U.S. officials on Tuesday confirmed the death in Pakistan of the No. 2 official in al Qaida’s central organization, Abu Yahya al Libi, the latest senior operative killed in the United States’ campaign against the terrorist organization.
Al Libi, who died Monday apparently in a missile strike from a U.S.-operated drone, was described as an operations leader and religious figure who issued fatwas, or Islamic edicts, to lend weight to al Qaida’s plans. He was the second No. 2 al Qaida official killed within a year, and the White House seized on his death to burnish President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism credentials as he seeks re-election.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, who confirmed al Libi’s death, called it a “major blow” and “part of the degradation that has been taking place to core al Qaida during the past several years.” Carney wouldn’t confirm the cause of al Libi’s demise, but U.S. officials earlier had said that al Libi was the target of a recent drone attack.
Al Libi was one of several close aides to al Qaida’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, who took over after Osama bin Laden was killed 13 months ago. In recent months al Libi had emerged as the main coordinator between Zawahiri’s central organization and terrorist operatives on the battlefield. Carney said the U.S. campaign against al Qaida had “depleted the ranks to such an extent that there is now no clear successor to take on the breadth of (al Libi’s) responsibilities” and that the vacuum would put additional pressure on Zawahiri.
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“I think that it is a job that’s hard to fill, and that there may not be – given the duration of late that people have held that job – that there could be a lot of candidates hoping to fill,” Carney said. He wouldn’t, however, discuss the secret U.S. drone program that’s been at the center of the campaign.
Experts said al Libi was the operational conduit between the core of al Qaida – the largely Pakistan-based group that remains from those who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States – and affiliates that have emerged in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Iraq and elsewhere. The affiliates have been responsible in recent years for carrying out the bulk of the attacks attributed to al Qaida, but while it appears that they’ve sought approval and guidance from the core organization, it’s equally clear that they’ve often operated on their own.
“Al Qaida hasn’t been a hierarchical organization for quite some time,” said terrorism expert Seth Jones of the Rand Corp. He added that because the affiliates remain active in planning attacks, “there’s still a range of threats out there.”
Al Libi’s coordinating role was one of the last things keeping the core organization in touch with the movement it spawned, Jones said. “Without him, it’s clear that al Qaida’s ability to communicate with the field has been weakened and extremely decentralized.”
The sheer number of drone strikes aimed at the remnants of the core organization “point to guidance from human assets on the ground, meaning they’ve appeared to have lost support among the people they must rely upon,” Jones said.
A U.S. official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said Zawahiri “will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into Abu Yahya’s shoes.” A former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Libi gained notoriety when he was among a group that escaped from the U.S. detention center at Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005, and his gravity and religious devotion made him an even more influential figure among al Qaida affiliates.
“There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise (al Qaida) has just lost,” the official said.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.