The South Asia Channel

Al-Qaeda loses its “renaissance man”

Thereported killingin late August of Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman (sometimes given in jihadisources as Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyatullah al-Libi or simply Atiyah Abdal-Rahman) in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan, if confirmed, deprives al-QaedaCentral (AQC) of one of its most versatile and important leaders andideologues. Known more popularly in jihadi circles as "Sheikh Atiyyatullah," ...

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Thereported killingin late August of Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman (sometimes given in jihadisources as Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyatullah al-Libi or simply Atiyah Abdal-Rahman) in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan, if confirmed, deprives al-QaedaCentral (AQC) of one of its most versatile and important leaders andideologues. Known more popularly in jihadi circles as "Sheikh Atiyyatullah," hestraddledthe operational, media, and ideological sides of AQC’s global campaign. He wasalso at the forefront on a number of issues, including the militant organization’s attempt to embrace and co-opt the uprisings in the Arab world, andintervened forcefully in debates among jihadis, actively counseling against theuse of mass violence against other Muslims.

His losswould be a severe blow to an organization that is already reeling from the lossof its charismatic founder-leader Osama bin Laden, and more recently the arrestof another key operational planner, Younis al-Mauretani. Atiyyatullah’s deathhas been claimed by U.S.government sources but has not been confirmed by AQC itself, casting some doubton to whether he was actually killed. Reports surfaced in October 2010 that hehad been killed but were proven wrong when he surfaced in film and audioreleases from al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab Media Foundation in mid-March of this year.


Much of Atiyyatullah’scareer, which began in the 1990s, as an AQC envoy and later one of its keyleaders, was spent out of the limelight and in the shadow of the organization’spublic faces, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Despite not being in the publiceye, though, Atiyyatullah played an important role in AQC, first in the 1990sas the organization’s envoy to Algeria’sArmed Islamic Group (GIA, in French). He ultimately was unable to convince GIAleaders to modify their positions and was even imprisoned by them for a periodof time, after which he left the country. After the dispersal of AQC leadersfrom Afghanistan in thewinter of 2001, Atiyyatullah reportedly served as AQC’s representative in Iran and to regionalaffiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). His career as ajihadi began in the 1980s when he traveled to Afghanistan to participate in theanti-Soviet jihad. Atiyyatullah also reportedlywas in contact with Dr. Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian who carried out theDecember 2009 suicide bombing inside the U.S.military base in Khost, Afghanistan.

For muchof his career his identity as Sheikh Atiyyatullah, a prolific AQC ideologue,was debated by analysts, some of whom argued that Atiyah and the "Sheikh" wereone and the same.  Atiyah appeared withhis face fully visible and identified as "Sheikh Atiyyatullah" in The Westand the Dark Tunnel, a two-part video released by al-Sahab in lateSeptember 2009. He has subsequently been featured both solo and with othersenior AQC leaders such as fellow Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, who is theorganization’s unofficial mufti or chief jurist, in a number of videos,audio messages, and written tracts — including June’s lengthy two-part video Youare Not Responsible Except for Yourself. It is not known for certainwhy AQC decided to connect Atiyah with the mysterious personality it had createdas "Sheikh Atiyyatullah," but it may have decided to cash in on the mystiqueand capital it had built up around him over several years. The organization hasdone this with other ideologues, such as AbuMansur al-Shami, who was killed in a drone missile strike in Waziristan in January 2010.

Mostrecently, Atiyyatullah was one of the voices spearheading AQC’s attempt toco-opt the ongoing uprisings against autocratic governments in Arab countries,together with fellow Libyan al-Qaeda leaderAbu Yahya al-Libi and al-Zawahiri. OnMarch 18, as forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi besieged thecity of Misrata,al-Sahab issued an audio message online from Atiyyatullah that purportedlyidentified him by his real name, Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati, or the "onefrom Misrata." In this message, ATribute to Our People in Libya, he praised the people of Libya, Tunisia,and Egyptfor revolting against their dictatorial governments, and Libyans to establishan Islamic state. Interestingly, despite AQC leaders’ general rejection of democraticsystems of governance and other forms of government they deem "un-Islamic," Atiyyatullahappealed to the Libyan people to ensure the primacy of Islam and Islamic law (shari‘a),and enshrine Islamic law (as defined by al-Qaeda, of course) in the country’snew constitution.

