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September 13, 2011

The never-ending "war on terror"

Scott Stockdale

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The death of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in an Aug. 22 drone attack in Pakistan was a crucial blow to the core group that once surrounded Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

According to anonymous reports by a senior Obama administration official, he was believed to be killed by a CIA drone on Monday, August 22, 2011. Al-Rahman was previously reported dead in October of 2010. After Bin Laden was killed, Mr. Rahman became Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader under Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Bin Laden.

U.S. government officials claim the Libyan-born Rahman’s death blunts al-Qaeda’s ability to stage a new mega-attack against America and it brings the top leadership of the group closer to extinction, thus helping to justify its multi-billion dollar, never-ending war on terror.

Now, of course the coup de grace, would be killing Ayman al-Zawahiri. Asked recently to name the most important remaining leader in al-Qaeda, a senior U.S. official had said it was Rahman.

He explained that the nominal successor to bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was actually a secondary figure — more a leader of the group’s Egyptian wing than of al-Qaeda as a whole. It would be in America’s interest if Zawahiri rather than Rahman were dominant, this official said, because Zawahiri was a divisive figure whose ad-hoc tactics were less threatening to America.

Intelligence analysts learned only in June 2006 that Rahman was a leading player in al-Qaeda. About 40 at the time of his death, Rahman joined al-Qaeda in the early 1990s and fought in Afghanistan. In 1993, he moved to Algeria to serve as a liaison between al-Qaeda and Algerian radicals fighting a civil war against the military government in that North African nation.

Rahman eventually returned to Afghanistan and al-Qaeda's fold and took on a leadership role after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings. In addition to serving as the primary liaison to al-Qaeda's organization in Iraq and network in Iran, he returned to Algeria and tried again to bolster al-Qaeda's presence there, according to Algerian terrorism analysts.

Meanwhile, American officials claim Rahman’s death is especially important as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States approaches — and not just for symbolic reasons. They say Bin Laden had been working with Rahman to plan a spectacular strike against a U.S. target, pegged to the Sept. 11 anniversary. It’s not clear how far that planning had progressed, but whatever its level, it will be hampered, maybe even disrupted enough to render it inoperable, by the death of the man whom bin Laden charged with organizing the details of the plot.

Moreover, U.S. officials say that while Rahman's death brings the al Qaeda's top leadership closer to extinction, it also increases the likelihood that the organization’s center of gravity will shift from Pakistan's tribal areas to one of its affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, thus justifying increased U.S. covert actions in the Gulf Region, as regimes there fall and teeter and the scramble for oil assets intensifies, as the prizes are in the billions of dollars.

The drone strikes have been the Obama administration’s preferred means of hunting and killing operatives from Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups. Over the past year the United States has expanded the drone war to Yemen and Somalia.

American officials described Mr. Rahman’s death as particularly significant as compared with other high-ranking Qaeda operatives who have been killed, because he was one of a new generation of leaders that the network hoped would assume greater control after Bin Laden’s death.

After Bin Laden’s death, some intelligence officials saw a cadre of Libyan operatives as poised to assume greater control inside Al Qaeda, which at times has been fractured by cultural rivalries.

Libyan operatives like Mr. Rahman, they said, had long bristled at the leadership of an older generation, many of them Egyptians like Mr. Zawahri and Sheikh Saeed al-Masri.

Mr. Masri was killed last year by a C.I.A. missile, as were several Qaeda operations chiefs before him. The job has proved to be particularly deadly, American officials said, because the operations chief has had to transmit the guidance of Bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri to Qaeda operatives elsewhere, providing a way for the Americans to track him through electronic intercepts.

Mr. Rahman assumed the role after Mr. Masri’s death. Now that Mr. Rahman has died, American officials said it was unclear who would take over the job.

Some top American officials have said publicly that they believe Al Qaeda is in its death throes, though many intelligence analysts are less certain, saying that the network built by Bin Laden has repeatedly shown an ability to regenerate.

Yet even as Al Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen and North Africa continue to plot attacks against the West, most intelligence analysts believe that the remnants of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan have been weakened considerably. Mr. Rahman’s death is another significant blow to the group.

“Atiyah was at the top of Al Qaeda’s trusted core,” the American official said. “His combination of background, experience and abilities are unique in Al Qaeda — without question, they will not be easily replaced.”

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