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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.
Atiyya’s wariness of excessive violence was on display during the height of the Iraq war, when he attempted to rein in the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was bullying Sunni tribal leaders into submitting to his quest to establish an Islamic state. In a 2005 letter, Atiyya wrote to Zarqawi on behalf of al Qaeda’s central leadership, urging the AQI leader to avoid alienating the Iraqi public with gratuitous violence and to instead build broad coalitions with Sunni leaders, including religious moderates. Much like Zawahiri in his own correspondence with Zarqawi, Atiyya was concerned that AQI’s excesses would diminish its public standing and thus undermine its attempt to build an Islamic state.
Although Atiyya idealistically took the lead in defending the founding of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, which some hard-line Salafis criticized as premature, he did have a strong pragmatic streak, which he tried to impart to his compatriots. For example, in a 2008 book on Hezbollah, he sought to convince his jihadi audience that Iran’s foreign policy is not based on religion alone but is also highly pragmatic and opportunistic (a stance that perhaps hints at his own dealings with the Iranian government). In a 2010 booklet, he urged his fellow jihadis to be more cautious in excommunicating other Sunnis for theological or legal infractions so as not to alienate potential allies. More recently, at the beginning of the uprising in Libya, Atiyya forecasted that the true battle would come after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and he called on Islamists there to begin planning for the establishment of an Islamic state in advance.
Such strategic forbearance is rare in al Qaeda circles. This will make it difficult for Zawahiri to find a replacement for Atiyya, especially during this time of crisis for the organization. Atiyya’s death must also make Zawahiri worry that he will be next. Indeed, if he were, al Qaeda Central might completely collapse, increasing the likelihood that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent claim that the United States is “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda” will come to pass. Even if al Qaeda manages to survive this period, the loss of Atiyya will leave it without a crucial strategic planner and voice of reason to wage the major intellectual and political battles that the organization must now fight to survive and maintain its influence.