WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida's second in command was killed last week in Pakistan by a CIA drone strike, according to U.S. officials who said Saturday that Atiyah Abd al-Rahman's demise is a significant blow to the terrorist network, which is still reeling from the death of Osama bin Laden.
Rahman was killed Monday in Waziristan, the tribal northwest region of Pakistan, where he presided over the remnants of al-Qaida and served as a crucial link between the lower ranks of the organization and its top leaders, including bin Laden before his death in May, according to the officials, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because of the intelligence involved.
A senior U.S. administration official called Rahman's death a tremendous loss for al-Qaida because the group's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, was relying heavily on him to help guide and run the organization, especially since bin Laden's death.
Rahman was seen as a high-priority target in the CIA drone campaign at a time when U.S. officials have described al-Qaida as near collapse and have said that a small set of successive blows could all but extinguish the organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a strategic defeat of al-Qaida was "within reach" and called for continued efforts to hammer the group's weakened leadership with a series of attacks.
"Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them," he said, "because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al-Qaida as a major threat."
A cache of computer files seized from bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showed that Rahman had emerged as perhaps the most important operational figure in al-Qaida. A veteran militant who was in regular communication with al-Qaida's chief, Rahman expressed frustration with the mounting toll of the CIA drone campaign.
In one message, Rahman complained that al-Qaida's fighters were getting killed faster than they could be replaced, said a U.S. counterterrorism official who, like other sources for this story, spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, citing secrecy surrounding the drone campaign.
Rahman's role became even more important after the elevation of Zawahri, bin Laden's longtime deputy who has also spent much of the past decade deep in hiding. Zawahri is seen as an abrasive and divisive figure who was likely to depend on loyalists like Rahman to help keep the network and its increasingly ambitious affiliates from unraveling.
Rahman, a Libyan explosives expert, appears to have met bin Laden when he was still a teenager. He rose to the No. 3 position in the network and was charged with running its financial operations after Saeed al-Masri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2010.
U.S. intelligence officials have regarded Rahman, who was in his early 40s, as an important player in al-Qaida since at least 2006, when U.S. military officials recovered a long letter that Rahman had sent to al-Qaida's chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rebuking the Jordanian for his bloody campaign against Shiites in that country.
Pakistani officials said they were notified Friday that Rahman had been among those killed in the Monday drone strike and that they had no information about additional casualties.
There is no question this is a major blow to al-Qaida, said a U.S. official familiar with CIA drone operations who portrayed Rahman as an important link to the network's regional affiliates, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
He was known and trusted by affiliates, and he spoke on behalf of bin Laden and Zawahri, the official said.
Rahman was linked with some of al-Qaida's boldest operations, including the December 2009 bombing of a CIA compound in Khost, Afghanistan, that left seven agency employees dead. The suicide bomber Humam al-Balawi lured the CIA officers into a trap in part by using a videotape that was purported to be footage of a meeting between Balawi and Rahman.
A Pakistani intelligence official in the North Waziristan region said four missiles had been fired in the Monday drone strike, two at a vehicle and two at the guest house of a tribal leader. The strikes occurred in Nork, about 12 miles from Miranshah, a town that has been a focal point of the escalating drone campaign for the past two years. Five people were killed in the attack on the vehicle, the Pakistani official said, but it was unknown whether any were killed in the guest house.
A second Pakistani official said that Rahman was very active and always on the move, that he had recently been in Mir Ali, and that he had been spotted with both Taliban fighters and Uzbek militants. Rahman sought to cultivate support among locals by providing seed money for shops and businesses, including an auto parts shop, according to a pro-militant tribal elder in Mir Ali.