Mohammed Atef, the al Qaeda terrorist leader likely killed in U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan, was a former Egyptian policeman who served as one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates and key advisers for more than a decade.
Atef was considered one of bin Laden’s two most senior associates and a likely candidate for succession should anything happen to the world’s most-wanted man.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Atef, as al Qaeda’s military commander, was a key planner of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed nearly 5,000 people. They described him as a meticulous and cunning strategist.
According to U.S. intelligence, Atef directed the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 224 persons, including 12 Americans. He also encouraged the killing of U.S. nationals, including members of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
Atef served as a top lieutenant to Ayman Zawahiri, founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and top bin Laden confidant, during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
They later joined al Qaeda and rose to key positions as bin Laden’s most trusted advisers.
One of Atef’s daughters married one of bin Laden’s sons in January. The ceremony took place in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The guest of honor was Zawahiri, who formally merged his group with al Qaeda three years ago creating a movement that called itself the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
It was the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that carried out the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who had made peace with Israel. Cracking down on jihad members, the Cairo government jailed or executed many of the radicals, but several key members of the organization, such as Atef, escaped and joined bin Laden first in Sudan, then in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, he helped recruit fighters for the war against the now-defunct Soviet Union. He was promoted as al Qaeda’s military commander five years ago.
Born in Egypt in 1944, Atef served on al Qaeda’s military committee and had primary responsibility for supervising the training of new al Qaeda members at base camps in Afghanistan. A November 1998 indictment accusing Atef and bin Laden in the embassy bombings said Atef traveled to Somalia several times in 1992 and 1993 to provide “military training and assistance to Somali tribes” opposed to U.S. intervention.
Intelligence officials said Atef kept in touch with the conspirators who were preparing to strike the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The 1998 indictment also said Atef established front companies, provided false identity and travel documents, and gave false information to authorities in various countries.
It also said that he engaged in business transactions on behalf of al Qaeda, including purchasing warehouses for storage of explosives and transporting weapons.
The indictment says that Atef established a series of companies in Sudan to provide income to al Qaeda and to serve as a cover for the procurement of explosives, weapons and chemicals, and for the travel of operatives.
It also said Atef forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in Sudan and with representatives of the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group, Hezbollah, with the goal of working together against their common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.
It stated that Atef reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against Baghdad, and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would cooperate with Iraq.
Atef has long been contemptuous of U.S. leaders and American military power.
In 1999, he told an Arab journalist: “They are the only human beings whose power has been exaggerated because of their huge media and the control they exert over the world’s media.”
At the time, he was bin Laden’s chief media adviser.