The death of al-Qaeda's second in command, Atiya Abdel Rahman, following a drone strike in Waziristan, Pakistan on August 22nd, highlights once again the haemorrhaging of field commanders that the organisation has suffered for years.
The death of Abdel Rahman, a Libyan national, is also a clear setback for Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's new leader, who is trying to rebuild the organisation after the death of its founder Osama bin Laden on May 2nd.
Abdel Rahman was one of bin Laden's closest associates during the last few years. He was also one of the most important conduits for transmitting bin Laden's messages to al-Qaeda affiliates, according to a CNN report. He was reportedly involved in plots to launch new al-Qaeda attacks, including strikes planned for the 10th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, according to the Washington Post.
This shows the importance of the Libyan in the current al-Qaeda leadership hierarchy. According to media reports, Abdel Rahman was al-Qaeda's second highest leader after al-Zawahiri. He attained the position after al-Zawahiri assumed the leadership post this summer, replacing Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Khorasan (including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some parts of Iran), who was also killed in a drone strike in Waziristan.
Abdel Rahman, believed to have been in his forties, was born in Misrata, east of Tripoli. He was linked through a wide network of contacts to al-Qaeda's branches worldwide.
He had a relationship with the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen. According to documents seized from bin Laden's home in Abbottabad following his death, Abdel Rahman relayed a message to bin Laden from the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula branch requesting the appointment of Anwar al-Awlaki as emir of the Yemeni affiliate. According to a New York Times report, bin Laden rejected the idea, instead insisting on maintaining the leadership of the Gulf branch unchanged.
The Libyan had previously served as a liaison with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He reportedly relayed a message to al-Zarqawi in the name of "the leadership of al-Qaeda in Waziristan", asking him to reduce the level of violence of his operations in Iraq, which ultimately led to al-Qaeda losing the support of large segments of the Iraqi populace, including the factions engaged in "resistance" against foreign troops.
It is clear from the vast communications network that Abdel Rahman established with the branches of al-Qaeda that he was no ordinary figure in the organisation's hierarchy. His absence will be a huge loss for al-Zawahiri who is believed to be trying to rebuild the organisation and possibly carry out attacks bearing his mark. Judging by his recent statements, al-Zawahiri is attempting to assert his authority over al-Qaeda by launching new attacks that would not only avenge bin Laden's death but also continue actions al-Qaeda leaders consider "jihad work".
Many jihadists have in recent years questioned the validity of al-Qaeda's claims that its operations represented a form of jihad, particularly since they cause the death of civilians in indiscriminate attacks and bombings in public places.
It is not known with certainty whether the absence of the Abdel Rahman would hamper operations al-Qaeda may be planning. Media reports pointed towards his involvement in past plots during the period that preceded the killing of its leader, bin Laden.
Regardless of whether Abdel Rahman was indeed involved in the planning of new operations, the tangible impact of his absence speaks to al-Qaeda's loss of its core leaders who had accumulated extensive experience by virtue of their lengthy tenure within its framework since its inception in the late 1980s. According to media reports, Abdel Rahman joined al-Qaeda at an early stage [of its existence], upon moving to Afghanistan in the late eighties.
Bin Laden himself is reportedly to have explicitly acknowledged before his death what many know today, that al-Qaeda is losing its leaders so rapidly that it doesn't have adequate time to train new qualified replacements.
In the beginning, al-Qaeda may have been able to appoint new leaders to replace those individuals killed or arrested. But the rapid pace of the demise of new leaders - especially by drone strikes in Waziristan - has prevented the organisation from appointing replacements in recent years. According to media reports, bin Laden admitted that he no longer knew who the field commanders were because the vast majority of those commanders he knew on a personal basis were either in the afterlife or in prison.
Abdel Rahman was one of al-Qaeda's veteran members who advanced through field work to become a prominent leader. He was a bridge between the first generation of al-Qaeda's founders and new members who joined the organisation in the past few years.
In addition to being a link between the founding generation and the new generation, Abdel Rahman played a significant role in the effort to "improve" al-Qaeda's image among Muslims. He wrote a doctrinal study that prohibited bombings in mosques. His study was published following a series of bomb blasts targeting mosques in several countries that were conducted by suspected members of the Taliban branch in Afghanistan or Pakistan and members of the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq. However, it does not appear that his study achieved the desired effect, judging by the continued bombings of mosques by extremists claiming they sought to kill their enemies.
Abdel Rahman's death signals a crushing blow to al-Zawahiri's efforts to rebuild al-Qaeda even before they are put into practice. With his elimination, al-Zawahiri appears to have a lost a figure who was pivotal to his plans to re-launch al-Qaeda with a new approach that has not yet crystallized. The plan would likely take into account that al-Qaeda has been almost entirely out of touch with the pulse of the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya while threatening other regimes with a similar fate.