Abu Yahya al Libi.
US intelligence officials said they believe that Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s general manager who is often referred to as its second in command, and a top religious figure and ideologue, was killed in yesterday’s drone strike in Pakistan.
Two US intelligence officials involved in the targeting of al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists in Pakistan told The Long War Journal that al Libi is thought to be among 15 people killed in yesterday’s strike in Mir Ali in North Waziristan. The officials would not say how they confirmed that al Libi had been killed.
A Pakistani intelligence official told Reuters that his unit “intercepted some conversations between militants” and that “[t]hey were talking about the death of a ‘sheikh,'” who is assumed to be al Libi. Local Pakistanis in the Mir Ali area said that “militants” quickly cordoned off the areas and conducted rescue operations. Some local tribesmen said that al Libi was wounded and died at a private hospital in the area.
Al Qaeda has not released an official martyrdom statement announcing al Libi’s death. However, As Sahab, the terror group’s propaganda arm, often takes days, weeks, or even months before releasing a martyrdom statement on the death of a top leader.
One US intelligence official cautioned that the best confirmation of al Libi’s death will be a statement from al Qaeda. Al Libi was rumored to have been killed once before, in December 2009.
Pakistani Taliban leaders have differed on whether al Libi was killed or not. One Taliban leader denied that al Libi had been killed and said the US has “resorted to making false claims” as it was suffering a defeat in the region. Another local Taliban leader told The Associated Press that al Libi’s driver and bodyguard were killed but the al Qaeda leader survived. Another Taliban leader told Reuters that al Libi’s death is a “big loss” and that he was “the main al Qaeda leader” after Ayman al Zawahiri.
Al Libi is known to operate in North Waziristan. In the fall of 2011, he was among several al Qaeda leaders who helped to broker the creation of the Shura-e-Murakeba, a Taliban alliance consisting of four major Taliban groups that operate in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The four groups in the alliance are: the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is led by Hakeemullah Mehsud and his deputy, Waliur Rehman Mehsud; Hafiz Gul Bahadar’s group; Mullah Nazir’s group; and the Haqqani Network. The leadership of each group has appointed a deputy to represent them on the council.
Al Libi is the seventh senior al Qaeda leader killed in a drone strike in Pakistan since bin Laden’s death in May 2011. The others are: Ilyas Kashmiri, the head of al Qaeda’s military and a member of the external operations council; Atiyah abd al Rahman, bin Laden’s former chief of staff and Zawahiri’s previous deputy; Abu Miqdad al Masri, a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis who also was involved in al Qaeda’s external operations; Badr Mansoor, al Qaeda’s leader in Pakistan and a key link to the Taliban and Pakistani jihadist groups; Aslam Awan, a deputy to the leader of al Qaeda’s external operations; and Abu Hafs al Shahri, a senior leader who served as the operations chief for Pakistan. Additionally, the US killed Anwar al Awlaki, a senior al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader, propagandist, and religious figure, in a drone strike in Yemen.
Background on al Libi
Al Libi was a top leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and served as a military commander in Afghanistan until his capture by US forces in 2003. He rose to prominence in al Qaeda after he escaped from Bagram Prison in Afghanistan in the summer of 2005, along with senior al Qaeda operatives Abu Nasir al Qahtani, Abu Abdallah al Shami, and Omar Farouq. Al Libi is the only member of the notorious “Bagram Four” active in al Qaeda. Two of his fellow escapees (al Qahtani and al Shami) have been killed and another (Farouq) has been captured since the 2005 escape.
Al Libi’s escape from Bagram and subsequent mocking of the US in propaganda tapes have made him a star in al Qaeda. The US State Department has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his arrest and prosecution.
He has become one of al Qaeda’s most prolific propagandists. Between 2006 and 2010, he has appeared in more al Qaeda propaganda tapes than any other member of the terror group, including bin Laden and Zawahiri. He has weighed in on some of the most controversial and important issues on al Qaeda’s agenda. He was the first al Qaeda leader to urge the Pakistani people and the Army to turn against then-President Pervez Musharraf’s regime after the military stormed the radical Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad.
Al Libi is considered to be a combative leader. He has chastised Islamists who denounced al Qaeda’s methods and ideology, and has urged clerics to come fight against Americans and NATO and wage real jihad instead of criticizing al Qaeda.
He stepped into the role of chief of staff for Ayman al Zawahiri after Osama bin Laden was killed by US special operations forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. Al Libi, who had previously served as deputy to Atiyah abd al Rahman, was elevated to second in command after Atiyah’s death in a drone strike.
Can al Qaeda replace al Libi?
One US official told The New York Times that al Qaeda will have a difficult time finding a replacement for al Libi.
“Zawahri will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into Abu Yahya’s shoes — in addition to his gravitas as a longstanding member of AQ’s leadership, Abu Yahya’s religious credentials gave him the authority to issue fatwas, operational approvals, and guidance to the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates,” the official told The New York Times. “There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise AQ has just lost.”
However, al Qaeda has been able to replace past leaders who have been killed or captured after the US launched its war against al Qaeda and allied terror groups since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
While al Libi was an influential religious leader, one US intelligence official familiar with al Qaeda’s network told The Long War Journal that al Qaeda did not rely on al Libi alone to provide religious guidance and approval for fatwas.
“Al Qaeda has an established religious committee,” the official said. “Al Libi was an important member, without a doubt, but he didn’t operate in a vacuum.”
One such prominent member of al Qaeda’s religious committee is Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al Husainan, who is also known as a Abu Zeid al Kuwaiti. Al Husainan is “a former imam in the Kuwaiti Endowments Ministry” who “has appeared in dozens of as Sahab videos since August 2009, some lecturing on jihad and others speaking on Islam in general,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group. Al Husainan is “presented as an al Qaeda religious scholar,” SITE stated.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.