This past weekend, the U.S. government confirmed the death of Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyat Allah, otherwise known as Atiyya, a senior al Qaeda leader who was likely killed by a drone strike in Waziristan. Although he was not well known outside of jihadi circles, Atiyya played a critical role in al Qaeda. He was a trusted adviser to, and intermediary for, Osama bin Laden and a strategist second only to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor. One CIA official told me that Atiyya’s death might prove even more significant than Zawahiri’s would.
The killing of Atiyya, then, is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It illustrates how badly the organization has been compromised by the documents captured in the May raid that killed bin Laden. And, as I wrote in my recent Foreign Affairs article (“Al Qaeda’s Challenge,” September/October 2011), it comes at a time when al Qaeda is reeling from the loss of its founder and desperately trying to remain relevant amid the changes sweeping the Arab world. Atiyya was one of the few senior leaders in al Qaeda with enough experience, pragmatism, and patience to help it ride out the storm.
Most of what the public knows about Atiyya’s role in the organization is taken from secondhand accounts of the documents confiscated in the bin Laden raid. One document allegedly reveals discussions between bin Laden and Atiyya about the possibility of a truce with Pakistan. Another is a memo from Atiyya to bin Laden about al Qaeda in Yemen’s request to install Anwar al-Awlaki as its leader. Further documents reveal that bin Laden and Atiyya explored together the feasibility of attacking the United States on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Beyond the documents, U.S. officials have disclosed that Atiyya was one of the handlers of Bryant Neal Vinas, a U.S. citizen who plotted to bomb the Long Island Rail Road in 2008, and that Atiyya issued bin Laden’s instructions to carry out a Mumbai-style attack in Europe in the fall of 2010. And sometime in the mid-2000s, bin Laden had appointed Atiyya to be his representative in Iran. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Atiyya built a supply chain there to funnel money and operatives from the Middle East to South Asia, sometimes with the collusion of the Iranian government.
As Atiyya’s stature rose in the organization, he became a key strategist for al Qaeda, often advocating for patience and caution. He developed this prudence after traveling to Algeria in the early 1990s as bin Laden’s emissary to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Islamic faction then waging a civil war against the Algerian government. During his mission, Atiyya witnessed firsthand the carnage of the unrestricted jihad that the GIA was waging; it allegedly massacred entire villages and killed thousands of civilians. Imprisoned by the GIA for criticizing its extreme violence, Atiyya eventually left Algeria convinced that whatever tactical victories the jihadis had gained through their bloodshed paled in comparison to the strategic damage of their resulting loss of public support.