Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation (full disclosure: WRM is a founding board member of that organization), has an essay in Foreign Policy that shows how important the reported death of “al Qaeda number two” Atiyah abd al-Rahman al-Libi really was. As Fishman writes, “Atiyah was the node that connected” al Qaeda’s leadership and operators. He was al Qaeda’s communicator-in-chief, and his death will almost certainly make it much harder for al Qaeda’s network to function.
In a covert network, the ability to transmit messages reliably is power…the reality is that al-Qaeda’s covert communication networks have played a critical role in the group’s strategic evolution…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…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.
If al Qaeda leaders and operatives are unable to communicate with each other, the organization ceases to become a global threat and instead becomes a group of individual cells, operating without a global leadership and unable to plan terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11. The war against al-Qaeda is going reasonably well, but the climate of hatred and confusion that spawned the terror organization is unfortunately still alive and well.