Two weeks ago, on Monday August 22, the United States accomplished one of the most important security triumphs in modern history. Unfortunately though, not too many people heard about it. Reports that the US had killed al-Qaeda's number two came out five days later on Saturday August 27 when most of the country was enjoying a late summer weekend and most of the news media was covering the impending northeast landfall of Hurricane Irene. Quiet as the news was, the drone-dealt death of Atiyah Abdul al-Rahman in north Waziristan is as important an event as the Abbotabad raid that killed bin Laden, perhaps even more so. Why the event passed with so little notice, and why this silence has roots in Rahman's past, tells a tremendous story about the state of US media and foreign affairs.
Prior to Osama bin Laden's killing, news of the US nixing al-Qaeda's number two seemed to be a quarterly obligation. Whether the Pentagon gave these targets undue promotions in their announcement, or bin Laden was simply that much harder to get than his compatriots, or emphasis on the 'name brand' terrorists is that strong, it's impossible to tell. All that aside though, and hazarding a somewhat cursed cliche: this time it's different.
Rahman was the operational head of al-Qaeda both before and after Osama bin Laden. From information obtained surrounding the Abbotabad raid, it was clear that the two men communicated constantly and together crafted plans for an attack meant to coincide with the tenth anniversary of September 11th. In fact, their correspondence has been called "the most important prize taken from bin Laden’s compound" and the subsequent elimination of Rahman silences any doubts about the on-the-ground value of the risky May 2 operation that killed bin Laden.
Both the sequestered Osama bin Laden and the cerebral Ayman al-Zawahiri, an elderly Egyptian doctor and al-Qaeda's new chief, have been interpreted to be largely ideological and strategic thinkers rather than the operational 'do-ers' of the group. By contrast, Rahman was considered their "human rolodex" and was responsible for key organizational steps.
Over the course of the past two decades, Rahman has served as bin Laden's emissary in Iran, brokered a deal that created the northeast African group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and even wrote a famous letter to the Iraq-based terrorist Zarqawi instructing him to kill fewer civilians for the sake of popular opinion. Perhaps most telling of Rahman's importance however, is the fact that footage of Abu Dujannah al-Khurasani seated next to him was the final bait that granted the Jordanian triple agent access to the seven CIA employees he killed in a suicide bombing on December 30, 2009.
Rahman was the operational core of al-Qaeda and Zawahiri had to rely heavily on him to run the organization. In essense, he was "the one man al-Qaeda could not afford to lose." His killing, particularly in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, is a singular victory for the United States. Why then, have we not heard more about it? Why have the only administration statements about Rahman been unnamed officials speaking with the press and boasts by Leon Panetta, without a single word from the White House? Why was the information dumped out in a news moment seemingly perfect for burying a story?
In a word, Libya.
Rahman was a Libyan national and any public discussion about eliminating him, as important an accomplishment as that was, would soon turn to a discussion of Libya's al-Qaeda connections. With the group's operational leader hailing from that troubled country, it's certainly a point worth scrutiny. The Obama administration though is understandably less than eager to start the conversation.
US operations in the country deserve their own piece, but put simply, they hold only political downside for the administration and no upside. The US partnership with Libyan rebels, an opaque group that many worry includes factions that might be less than sympathetic to America, as well as the stability of a post-Qaddafi Libya are major concerns that White House officials hope to avoid turning into political issues. These worries have only grown in recent weeks as the rebel group announced they do not plan to release the Lockerbie bomber and the impending removal of Qaddafi raises the question of governance.
While a stable, democratic Libya may prove a political asset going into 2012, no present upside to the issue exists for the administration. With the current uncertainty, discussing the country makes conservatives think of a new source of arms and shelter for al-Qaeda (not to mention spending) and progressives think of an altered position on foreign policy.
Important as the death of Rahman is, the context of its discussion seems to prohibit any focus from the White House. There may eventually come a time when the political climate permits the administration to crow about this achievement. For now however, this monumental event has passed largely unnoticed with little interest from Washington and, inexplicably, the press.