The Libyanideologue also played a major but often overlooked role in internal jihadidebates about the excommunication of (takfir) and violence against otherMuslims, two issues that have long dogged AQC and its affiliates and allies. Atiyyatullahurged other jihadis to be selective in their use of violence, in part becausemass killings of other Muslims has led to a backlash against jihadis in manyparts of the Muslim world. In late 2009 and early 2010, he also participated ina concertedeffort by AQC and its ally Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to shift blameaway from themselves and onto the U.S.and Pakistani governments and the military contractor Blackwater for a seriesof bloody attacks in civilian areas of Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal regions.This campaign included the release of an audio message from AQC’s then-generalcommander in Afghanistan,Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and a video message from TTP spokesman Azam Tariq blamingthe attacks on their enemies. A lengthy Urdu e-book was also published onNovember 14 that identified Blackwater as the "Army of the Dajjal," ananti-Christ type figure who features importantly in Islamic apocalyptic literature.

Atiyyatullah’scontribution to this propaganda campaign was a question-and-answer tract thatwas issued to jihadi Internet forums on January 21, 2010, Advice andCompassion in Speaking about the Market Bombings: Questions and Answers aboutthe Bombing of the Peshawar Market.  Ina series of responses to questions about whether it is permissible to rejoicein the killing of other Muslims, even if they are allegedly "impious," he bluntlystated that it was not. Such attacks, he continued, are a means of spreadingcorruption and division (fitna) within the Muslim community, and are instark contradiction to Islamic law (shariah). Further, he argued thatthe "mujahideen" could not havecarried out such attacks, because they are the "true followers" of shariah.Logically then, he concluded, the U.S. and its apostate Muslim alliesand mercenaries must be at fault, pointing to their long record of killingMuslims around the world.

He hasaddressed the issue of takfir in Advice and Compassion and asecond question-and-answer tract, Responsesto the Ruling on Leaving for Battle and the Precondition of Takfir,released on August 1, 2010, as well as in a video message, Maximizing theSanctity of Muslim Blood, released on March 18, 2011. While recognizing thewell-established Islamic tenet of "enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong"(amr bi’l ma’ruf wa’l nahy ‘an al-munkar) based on the words of God asexpressed in the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, he cautions Muslimsfrom misinterpreting it as a means of evaluating another Muslim’s piety. It isimpossible for anyone to truly know the religious state of being of thoseMuslims killed in such attacks, he said, whether righteous or sinful, and thusit is not permissible for any other Muslim to rejoice in their death. Hiscautious views on violence against other Muslims, including Shi‘ites, who mostSunni jihadis view as being outside the fold of Islam, have also been sharedpublicly by other Sunni jihadis, including Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who is oneof the most influential voices within the Sunni jihadi movement. There is atactical reason for this, namely that such mass excommunication alienates otherMuslims, whom jihadis view as potential supporters.

As I notedbefore, a question mark still hangs over reports of Atiyyatullah’s death. Unlikewhen other senior leaders have been killed, AQC has yet to confirm and eulogizehim, casting some doubt as to whether the Libyan is actually dead.  The organization confirmed the death of binLaden the same week he was killed and it also acknowledged the killing ofMustafa Abu’l Yazid soon after his death. Additionally, on August 30 whenAl-Sahab released a new audio message from Atiyyatullah, The Promise ofVictory in the Month of Patience (Ramadan) in which his name is followed bythe prayer, "may God protect him," which is only used for living persons. 

It ispossible that AQC’s surviving leaders, who were already reeling from the majorsetback of bin Laden’s death, are seeking to minimize the fallout from Atiyyatullah’sdeath before announcing it publicly (something made especially important by thecapture al-Mauritani in Pakistanon Monday). The Promise of Victory features nearly identical backgroundto the previously released A Tribute to Our People in Libya with theexception of the text identifying him and the message’s title. This may bebecause al-Sahab released the new message ahead of schedule in an attempt tocounter reports of his death. But if his death is confirmed, it will be anenormous blow to al-Qaeda; he was truly a jihadi renaissance man, combiningboth strategic and ideological savvy. Atiyyatullah will be very difficult, ifnot impossible, to replace, and his loss will further damage an alreadyhandicapped AQC.

ChristopherAnzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill Universitywhere he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, andIslamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.

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