The reported death of "Atiyah," considered al-Qaeda's second-in-command and its chief of global operations, ironically underscored the wisdom of his earlier insight into the need to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq, rather than freed up to go after the terrorist group's leaders in Pakistan.
The Libyan-born terrorist, whose full name was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, was killed last week by an American drone strike in the Waziristan tribal region in northwest Pakistan, according to U.S. officials who called the death another blow to al-Qaeda following the killing of its founder, Osama bin Laden, on May 2.
But Atiyah's demise also is a reminder of how foolhardy President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers were in diverting U.S. military resources away from the post-9/11 mission of tracking down al-Qaeda's leadership hiding in Pakistan and toward the vainglorious mission of conquering Iraq.
It was Atiyah who wrote to al-Qaeda's commander in Iraq on Dec. 11, 2005, urging the hyper-violent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to operate more patiently with the goal of tying down U.S. forces indefinitely, while al-Qaeda's leaders strengthened their hand both in Iraq and at global headquarters back in Pakistan.
"The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day," Atiyah wrote. "Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest." [Emphasis added.]
The Atiyah letter was discovered by the U.S. military after Zarqawi was killed by an airstrike in June 2006. [To view the "prolonging the war" excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here.]
In 2006, however, with President Bush and the neocons still dominating U.S. foreign policy, the "prolonging the war" phrase was ignored by major U.S. news organizations which only reported other aspects of the Atiyah letter.
At that time, the notion that al-Qaeda was benefiting from locking down U.S. troops in Iraq -- while also draining hundreds of billions of dollars from the American treasury and rallying young Arabs to the anti-U.S. cause -- clashed with the then-popular view among Bush's supporters that it was important to "stay the course" in Iraq.
Yet, staying the course -- or in Atiyah's phrase, "prolonging the war" -- was exactly what bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders wanted. As long as U.S. troops were fighting and dying in Iraq, al-Qaeda could benefit from both the anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world and the relative safety of al-Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan.
As it turned out, bin Laden was enjoying life, accompanied by several of his wives and children in the quiet garrison community of Abbottabad, Pakistan, not far from the capital of Islamabad. The longer that Bush and the neocons insisted that Iraq was "the central front in the war on terror," the longer bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders could continue plotting and breathing.
The Atiyah letter drove home that point to Zarqawi while upbraiding him for his excessive violence against Shiite Muslims and his disrespect for moderate Sunni clerics. Atiyah wanted Zarqawi to slow down, to build alliances and to drag out the war in Iraq.
Atiyah's advice turned out to be prescient, though it ultimately would not save bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders (apparently not even Atiyah) who have been increasingly targeted by U.S. Special Forces attacks in Pakistan since the United States began its drawdown in Iraq.
Though President Barack Obama's wider use of drones and other intelligence assets inside Pakistan has been controversial -- upsetting Pakistani leaders and many anti-war activists in the United States -- the strategy appears to have had its intended effect of decimating al-Qaeda's global leadership.
Obama's refocusing of U.S. assets on Pakistan -- and away from Iraq -- also sharpens the question about what might have happened if Bush and the neocons hadn't lurched into Iraq in the first place. If the Bush administration had kept its eye on al-Qaeda, rather than letting its gaze stray to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the United States might not have experienced a full decade of continuing war.
But that question remains largely unasked in the mainstream U.S. news media. Even in dealing with the Atiyah letter in the context of his reported death, American news outlets have dodged this point. There is still no reference to Atiyah's key phrase, that "prolonging the war" in Iraq is "in our interest."