Washington – A drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency killed al Qaeda’s second-ranking figure in the mountains of Pakistan earlier this month, American and Pakistani officials said on Saturday, further damaging a terror network that appears significantly weakened since the death ofOsama bin Laden in May.
An American official said that a drone strike on Aug. 22 killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who in the last year had taken over as al Qaeda’s top operational planner. Mr. Rahman was in frequent contact with Bin Laden in the months before the terror leader was killed on May 2 by a team of Navy Seals, intelligence officials have said.
American officials described Mr. Rahman’s death as particularly significant as compared with other high-ranking Qaeda operatives who have been killed, because he was one of a new generation of Qaeda leaders that the network hoped would assume greater control after Bin Laden’s death.
Thousands of electronic files recovered at Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, revealed that Bin Laden communicated frequently with Mr. Rahman. They also showed that Bin Laden relied on Mr. Rahman to get messages to other Qaeda leaders and to ensure that Bin Laden’s recorded communications were broadcast widely.
After Bin Laden was killed, Mr. Rahman became al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader under Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Bin Laden.
There were few details on Saturday about the strike that killed Mr. Rahman. In the months since Bin Laden’s death, the C.I.A. has maintained a steady barrage of drone missile strikes on mountainous redoubts in Pakistan, a bombing campaign that continues to strain America’s already turbulent relationship with Pakistan.
The C.I.A almost never consults Pakistani officials in advance of a drone strike, and a Pakistani government official said Saturday that the United States had told Pakistan’s government that Mr. Rahman had been the target of the strike only after the spy agency confirmed that he had been killed.
The drone strikes have been the Obama administration’s preferred means of hunting and killing operatives from al Qaeda and its affiliate groups. Over the last year the United States has expanded the drone war to Yemen and Somalia.
Some top American officials have said publicly that they believe al Qaeda is in its final death throes, though many intelligence analysts are less certain, saying that the network built by Bin Laden has repeatedly shown an ability to regenerate.
Yet even as al Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen and North Africa continue to plot attacks against the West, most intelligence analysts believe that the remnants of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan has been weakened considerably. Mr. Rahman’s death is another significant blow to the group.
“Atiyah was at the top of al Qaeda’s trusted core,” the American official said. “His combination of background, experience and abilities are unique in Al Qaeda — without question, they will not be easily replaced.”
The files captured in Abbottabad revealed, among other things, that Bin Laden and Mr. Rahman discussed brokering a deal with Pakistan: al Qaeda would refrain from mounting attacks in the country in exchange for protection for Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan.
American officials said that they found no evidence that either of the men ever raised the idea directly with Pakistani officials, or that Pakistan’s government had any knowledge that Bin Laden was even hiding in Abbottabad.
Mr. Rahman also served as Bin Laden’s liaison to Qaeda affiliates. Last year, American officials said, Mr. Rahman notified Bin Laden of a request by the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to install Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric, as the leader of the group in Yemen.
That group, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, apparently thought Mr. Awlaki’s status as an Internet celebrity, for his popular video sermons, and his knowledge of the United States might help the group’s fund-raising efforts.
But according to the electronic files in Abbottabad, Bin Laden told Mr. Rahman that the group’s leadership should remain unchanged.
After Bin Laden’s death, some intelligence officials saw a cadre of Libyan operatives as poised to assume greater control inside al Qaeda, a terror group that at times has been fractured by cultural rivalries.
Libyan operatives like Mr. Rahman, they said, had long bristled at the leadership of an older generation of Qaeda leaders, many of them Egyptian like Mr. Zawahiri and Sheikh Saeed al Masri.
Mr. Masri was killed last year by a C.I.A. missile, as were several Qaeda operations chiefs before him. The job has proved to be particularly deadly, American officials said, because the operations chief has had to transmit the guidance of Bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri to Qaeda operatives elsewhere, providing a way for the Americans to track him through electronic intercepts.
Mr. Rahman assumed the role after Mr. Masri’s death. Now that Mr. Rahman has met a similar fate, American officials said it was unclear who would take over the job.