A senior Al-Qaeda figure was the target of a US drone strike inPakistan’s tribal belt, reports said Tuesday, as officials kept tight-lipped on whether he may have been among the 15 people killed.
Abu Yahya al-Libi, described by American officials as Al-Qaeda’s second in command but by other security experts as one of the top five members of the global terror network, is a Libyan citizen with a $1 million price on his head.
Pakistani security officials told AFP that they were informed by American intelligence that Libi had been the target of Monday’s drone strike in North Waziristan, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold along the Afghan border.
It was the third drone strike in as many days and the deadliest this year in Pakistan, where the government has increasingly denounced the strikes in public as its relations with the United States have gone into a tail spin.
But Pakistani officials said it was unclear whether Libi had been present at the compound, struck by two missiles shortly before dawn, or whether he had died.
They said two missiles slammed into a compound in the village of Hesokhel, east of Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, before dawn on Monday.
One official told AFP that the dead could not be identified but that there were reports that they included foreigners, a possible reference to Al-Qaeda fighters.
“People are looking very closely to see whether he’s still alive,” The New York Times quoted an official as saying. “It’ll take some time for people to gain a high level of confidence that he’s dead.”
If his death is confirmed, Libi would be the highest profile Al-Qaeda militant killed since US Navy SEALs shot dead Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
A trusted lieutenant of bin Laden, Libi has appeared in countless Al-Qaeda videos and is considered the chief architect of its global propaganda machine.
Experts considered him one possible successor to bin Laden, but Egyptian doctor and the long-time Al-Qaeda deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was eventually appointed instead.
American troops initially captured him in 2002 after bringing down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but he escaped three years later from the US high-security prison at Bagram Air Base, giving him a special notoriety.
ABC News cited a senior US official as saying that Libi was the target of the latest drone attack.
Pakistani officials told AFP that there had also been unconfirmed reports that Libi was wounded in a US drone strike that killed nine militants on May 28. A report that he was killed in a December 2009 drone strike in South Waziristan proved false.
A senior US official declined to confirm whether he was dead or alive, but told AFP that removing Al-Qaeda’s “number two leader” would be a “major blow to core Al-Qaeda”.
“There is now no clear successor to take on the breadth of his responsibilities, putting additional pressure on Zawahiri to try to manage the group in an effective way.”
The official said Libi had served as “general manager” for Al-Qaeda’s main branch, overseeing its daily operations in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions and managing links with affiliates around the world.
If confirmed, Libi’s death would come after US officials said Atiyah abd al-Rahman, then described in Washington as Al-Qaeda’s number two, was killed in a US missile strike in North Waziristan on August 22 last year.
Ben Venzke, an analyst at the US-based IntelCenter, said that if Libi were to be killed, “confirmation will come fairly quickly from core Al-Qaeda,” including written statements and online video eulogies.
“The loss of Abu Yahya al-Libi would be felt throughout the jihadi community as he has been one of the most visible jihadi figures from any of the groups around the world, with prolific video releases and writings,” he said.
Documents seized from bin Laden’s compound and released by the United States last month suggest Libi was one of the late terror mastermind’s most trusted lieutenants.
He signed a letter dated December 3, 2010 and sent to the Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud reprimanding him for making “legal and religious mistakes” including the mass killing of Muslim civilians in suicide attacks.