The US said on Tuesday that al-Qaeda No. 2 Abu Yahya al-Libi was dead, after a drone strike dealt the weightiest blow to the terror group since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The demise of al-Libi, a charismatic figure beloved by rank-and-file radicals with a flair for media and managerial authority over terror affiliates, meant another victory in US President Barack Obama’s ruthless bid to crush al-Qaeda.
“Our government has been able to confirm al-Libi’s death,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, ending a prolonged US tussle with a man who once escaped from a US jail in Afghanistan, and had defied previous attempts to kill him.
Officials refused to confirm the circumstances of al-Libi’s death, but Pakistani authorities previously spoke of a pre-dawn CIA drone strike on Monday on a compound in North Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
“It is significant,” another US official said, saying al-Libi headed al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan and outreach to affiliates such as Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has attacked US targets.
Officials were unable to say whether there were any other casualties in the attack on al-Libi, after earlier reports that 15 people had died in the drone strike.
The al-Libi killing may again worsen tenuous US ties with nominal anti-terror ally Pakistan, severely harmed by drone strikes, a US raid that killed bin Laden last year and Islamabad’s refusal to reopen NATO supply lines into Afghanistan.
A trusted lieutenant of bin Laden, al-Libi appeared in countless al-Qaeda videos and was considered the chief architect of its global propaganda machine.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that al-Libi had served as the group’s “general manager” and had overseen day-to-day operations in Pakistani tribal areas.
The official described the killing of al-Libi as a “major blow” to al-Qaeda’s core that would put further pressure on the group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Analysts said that al-Libi played a talismanic role in al-Qaeda, and his loss could be a blow from which the movement may not recover.
“If Zawahiri is put down soon, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership will be broken and the torch will have to pass to AQAP,” said terrorism expert Jarret Brachman, of North Dakota State University.
“It is a job that is hard to fill and there may not be, given the duration of late that people have held that job ... a lot of candidates hoping to fill it,” Carney said.