- By Brian FishmanBrian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.
The world shook when Osama bin Laden was killed, but it has taken less notice of reports that a CIA drone in Pakistan reportedly killed Atiyah abd al-Rahman al-Libi, now ubiquitously referred to as "al-Qaeda’s number two." And while there is no doubt that bin Laden’s death was the more significant blow politically, Atiyah’s death may have a larger impact on how the al-Qaeda network functions.
Since 2001, al-Qaeda has evolved from being structured hierarchically — with bin Laden at the top — into a network with bin Laden as one branch of the overall organization. Bin Laden’s continued authority was a function of his reputation within the network and, critically, his ability to communicate effectively. That ability to communicate is where Atiyah came in: if bin Laden was the most politically important branch of the al-Qaeda network, Atiyah was the node that connected his branch to the others. That also meant coordinating between al-Qaeda’s central leadership and potential al-Qaeda operators, such as Bryant Neal Vinas, in Europe and the United States.
Atiyah’s central role in the al-Qaeda network has been clear since the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in 2006 released a declassified letter from Atiyah to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. That letter indicated not only that Atiyah had been an influential player in jihadi circles for years, but that he had a freedom of movement from Pakistan into Iran that was, if not unique, then very rare. Such freedom of movement was important not just for communications with Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq, but for communications from al-Qaeda members held under house arrest in Iran, most importantly Sayf al-Adel, who has continued to play a key strategic role for al-Qaeda despite not having absolute freedom.
When you consider that Atiyah reportedly was also a key interlocutor between al-Qaeda’s central leaders and jihadis in North Africa (likely because of his ability to communicate with Zarqawi, who was the first al-Qaeda point of contact for the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC), as well his time spent in contact with Algerian and Libyan jihadis during the 1990s), Atiyah’s centrality in the overall al-Qaeda network becomes clear. Atiyah was not the ultimate decision-maker, but he was the information crossroads.
In a covert network, the ability to transmit messages reliably is power. It is now an over-used trope that al-Qaeda has become a horizontally-organized network that communicates virtually, and often transparently. But the reality is that al-Qaeda’s covert communication networks have played a critical role in the group’s strategic evolution, as declassified communications indicate. Al-Qaeda’s operators have been held together not just by the virtual affirmation offered on Internet forums, but private communication distributed carefully and covertly or in public forums using coded language and personas (see Atiyah’s letter to Zarqawi, in which he references (pg. 17) an object known only to the two of them, an object that would serve as an identifier in online forums).
Trust also matters in covert networks if communication is to be effective. And Atiyah had that trust with many of al-Qaeda’s key actors and affiliates; that is why he will be hard to replace — perhaps even more so than current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri is a critical leader of the organization, but he operates within a structure that increasingly emphasizes the ability to move information rather than generate authoritative commands. In other words: in al-Qaeda, connectedness is more important than authority and Atiyah was connected.
Atiyah’s death, if confirmed, will hasten the demise of al-Qaeda as a functional covert network. Although one must assume Atiyah prepared for his death, his contacts must nevertheless now wonder what U.S. intelligence personnel knew his activities and communications that might now put them at risk. In a network reliant on trust, that suspicion creates a host of challenges for regenerating Atiyah’s functional role. The door is open for intelligence agencies to play all sorts of tricks on folks in Atiyah’s network — and his contacts must know that.
The end result is not likely to be the demise of specific al-Qaeda cells around the world — at least in the short-run — but Atiyah’s death will hasten al-Qaeda’s inexorable shift into a social movement that shares strategic guidance overtly but operates in self-contained cells. Analysts have exaggerated this trend in al-Qaeda for years; in this case, however, life is imitating commentary.
Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @brianfishman.