A U.S. drone strike has killed a top al Qaeda operative, and the White House said Tuesday that the terrorist group was left with “no clear successor.”
Abu Yahya al-Libi, described as the second-ranking operative in al Qaeda, was hit by a drone attack on a house and was taken to a hospital, where he died. Pakistani intelligence sources told Reuters that the strike was carried out Monday.
The White House, as is its practice, would not confirm a drone was used in the attack but verified al-Libi’s death.
“He served as al Qaeda’s general manager, responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. He said the killing was part of the ongoing “degradation” of al Qaeda’s ranks by U.S. forces and allies.
“There is now no clear successor to take on the breadth of his responsibilities,” Mr. Carney said. “Al-Libi’s death is a major blow to core al Qaeda, removing the No. 2 leader for the second time in less than a year.”
He said it “puts additional pressure” on al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, “to try to manage the group in an effective way.”
The strike was carried out a little more than a year after a Navy SEAL team killed terror mastermind Osama bin Laden in a house in Pakistan. Mr. Carney said al-Libi’s killing resulted in “further damaging the group’s morale and cohesion and bringing it closer to its ultimate demise than ever before.”
Al-Libi was considered a media-savvy, charismatic leader who escaped from a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan and helped preside over the transformation of al Qaeda into a terrorist movement aimed at winning converts around the world.
Al-Libi was the latest in the dozen-plus senior commanders removed in the clandestine U.S. war against al Qaeda since the Navy SEALs killed bin Laden.
Pakistani officials previously said that eight militants died in a drone strike in the Pakistani village of Khassu Khel in the North Waziristan tribal area.
Al-Libi, a hero in militant circles for his 2005 escape from an American military prison in Afghanistan, was elevated to al Qaeda’s No. 2 spot when al-Zawahri rose to replace bin Laden shortly after the terrorist leader was killed on May 2, 2011.
The State Department’s Rewards for Justice program had set a $1 million reward for information leading to al-Libi, who had recorded numerous propaganda videos urging attacks on U.S. targets.
Militants and residents in the area told Pakistani agents that al-Libi was in the house when it was hit, Pakistani intelligence officials said. They said the mud-and-brick house was destroyed in the attack. A vehicle used by al-Libi also was destroyed during the strike, said one of the officials.
A local Taliban chief said earlier Monday that al-Libi was not present at the house, though his guard and driver were killed in the attack.
The intelligence officials declined to be identified because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The Taliban chief spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the Pakistani army.
The U.S. has carried out a flurry of drone strikes — seven in less than two weeks — some of which appear to have been trying to target al-Libi. The al Qaeda deputy appeared to have been injured in one of those strikes, although accounts were conflicting.
Pakistani intelligence officials said al-Libi was slightly injured in a May 28 attack in a village near Khassu Khel, where he then moved. The Taliban chief said the strike that wounded al-Libi was two days earlier in a different village.
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 stepping-up of drone strikes since late May 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 a stop to drone strikes in the country — a demand the U.S. has ignored. The attacks are protested in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S.
Pakistan called Deputy U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday to protest the drone strikes.
“He was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
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.
As al Qaeda’s de facto general manager, al-Libi was responsible for running the group’s day-to-day operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and he managed outreach to al Qaeda’s regional affiliates.
Al-Libi, an Islamic scholar, was captured in 2002 and held by U.S. forces at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan until he escaped in 2005 in an embarrassing security breach. Almost immediately after reuniting with his Taliban and al Qaeda brethren, he began appearing in videos released by the terrorist group.
The Rewards for Justice program said al-Libi used his “religious training to influence people and legitimize the actions of al Qaeda.”
In a 2009 profile of al-Libi in Foreign Policy magazine, terrorism analyst Jarret Brachman described al-Libi as “media-savvy, ideologically extreme, and masterful at justifying savage acts of terrorism with esoteric religious arguments.”
Al-Libi was one of thousands of men from throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to battle the Soviet Union. Mr. Brachman said he later went to Mauritania for advanced religious studies that he then used in repeated videos and other al Qaeda outreach designed to attract followers and justify the group’s deadly tactics. He honed his outreach skills while working in Karachi as webmaster for a Taliban website.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.