US officials said Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a Libyan, was killed in Pakistan in a strike by an unmanned drone on August 22.
The killing will be particularly highly prized by Washington as US strategists would have been concerned about Rahman’s potential influence in Libya’s turmoil following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Rahman, in his 40s and from the coastal Libyan town of Misrata, built a reputation in al-Qaida as a thinker, organiser and trusted emissary of the Pakistan-based central leadership to its offshoots.
In particular, he played a key role in managing ties between the core leadership and al-Qaida in Iraq and helped negotiate the formation in 2007 of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with a group of Algerian Islamist guerrillas.
He was also one of the first al-Qaida leaders to provide a response to the uprisings in the Arab world, urging the group’s supporters to cooperate with the revolts even if the rebellions were not Islamist-inspired.
“It’s immensely important that he’s been killed,” said Anna Murison, who monitors Islamist violence for Exclusive Analysis, a London-based risk consultancy.
She said he was widely trusted throughout the organisation and by Islamists from varied backgrounds.
“Al-Qaida as an idea will live on, but al-Qaida’s core as an organisation looks pretty much finished, as there are so few people who can now move up into those senior ranks,” she said.
She said he was one of only four people in al-Qaida leadership with a global profile in the small but passionate transnational community of violent Islamist militants.
She rates these as al-Qaida’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, Egyptian plotter Saif al-Adl, and the other Libyan in al-Qaida’s central leadership, the theologian Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Rahman rose to the number two spot when al-Zawahri took the reins after Osama bin Laden was killed in May in a US raid.
Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamist and now an analyst at Britain’s Quilliam think tank, said his death was a heavy blow to al-Qaida as he was its main organiser and manager.
“This was the one man al-Qaida could not afford to lose,” Benotman said. “He was the CEO of al-Qaida who was at the heart of the management process of al-Qaida worldwide.”
Benotman said that in the last two years he “more or less single-handedly” kept al-Qaida together.
Benotman said Rahman, whose real name was Jamal Ibrahim Ishtawi, was a graduate of the engineering department of Misrata University and left Libya to go to Afghanistan in 1988 and join the Islamist groups then fighting Soviet occupation.
He said Rahman was a personal acquaintance of his but was never a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Islamist guerrilla organisation that waged a failed insurgency to topple Gaddafi in the 1990s of which Benotman was a leader.
Rahman was one of al-Qaida’s earliest members and worked for the anti-Western militant group in Algeria and Mauritania as well as Afghanistan, Benotman said.
In a statement posted on militant online forums on February 23, Rahman acknowledged that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were not the “perfections for which we hoped,” but they were happy occasions nonetheless.
He dismissed the notion that al-Qaida has a “magic wand” to gather large armies and lead the charge to overturn governments and rescue besieged Muslims, according to a translation by the Site Intelligence Group, a US monitoring company.
Rather, he wrote, “al-Qaida is a simple part of the efforts of the jihadi Ummah (nation), so do not think of them to be more than they are. We all should know our abilities and to try to cooperate in goodness, piety and jihad in the Cause of Allah; everyone in his place and with whatever they can and what is suitable to them.”