What the Death of “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” Means for Al-Qaeda – by Christopher Anzalone | The AfPak Channel

What the Death of “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” Means for Al-Qaeda – by Christopher Anzalone | The AfPak Channel.

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.


3 thoughts on “What the Death of “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” Means for Al-Qaeda – by Christopher Anzalone | The AfPak Channel

  1. US defends right to pursue threats, no matter the country
    By Jennifer Rizzo in CambrIdge, MA and Adam Levine in Washington
    CNN, September 16, 2011, 1705 Hrs

    The United States reserves the right to pursue terrorists unilaterally in other countries, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Friday night in a speech at Harvard Law School.

    “The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan. We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves,” Brennan told a conference on “Law, Security & Liberty After 9/11: Looking to the Future.”

    “That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally – and on the way in which we can use force – in foreign territories.”

    The U.S. intelligence and military communities have used various means to go after terrorists, both in cooperation with countries and, in certain circumstances, unilaterally. The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command is increasingly active in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials tell CNN.U.S. officials have said they will target Yemen-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki if they locate him. In May, the U.S.-born radical cleric based in Yemen survived an American drone assault after he switched vehicles. At the time, a U.S. defense official told CNN the strike was carried out by the American military.

    Former CIA Director Leon Panetta discussed the U.S. approach to counterterrorism in the two countries during testimony in June at the hearing for his nomination to be secretary of defense. Panetta said then that the CIA needed to develop its strategy for dealing with threats that extend beyond Pakistan.

    “Our approach has been to develop operations in each of these areas that will contain al Qaeda and go after them so that they have no place to escape,” he said, citing Yemen and Somalia as examples.

    Regarding al Qaeda in North Africa, U.S. officials were working with the Spanish and French “to develop approaches there that will contain them as well,” he said.

    The New York Times reported Friday that the administration’s legal team is split over the lengths the United States can go in pursuit of alleged terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. The debate focuses on whether such pursuit should occur only in cases where high-level leaders have been directly linked to alleged plots to attack the United States or “whether it may also attack the thousands of low-level foot soldiers focused on parochial concerns: controlling the essentially ungoverned lands near the Gulf of Aden, which separates the countries.”

    Brennan said he was disappointed in the article, which he thought over-hyped the debate within the administration.

    “It made it sound as though my goodness the administration is split on this issue. There’s this great fight going on,” Brennan said. “What we have now within the U.S. government at the insistence of the president and others is that type of discourse among the lawyers. That we want to make sure that we hear all the different views and perspectives. That provides us a good sense of what those legal parameters are within which we can work”.

    Regardless of the opinions voiced, Brennan said he has never been in a situation where legal interpretation prevented the U.S. from acting in the best interest of the country.

    In the case of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operating in Yemen and terrorist group Al-Shabaab operating in Somalia, Brennan said there is no question the U.S. has the right to go after the groups. Whether the threat comes from a low level suicide bomber or a high ranking member of the group makes no difference, he said.

    “Sometimes those threats are because somebody’s at the operational command, the equivalent of a bin Laden or somebody else who is orchestrating that, engineering it, preparing materials, thinking about the plans. There are the individuals, the operatives, the facilitators, who are carrying them out, the suicide bombers. So you have people in all different parts of the network, both in AQAP and as well as in Al-Shabbab,” Brennan said.

    “And consistent to what I was saying here, our interpretation of the law is that it allows us and we feel obligated to take actions to mitigate those threats that these terrorist groups and these individuals who are associated with al Qaeda pose to us”.

    The U.S. interpretation of what constitutes an “imminent” threat is now being recognized by our allies, Brennan said.

    An important shift in opinion he said as “the effectiveness of our counterterrorism activities depends on the assistance and cooperation of our allies.

    In a resolute fashion, Brennan also fortified other administration policies, saying the thoughts of some that the U.S. would rather kill than capture suspected terrorists is “absurd”.

    “I want to be very clear–whenever it is possible to capture a suspected terrorist, it is the unqualified preference of the administration to take custody of that individual so we can obtain information that is vital to the safety and security of the American people,” Brennan said.

