WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida's second-in-command has been killed in Pakistan, U.S. officials reported Saturday, in what was described as a major blow to an organization still reeling from the death of Osama bin Laden nearly four months ago.
Atiyah Abdul Rahman was killed Monday in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, a U.S. official said. A suspected U.S. drone strike was reported that day, but the official would not say how Rahman died.
"Atiyah was at the top of al-Qaida's trusted core," said the official, who would not be identified discussing sensitive intelligence matters. "His combination of background, experience and abilities are unique in al- Qaida — without question, they will not be easily replaced."
A few weeks after Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan during a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs, some analysts suggested that Rahman, a Libyan, had emerged as al-Qaida's leader. That didn't turn out to be the case — the leadership spot went to Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri — but it underscored how central a role Rahman has played.
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"Zawahiri needed Atiyah's experience and connections to help manage al-Qaida," the official said. "Now it will be even harder for him to consolidate control."
Zawahiri is considered a divisive figure who lacks Bin Laden's charisma and stature.
Rahman was unknown to most Americans, but he "gained considerable stature in al-Qaida as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar," according to the website of the government's National Counterterrorism Center.
He served as the chief liaison to al-Qaida's affiliates in Iraq, and he spent time trying to bolster the group's presence in Algeria, analysts say.
Rahman's death will likely lend credence to a view in some U.S. policymaking circles that al-Qaida's defeat is within reach.
Recent events "hold the prospect of a strategic defeat, if you will, a strategic dismantling of al-Qaida," incoming CIA Director David Petraeus said last month.
Also in July, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who oversees Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy at the National Security Council, said the U.S. was "doubling down" on its strategy of covert targeted missile strikes in Pakistan in the wake of Bin Laden's death, believing that al-Qaida is susceptible to a decisive blow.
"I think there are three to five senior leaders that, if they're removed from the battlefield, would jeopardize al-Qaida's capacity to regenerate," Lute said. He declined to name them, other than Zawahiri. But clearly Rahman would have been on that list.
Other experts caution that al-Qaida retains the capability to inflict pain on the United States.
Michael Leiter, who recently resigned as head of the counter-terrorism center, said last month that although al-Qaida's leadership and structure in Pakistan were "on the ropes ... the core organization is still there and could launch some attacks."