Drone Strike Killed No. 2 in Al Qaeda, U.S. Officials Say (NY) TIMES) By DECLAN WALSH and ERIC SCHMITT ISLAMABAD, Pakistan 06/06/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Central Intelligence Agency drone strike in
Pakistan’s tribal belt killed Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-
Libi, American officials said on Tuesday, dealing another blow to the
group in a lawless area that has long been considered the global
headquarters of international terrorism but the importance of which
may now be slipping.
Mr. Libi’s death would be another dramatic moment for an American
covert war in Pakistan that has been particularly active over the
past year, starting with the death of the group’s founder, Osama bin
Laden, in May 2011 and followed up by drone strikes against several
senior lieutenants, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.
But that very success could, paradoxically, signal a shifting target:
as Al Qaeda’s leadership in the tribal belt has been cornered or
killed, new efforts to attack Western targets have been mounted by
the group’s affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
Unlike many of the relatively unknown figures killed in other drone
strikes, Mr. Libi, who had a $1 million bounty on his head, was a
virtual ambassador for global jihad. An Islamic scholar by training,
he used frequent video appearances to expound on world events,
chastise critics and boast about his escape from an American military
prison in Afghanistan in 2005.
He negotiated with the ethnic Pashtun militant groups that have
sheltered Al Qaeda in the tribal belt for over a decade, and at one
point urged Pakistanis to overthrow their own government.
The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said that as a result of Mr.
Libi’s death, “there is no clear successor to take on the breadth of
his responsibility, and that puts additional pressure” on Al
Qaeda, “bringing it closer to its ultimate demise than ever.”
The details of his death in Hassu Khel, a village in the North
Waziristan tribal agency, remained hazy. And it is not the first
report that he has been killed: rumors of his death coursed through
jihadi Web sites in December 2009 after a similar strike in South
Waziristan that American officials claimed had killed a high-ranking
figure in Al Qaeda.
If his death is borne out this time, it would be a milestone in a
covert eight-year airstrike campaign that has infuriated Pakistani
officials but that has remained one of the United States’ most
effective tools in combating militancy.
Local tribesmen and American officials said that a C.I.A.-controlled
drone fired on a compound early Monday morning. Word spread quickly
among local tribesmen that Mr. Libi had been killed or wounded, and
American intelligence officials using powerful satellite and other
surveillance equipment listened and watched carefully for a sign of
Apparent confirmation came late Tuesday, although American officials
did not give supporting details. After previous strikes in the tribal
belt, the National Security Agency has monitored cellphone, radio and
Internet messages to confirm the effects of the missions.
American officials said that Mr. Libi was the only person who died in
the attack, although others were present in the compound. A tribesman
from the area, speaking by phone and citing Taliban sources, said
that three to five militants had been killed. But he agreed that no
civilians had died because there had been no public funerals in the
Mr. Libi, who was thought to be in his late 40s, was born in Libya,
and during the 1990s he was a member of an Islamist group that sought
to overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
His star rose after he escaped from a United States military
detention center at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul in July 2005,
picking a lock and dodging the prison guards, along with three other
A year later, Mr. Libi released a 54-minute video mocking his
American captors — the first of many that would burnish his
reputation as a propagandist.
After Bin Laden’s death, Mr. Libi moved up to become Al Qaeda’s
deputy, behind Ayman al-Zawahri.
One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity,
described Mr. Libi as one of Al Qaeda’s “most experienced and
versatile leaders,” and said he had “played a critical role in the
group’s planning against the West, providing oversight of the
external operations efforts.”
Another American official said: “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 A.Q.’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. There is no one who even comes
close in terms of replacing the expertise A.Q. has just lost.”
Some independent experts, however, were more cautious. “Killing the
top leadership harms Al Qaeda, but it won’t defeat them,” said Bill
Roggio of the Web site Long War Journal, which tracks drone strikes
in the tribal belt, among other topics. “There are people who will
step up to fill the void. Al Qaeda has a far deeper bench than the
administration gives it credit for.”
Mr. Roggio said that while drone strikes offered an attractive short-
term tactic against Qaeda militants, they did not present a complete
strategy. “Until we tackle Al Qaeda’s ideology, state support and
ability to exploit ungoverned space in countries like Pakistan,
Somalia and Yemen, you’re not going to defeat the organization,” he
Mr. Libi’s death also raises questions about the center of gravity of
Al Qaeda’s global operations. In 2007, the National Intelligence
Estimate, a document produced by 16 American intelligence agencies,
declared that the tribal belt had become Al Qaeda’s global
headquarters. Yet in recent years, some of the most dangerous plots
have come from its affiliate in Yemen.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian who tried to detonate a
bomb in his underwear as an airliner approached Detroit in December
2009, was trained in the mountains of Yemen. Last September, an
American drone attack 90 miles east of the Yemeni capital, Sana,
killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American preacher and jihadist recruiter,
and Samir Khan, an American citizen of Pakistani origin.
Some American officials consider Mr. Awlaki’s death to be at least as
significant, in counterterrorism terms, as the killing of Mr. Libi.
Even in death, Mr. Awlaki’s archived exhortations for jihad are
considered a potent force.
Still, Pakistan’s tribal belt remains a hub of regional and
international militancy. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to explode a car
bomb in Times Square in May 2010, said he had received explosives
training from the Pakistani Taliban. Insurgent fighters based in
Waziristan regularly attack NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan and
have been targeted by C.I.A. drones. And Mr. Zawahri, the Qaeda
leader, is widely believed to be in Pakistan.
But the strikes are intensely contentious among Pakistan’s political
and military elite. In April, Pakistan’s Parliament passed a
resolution demanding that the drone campaign immediately stop, but
the tempo of strikes picked up greatly after negotiations to reopen
NATO supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan bogged down last
A senior Pakistani security official said that Pakistani intelligence
had no independent confirmation of Mr. Libi’s death. Even if it was
proved, he added, his country’s opposition to the drone campaign
would not change.
“Practically speaking, the drone strikes are a big success. But
strategically they are a huge loss. They create more polarization,
more enemies, and are an attack on our sovereignty,” he said. “We
have always told the Americans that if anyone should carry out these
strikes, it should be us.”
Other Pakistanis say that Al Qaeda should simply leave their country.
After Mr. Libi’s death was announced, Tazeen Jay, a blogger, wrote on
Twitter, “I long for the day when they die elsewhere, not in
Declan Walsh reported from Islamabad, and Eric Schmitt from
Washington. Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud contributed reporting from
Islamabad, and Jackie Calmes from Washington. (Copyright 2012 The New
York Times Company 06/06/12)
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