WASHINGTON – U.S. and Pakistani officials said Saturday that al-Qaida’s second in command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, has been killed in Pakistan, delivering another blow to a terrorist group that the U.S. believes to be on the verge of defeat.
Al-Rahman was killed Monday in the lawless Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, according to a senior administration official.
A Pakistani intelligence official said al-Rahman died in a U.S. missile strike in Machi Khel village in North Waziristan on Monday.
Since Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed him in May, the Obama administration has been frank in its assessment that al-Qaida is on the ropes, its leadership in disarray. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that al-Qaida’s defeat was within reach if the U.S. could mount a string of successful attacks.
“Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them,” Panetta said, “because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al-Qaida as a major threat.”
A Libyan national, al-Rahman never had the worldwide name recognition of bin Laden or bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But al-Rahman was regarded as an instrumental figure in the terrorist organization, trusted by bin Laden to oversee al-Qaida’s daily operations.
When the SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, they found evidence of al-Rahman’s deep involvement in running al-Qaida.
Senior al-Qaida figures have been killed before, only to be replaced. But the Obama administration’s tenor reflects a cautious optimism that victory in the decade-long fight against al-Qaida could be at hand.
Since bin Laden’s death, counterterrorism officials have hoped to capitalize on al-Qaida’s unsettled leadership.
Al-Zawahiri is running the group but is considered a divisive figure who lacks the founder’s charisma and ability to galvanize al-Qaida’s disparate franchises.
A U.S. official said al-Rahman’s death will make it harder for al-Zawahiri to oversee what is considered an increasingly weakened organization.
“Zawahiri needed Atiyah’s experience and connections to help manage al-Qaida,” the official said.
Al-Rahman has been thought to be dead before. Last year, there were reports that al-Rahman was killed in a drone strike; neither U.S. officials nor al-Qaida ever confirmed them.
The officials who confirmed the death Saturday said it represented the consensus opinion of the U.S. government.
Born in Libya, al-Rahman joined bin Laden as a teenager in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. He once served as bin Laden’s personal emissary to Iran. Al-Rahman was allowed to move freely in and out of Iran as part of that arrangement and has been operating out of Waziristan for some time, officials have said.