As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda production outfit, indicated today that Abu Yahya al Libi may be alive, and that a video of him will be released soon. From AFP [emphasis added]:
Two websites linked to Al Qaeda announced on Sunday that they will air a new video featuring the jihadist network’s deputy leader Abu Yahya al- ibi, whom Washington claimed last week to have killed.
The messages posted by Ansar and Alfidaa websites suggested that Libi remains alive.
“Soon, a video message by Sheikh Abu Yahya al Libi, may Allah protect him,” read the message posted by Al Qaeda’s Sahab media arm on both sites, one of which was put online on around 1500 GMT on Sunday.
The statement “may Allah protect him” is reserved for al Qaeda leaders who are alive. Al Qaeda will say “may Allah have on mercy him” when referring to a leader who is dead.
It is unclear when this As Sahab statement was produced. Keep in mind that al Qaeda released a Ramadan video by Atiyah Abd al Rahman less that two weeks after he was killed. The tape and the accompanying announcement appear to have been created prior to Atiyah’s death.
US intelligence officials and the Obama administration have been adamant that al Libi was killed in last week’s drone strike in North Waziristan. Our sources have also said they believe al Libi is dead. Keep in mind that there has been controversy over the reports of deaths of top al Qaeda leaders in the past (most recently, doubts were raised about initial reports on the deaths of Atiyah Abd al Rahman and Ilyas Kashmiri: al Qaeda finally announced Atiyah’s death in a martyrdom statement, while Ustad Ahmad Farooq referred to Kashmiri as being dead in a recent propaganda tape). But until al Qaeda confirms or refutes al Libi’s death, we can only speculate about his status.
It is difficult to be 100% certain if an al Qaeda leader was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal agencies, as the Taliban control the ground there. Drones can’t bring a body back home or sweep in and gather DNA of those killed. Instead, US intelligence must rely on other means to determine if an al Qaeda operative has died: signals intelligence, rumor intelligence, etc. Short of the possession of the corpse, an official al Qaeda martyrdom statement still remains the best indicator that a leader was indeed killed. While al Qaeda doesn’t always release a martyrdom statement for a leader who was killed, I have yet to see the terror group release a false statement on the death of one of its leaders (see Threat Matrix report, Doubts raised in Pakistan over reports of Atiyah’s death, for more information).
Update – June 12, 2012
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.