A senior U.S. administration official called Rahman’s death “a tremendous loss for al-Qaeda” because the group’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “was relying heavily on him to help guide and run the organization, especially since bin Laden’s death.”
Rahman was seen as a high-priority target in the CIA drone campaign at a time when U.S. officials have described al-Qaeda as near collapse and have said that a small set of successive blows could all but extinguish the organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Last month, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said a strategic defeat of al-Qaeda was “within reach” and called for continued efforts to hammer the group’s weakened leadership with a series of attacks.
“Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them,” he said, “because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al-Qaeda as a major threat.”
A cache of computer files seized from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showed that Rahman had emerged as perhaps the most important operational figure in al-Qaeda. A veteran militant who was in regular communication with the al-Qaeda chief, Rahman expressed frustration with the mounting toll of the CIA drone campaign.
In one message, Rahman complained that al-Qaeda’s fighters “were getting killed faster than they could be replaced,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official who, like other sources for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing secrecy surrounding the drone campaign.
Rahman’s role became even more important after the elevation of Zawahiri, bin Laden’s longtime deputy who has also spent much of the past decade deep in hiding. He is seen as an abrasive and divisive figure who was likely to depend on loyalists, including Rahman, to help keep the network and its increasingly ambitious affiliates from unraveling.
Rahman, a Libyan explosives expert, appears to have met bin Laden when he was still a teenager. He rose to the No. 3 position in the network and was charged with running its financial operations after Saeed al-Masri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May of last year.
U.S. intelligence officials have regarded Rahman, who was in his early 40s, as an important player in al-Qaeda since at least 2006, when U.S. military officials recovered a long letter that Rahman had sent to al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rebuking the Jordanian for his bloody campaign against Shiites in that country.
Pakistani officials said that they were notified Friday that Rahman had been among those killed in the Monday drone strike and that they had no information about additional casualties.