PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan has evidence that al Qaeda's second in command was in a house hit by a U.S. drone strike in the country's northwest tribal region, but it is unclear whether he was killed, intelligence officials said Tuesday.
U.S. officials have said they were targeting Abu Yahya al-Libi in Monday's strike in Khassu Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal area and were "optimistic" he was among those killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the drone program.
Militants and residents in the area told Pakistani agents that al-Libi was in the house when it was hit, said intelligence officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
A vehicle used by al-Libi was destroyed during the strike, said one of the officials. Agents intercepted a militant phone call indicating an Arab was killed in the attack, but it is unclear if they were talking about al-Libi, who was born in Libya, said the official.
A local Taliban chief said al-Libi's guard and driver were killed in the strike, but the al Qaeda commander was not there. Al-Libi did survive a previous strike, said the Taliban chief, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the Pakistani army.
If al-Libi is confirmed killed, he would be the latest in the dozen-plus senior commanders removed in the clandestine U.S. war against al Qaeda since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden last year.
The White House maintains a list of terrorist targets to be killed or captured, compiled by the military and the CIA and ultimately approved by the president.
The U.S. has stepped up drone strikes in Pakistan recently, carrying out seven in less than two weeks. The flurry follows a relative lull driven by tensions between Washington and Islamabad over American airstrikes last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan seized the opportunity to renegotiate its relationship with the U.S. and demanded Washington stop drone strikes in the country — a demand the U.S. has ignored. The attacks are unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S.
Members of the Pakistani government and military have supported the strikes in the past, but that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.
The State Department's Rewards for Justice program had set a $1 million reward for information leading to al-Libi, who had filmed numerous propaganda videos urging attacks on U.S. targets after he escaped a prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2005.
Al-Libi took the second-in-command spot when Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri took charge of al Qaeda after bin Laden's death. As al Qaeda's de facto general manager, al-Libi is responsible for running the group's day-to-day operations in Pakistan's tribal areas and manages outreach to al Qaeda's regional affiliates.
"This is one of the more prominent names" among the targets of drone strikes in Pakistan, added former CIA officer Paul Pillar.
He said al-Libi's death would help bolster the CIA's push to continue the drone program despite the continued political resistance from Pakistan and collateral damage.
Al-Libi's death would be "another reason not to accept Pakistan's demand for an end to drone wars," added Brookings Institute's Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the White House on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.
Mahsud reported from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan. Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot in Kabul, Afghanistan, Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.