US kills senior Al-Qaeda strategist
Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of al-Qaeda's top strategists and seen as the most prominent figure in the network after leader Ayman al Zawahri, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, US officials confirmed this evening.
A US official said that Abu Yahya "was among al-Qaeda's most experienced and versatile leaders" and that he "played a critical role in the group's planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts."
US sources said Libi, a Libyan cleric with a degree in chemistry who has survived previous attacks by drone aircraft, was a target of a strike early yesterday in northwest Pakistan's North Waziristan region, home to some of the world's most notorious militant groups.
Some US officials describe Libi, whose real name is Mohamed Hassan Qaid, as number two to Zawahri, the former Egyptian doctor who took over al-Qaeda after bin Laden's death.
Pakistani intelligence officials said they believe Libi, which means Libyan in Arabic, may have been among seven foreign militants killed in yesterday's strike.
One of the officials said Pakistani authorities had intercepted telephone chatter about Libi, an al-Qaeda theologian and expert on new media whose escape from a US-run prison in Afghanistan in 2005 made him famous in al-Qaeda circles.
"We intercepted some conversations between militants. They were talking about the death of a 'sheikh'," one of the Pakistani intelligence officials said, referring to the title given to senior religious leaders.
"They did not name this person but we have checked with our sources in the area and believe they are referring to Libi."
The intelligence official said according to informants, Libi was seriously wounded in the strike and was taken to a private hospital where he died.
A militant commander in North Waziristan closely associated with foreign fighters however said: "He has not been killed. This is not the first time claims have been made about his death. The Americans are suffering heavy losses in Afghanistan so they have resorted to making false claims."
It can take months to confirm whether drone strikes have killed an Islamist militant leader because the area of the attack is often sealed off by the Taliban in the lawless northwest of Pakistan. Burials are quick in order to hide casualties and identities.
Residents of the village where Pakistani intelligence officials says Libi may have been killed, Hesokhel, noted an unusually high number of militants gathered there after the drone strike yesterday and they kept people away.
"They usually bury the bodies after a drone strike in the nearest graveyard," said one of the villagers, describing the aftermath of previous strikes in the area.
"This time they put all the bodies in their cars and took them away."
A senior Taliban commander in North Waziristan said Libi had been living in Pakistan near the Afghan border since 2005 when he escaped along with three cell mates from the Bagram military base north of Kabul, where US forces run what is considered the most secure US prison in Afghanistan.
Militants often looked up to Libi because of his background as a religious scholar and sought his advice in resolving disputes, the Taliban commander said.
For the United States, Libi is one of al-Qaeda's most dangerous figures. In September last year, the United States treasury imposed financial sanctions against him.
It said Libi, in his late 40s, released 68 public messages on al-Qaeda's behalf and was second in visibility only to Zawahri.
Recently released letters written by bin Laden and captured during the US raid in which he was killed last year show Libi to have been one of a handful of al-Qaeda officials relied upon by bin Laden to argue al-Qaeda's case to a worldwide audience of militants, in particular to the young.
Believed to have received more formal theological training than either bin Laden or Zawahri, Libi has a multi-faceted reputation as a man of action, a jihadi scholar and a populist propagandist.
A Western expert on al-Libi, US scholar Jarret Brachman, wrote on his blog: "If true (Libi's death), (this would be) a cataclysmic blow to the future of al-Qaeda's general command. For my money, there's no recovering from this one."
Some analysts say the death of an al-Qaeda leader does not necessarily spell disaster for the group, arguing it is de-centralised and offers inspiration to militants and not just logistical support or financing.