The reported killing in late August of Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman (sometimes given in jihadi sources as Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyatullah al-Libi or simply Atiyah Abd al-Rahman) in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan, if confirmed, deprives al-Qaeda Central (AQC) of one of its most versatile and important leaders and ideologues. Known more popularly in jihadi circles as “Sheikh Atiyyatullah,” he straddled the operational, media, and ideological sides of AQC’s global campaign. He was also 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, and intervened forcefully in debates among jihadis, actively counseling against the use of mass violence against other Muslims.
His loss would be a severe blow to an organization that is already reeling from the loss of its charismatic founder-leader Osama bin Laden, and more recently the arrest of another key operational planner, Younis al-Mauretani. Atiyyatullah’s death has been claimed by U.S. government sources but has not been confirmed by AQC itself, casting some doubt on to whether he was actually killed. Reports surfaced in October 2010 that he had been killed but were proven wrong when he surfaced in film and audio releases from al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab Media Foundation in mid-March of this year.
Much of Atiyyatullah’s career, which began in the 1990s, as an AQC envoy and later one of its key leaders, was spent out of the limelight and in the shadow of the organization’s public faces, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Despite not being in the public eye, though, Atiyyatullah played an important role in AQC, first in the 1990s as the organization’s envoy to Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA, in French). He ultimately was unable to convince GIA leaders to modify their positions and was even imprisoned by them for a period of time, after which he left the country. After the dispersal of AQC leaders from Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Atiyyatullah reportedly served as AQC’s representative in Iran and to regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). His career as a jihadi began in the 1980s when he traveled to Afghanistan to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad. Atiyyatullah also reportedly was in contact with Dr. Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian who carried out the December 2009 suicide bombing inside the U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan.
For much of his career his identity as Sheikh Atiyyatullah, a prolific AQC ideologue, was debated by analysts, some of whom argued that Atiyah and the “Sheikh” were one and the same. Atiyah appeared with his face fully visible and identified as “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” in The West and the Dark Tunnel, a two-part video released by al-Sahab in late September 2009. He has subsequently been featured both solo and with other senior AQC leaders such as fellow Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, who is the organization’s unofficial mufti or chief jurist, in a number of videos, audio messages, and written tracts — including June’s lengthy two-part video You are Not Responsible Except for Yourself. It is not known for certain why AQC decided to connect Atiyah with the mysterious personality it had created as “Sheikh Atiyyatullah,” but it may have decided to cash in on the mystique and capital it had built up around him over several years. The organization has done this with other ideologues, such as Abu Mansur al-Shami, who was killed in a drone missile strike in Waziristan in January 2011.
Most recently, Atiyyatullah was one of the voices spearheading AQC’s attempt to co-opt the ongoing uprisings against autocratic governments in Arab countries, together with fellow Libyan al-Qaeda leaderAbu Yahya al-Libi and al-Zawahiri. On March 18, as forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi besieged the city of Misrata, al-Sahab issued an audio message online from Atiyyatullah that purportedly identified him by his real name, Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati, or the “one from Misrata.” In this message, A Tribute to Our People in Libya, he praised the people of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt for revolting against their dictatorial governments, and Libyans to establish an Islamic state. Interestingly, despite AQC leaders’ general rejection of democratic systems of governance and other forms of government they deem “un-Islamic,” Atiyyatullah appealed 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’s new constitution.
The Libyan ideologue also played a major but often overlooked role in internal jihadi debates about the excommunication of (takfir) and violence against other Muslims, two issues that have long dogged AQC and its affiliates and allies. Atiyyatullah urged other jihadis to be selective in their use of violence, in part because mass killings of other Muslims has led to a backlash against jihadis in many parts of the Muslim world. In late 2009 and early 2010, he also participated in a concerted effort by AQC and its ally Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to shift blame away from themselves and onto the U.S. and Pakistani governments and the military contractor Blackwater for a series of bloody attacks in civilian areas of Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal regions. This campaign included the release of an audio message from AQC’s then-general commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and a video message from TTP spokesman Azam Tariq blaming the attacks on their enemies. A lengthy Urdu e-book was also published on November 14 that identified Blackwater as the “Army of the Dajjal,” an anti-Christ type figure who features importantly in Islamic apocalyptic literature.
Atiyyatullah’s contribution to this propaganda campaign was a question-and-answer tract that was issued to jihadi Internet forums on January 21, 2010, Advice and Compassion in Speaking about the Market Bombings: Questions and Answers about the Bombing of the Peshawar Market. In a series of responses to questions about whether it is permissible to rejoice in the killing of other Muslims, even if they are allegedly “impious,” he bluntly stated that it was not. Such attacks, he continued, are a means of spreading corruption and division (fitna) within the Muslim community, and are in stark contradiction to Islamic law (shariah). Further, he argued that the “mujahideen” could not have carried out such attacks, because they are the “true followers” of shariah. Logically then, he concluded, the U.S. and its apostate Muslim allies and mercenaries must be at fault, pointing to their long record of killing Muslims around the world.
He has addressed the issue of takfir in Advice and Compassion and a second question-and-answer tract, Responses to the Ruling on Leaving for Battle and the Precondition of Takfir, released on August 1, 2010, as well as in a video message, Maximizing the Sanctity of Muslim Blood, released on March 18, 2011. While recognizing the well-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 as expressed in the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, he cautions Muslims from misinterpreting it as a means of evaluating another Muslim’s piety. It is impossible for anyone to truly know the religious state of being of those Muslims killed in such attacks, he said, whether righteous or sinful, and thus it is not permissible for any other Muslim to rejoice in their death. His cautious views on violence against other Muslims, including Shi‘ites, who most Sunni jihadis view as being outside the fold of Islam, have also been shared publicly by other Sunni jihadis, including Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who is one of the most influential voices within the Sunni jihadi movement. There is a tactical reason for this, namely that such mass excommunication alienates other Muslims, whom jihadis view as potential supporters.
As I noted before, a question mark still hangs over reports of Atiyyatullah’s death. Unlike when other senior leaders have been killed, AQC has yet to confirm and eulogize him, casting some doubt as to whether the Libyan is actually dead. The organization confirmed the death of bin Laden the same week he was killed and it also acknowledged the killing of Mustafa Abu’l Yazid soon after his death. Additionally, on August 30 when Al-Sahab released a new audio message from Atiyyatullah, The Promise of Victory in the Month of Patience (Ramadan) in which his name is followed by the prayer, “may God protect him,” which is only used for living persons.
It is possible that AQC’s surviving leaders, who were already reeling from the major setback of bin Laden’s death, are seeking to minimize the fallout from Atiyyatullah’s death before announcing it publicly (something made especially important by the capture al-Mauritani in Pakistan on Monday). The Promise of Victory features nearly identical background to the previously released A Tribute to Our People in Libya with the exception of the text identifying him and the message’s title. This may be because al-Sahab released the new message ahead of schedule in an attempt to counter reports of his death. But if his death is confirmed, it will be an enormous blow to al-Qaeda; he was truly a jihadi renaissance man, combining both strategic and ideological savvy. Atiyyatullah will be very difficult, if not impossible, to replace, and his loss will further damage an already handicapped AQC.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.