America claimed its most significant victory in its controversial targeted bombing campaign after a drone strike in Pakistan killed al Qaida’s second-in-command.
The killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi was also the biggest setback to the terror network since the death of Osama bin Laden.
Al-Libi was considered a media-savvy, charismatic leader with religious credentials who was helping preside over the transformation of a secretive group based in Pakistan and Afghanistan into a global movement aimed at winning converts – and potential attackers – from Somalia to the Philippines.
This was not the first time the US had al-Libi in its sights. He was originally captured a decade ago and held by American forces at the Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan until he escaped in 2005 in an embarrassing security breach.
Soon afterwards he began appearing in videos in which he talked about the lessons he learned while watching his captors, whom he described as cowardly, lost and alienated.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called al-Libi’s death a “major blow” to the group and described him as an operational leader and a “general manager” of al Qaida.
He said al-Libi had a range of experience that would be hard for al Qaida to replicate and brought the terror network closer than ever to its ultimate demise.
“His death is part of the degradation that has been taking place to core al Qaida during the past several years and that degradation has depleted the ranks to such an extent that there’s no clear successor,” Mr Carney said.
Libyan-born al-Libi, who was thought to be in his late 40s, was killed on Monday morning in a village in north-western Pakistan, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan that is home to many al Qaida and Taliban members and their support networks.
Al-Libi, who was considered a hero in militant circles because of his escape from the American military prison, was elevated to al Qaida’s number two spot when Ayman al-Zawahri replaced bin Laden. As al Qaida’s de facto general manager, he was responsible for running the group’s day-to-day operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas and managed outreach to al Qaida’s regional affiliates.
He was influential and popular within al Qaida because of his “scholarly credentials, street cred from having escaped from Bagram, charisma and his easy-going, tribal speaking style”, said Jarret Brachman, a counter-terrorism expert who had studied al-Libi for the past seven years.
“People may have revered Zawahri, but they loved Abu Yahya,” he said.
Al-Libi was the latest in the dozen-plus senior commanders removed in the clandestine US war against al Qaida since navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a raid on May 2 last year on his compound in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad - nearly a decade after the September 11 attacks.
Perhaps the most well-known al Qaida figure killed in a drone strike before al-Libi was Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent member of the Yemen al Qaida offshoot who died last September.
Al-Libi’s death will likely fuel arguments in favour of the US drone campaign despite Pakistani objections. Coming in an election year, it may also boost the tough-on-terrorists image President Barack Obama has tried to cultivate.
“The killing of al-Libi demonstrates the increasing proficiency and skill - plus good intelligence – at work in the decade-long American war to crush al Qaida. It makes Barack Obama the counter-terrorist in chief in leading that war,” said Aaron Miller, a former adviser to six US secretaries of state and currently a senior scholar at the Wilson Centre.
The use of drones has skyrocketed under the Obama administration but has dropped off recently in Pakistan, which views the programme as a violation of its sovereignty. Among the Pakistani public, the drone campaign is vilified because of its perceived civilian casualties, an allegation disputed by the US.