strike in Khaisoori, North Waziristan, had killed Rahman in October 2010. But this was disproved when Rahman appeared in a video in April 2011 calling on Libyans to overthrow long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi and to implement Sharia Law in his absence.
After the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, Rahman was appointed deputy leader of al Qaeda, at the same time as Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri became the group’s overall leader.
On August 22 2011, a missile hit a house in Norak, North Waziristan, killing up to seven people including Rahman. Some reports suggested civilians died in the strike.
Pakistani website The News wrote that before his death, Rahman was spotted in Mir Ali ‘making a goodwill tour of North Waziristan’ with Taliban and Uzbek supporters.
The Washington Post claimed on August 23 2011, before officials publicly acknowledged his death, that Rahman may have been ‘more important’ to Osama Bin Laden than Ayman al Zawahiri: ‘The Libyan-born Atiyah… was the boss’s key link with the outside, officials see him as more important than bin Laden’s nominal successor.
Once confirmed, his death was described as a ‘tremendous loss for al Qaeda’ by a US official.
Sources and Citations
American and Pakistani officials (New York Times); ISI officials (Deutsche Welle); US official (Los Angeles Times); US officials (Wired); al Qaeda (Long War Journal); Pakistan ministry of interior stats (The News); al Qaeda’s top operational commander, second in command in Pakistan (New York Times); Senior US officials (Yahoo! News); US officials (Daily Mail); US Officials (WSJ); US Official (WaPo)