WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida's second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, has been killed in Pakistan, delivering another big blow to a terrorist group that the U.S. believes to be on the verge of defeat, U.S. officials said Saturday.
The Libyan national had been the network's operational leader before rising to al-Qaida's No. 2 spot after the U.S. killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden during a raid on his Pakistan compound in May.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that al-Qaida's defeat was within reach if the U.S. could mount a string of successful attacks on the group's weakened leadership.
"Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them," Panetta said, "because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple al-Qaida as a major threat."
Since bin Laden's death, al-Qaida's structure has been unsettled and U.S. officials have hoped to capitalize on that. The more uncertain the leadership, the harder it is for al-Qaida to operate covertly and plan attacks.
Bin Laden's longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is running the group but is considered a divisive figure who lacks the founder's charisma and ability to galvanize al-Qaida's disparate franchises.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to summarize the government's intelligence on al-Rahman, said al-Rahman's death will make it harder for Zawahiri to oversee what is considered an increasingly weakened organization.
"Zawahiri needed Atiyah's experience and connections to help manage al-Qaida," the official said.
Al-Rahman was killed Aug. 22 in the lawless Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, according to a senior administration who also insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.