    CNN’s Jennifer Rizzo contributed to this report


  2. US drone kills six militants in Pakistan: officials
    (AFP) – 3 days ago

    MIRANSHAH, Pakistan — A US drone strike in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt on Friday killed at least six militants including four foreigners and destroyed a compound, security officials said.

    Two missiles fired by the unmanned aircraft hit a house in the village of Khushali Turikhel, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Miranshah, the main town in the lawless North Waziristan tribal district, security officials told AFP.

    “The US drone fired two missiles which hit a house. Two locals and four militants of central Asian origin have been killed,” a Pakistani security official said.

    The official based in Peshawar said militants were using the house as a compound, which was completely destroyed.

    Two intelligence officials based in Miranshah confirmed the attack and the number of casualties, adding that three militants whose identities were not yet clear were wounded in the strike.

    Although the United States does not publicly confirm drone attacks, its military and the CIA in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the unmanned Predator aircraft in the region.

    North Waziristan is the headquarters of the Haqqani leadership and the main militant bastion in the semi-autonomous tribal belt.

    The Haqqani network is considered the deadliest enemy of US troops in eastern Afghanistan. It was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani and is run by his son, Sirajuddin, both designated “global terrorists” by Washington.

    The United States blames it over some of the most spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, such as last week’s 19-hour siege in Kabul and the 2009 killing of seven CIA agents, and accuses Pakistani spies of having ties to the group.

    In an unprecedented condemnation of Pakistan the US military’s top officer Admiral Mike Mullen said this week that the country’s main intelligence agency the ISI was actively supporting Haqqani network militants.

    Pakistan has reacted angrily to the US allegations, saying they are “not acceptable” and warning that Washington stands to lose a vital ally.

    Drone attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis, who oppose the alliance with Washington and who are sensitive to perceived violations of sovereignty.

    Around two dozen drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since elite US forces killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a suburban home near Pakistan’s main military academy in Abbottabad, close to the capital, on May 2.

    Pakistani-US relations sank to a new nadir after the unilateral American raid that killed bin Laden but in recent months had appeared to recover slightly.

    Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to launch a decisive military campaign in North Waziristan, as Pakistan has conducted elsewhere in the tribal belt, has so far fallen on deaf ears.

    Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved


  3. US missile strike kills 3 in northwest Pakistan
    By ISHTIAQ MAHSUD – Associated Press | AP
    Sep 30 2011

    DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — A U.S. missile strike killed three suspected militants in a Pakistani tribal region near the Afghan border on Friday, a reminder of the weapons at American disposal at a time of intense strain with Islamabad, two Pakistan officials said.

    Stepping up the tempo of the missile strikes is seen as one possible American option if Pakistan does not act on Washington’s stepped up demands to attack Afghan militants sheltering on the Pakistani side of the border.

    Last week, U.S. officials accused Pakistan’s spy agency of assisting the Haqqani militant faction in attacks on Western targets in Afghanistan, the most serious allegation yet of Pakistani duplicity in the 10-year war.

    The drone-fired missiles hit a vehicle near the Angore Adda border town of South Waziristan, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The victims were associates of Maulvi Nazir, a prominent militant commander in the region, according to the officials.

    South Waziristan was the main sanctuary for the Pakistani and foreign militants until the military launched an offensive there in 2009. The region has also witnessed scores of American drone attacks.

    The missile attacks are seen at the most effective weapon Washington has at hitting al-Qaida and Afghan militants like the Haqqanis in the northwest. There were more than 100 such attacks last year; this year there have been around 50.

    Most have hit targets in neighboring North Waziristan, considering the main militant sanctuary and the base of the Haqqani network. The Pakistani army has refused to launch an operation in North Waziristan despite U.S. demands, leading to speculation that Washington may consider more unilateral options.

    Sending ground troops in could risk a confrontation with Pakistani soldiers and lead to a rupture in the alliance.

    Drone strikes are unpopular, but have been tolerated by the Pakistani army.


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