ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The fate of one of the United States’ most dedicated enemies was the subject of mounting speculation Monday after a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt was said to have targeted Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Al Qaeda commander who escaped US custody in 2005 and became the group’s deputy leader after Osama bin Laden’s death last year.
Tribal sources in Mir Ali, where the drone attack occurred, said Libi was either killed or seriously wounded in the strike, which Pakistani officials said killed at least 14 people. It was the third strike in three days in the tribal belt.
Ayman Al-Zawahri succeeded bin Laden as Al Qaeda leader, and Libi became the organization’s deputy in its Pakistan operations, which are anchored in the tribal belt.
In Washington, US officials familiar with the strikes confirmed that Libi, believed to be in his late 40s, was the target of the attack. But they said they did not know whether he had survived.
Officials appeared to be wary because, as with some other top militants sheltering in the Waziristan region, Libi has been falsely reported dead before - in December 2009 after a drone strike in South Waziristan. By Monday night in Pakistan, no concrete evidence had emerged to prove the latest accounts of his death were accurate.
But from Peshawar, the main city in northwestern Pakistan, to Islamabad and Washington, officials confirmed they were taking such reports very seriously. If true, it would be the US government’s greatest gain against Al Qaeda since Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Abbottabad last year.
“People are looking very closely to see whether he’s still alive,’’ said one US official who was monitoring intelligence reports, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’ll take some time for people to gain a high level of confidence that he’s dead. But he’s No. 2 in Al Qaeda and this would be a major blow.’’
The strike occurred early Monday in Hassu Khel, a small village in North Waziristan just south of Mir Ali, when a drone fired several missiles at a compound and a nearby pickup truck, local Pakistani officials said. Fourteen to 16 people were killed in the attack, making it the deadliest in the tribal belt since November 2011.
The attack in North Waziristan, a bustling hub of Taliban and Al Qaeda militancy along the Afghan border, was the latest signal of the Obama administration’s determination to press ahead with its drone campaign.
The attacks have outraged Pakistani officials even while negotiations continue to try to reopen NATO supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan.
A resident of the Mir Ali area, citing militant sources and speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he believed Libi was in the compound in Hassu Khel when the attack occurred. He said Libi had been lightly injured in a drone strike on May 28 and had been moved to the compound to recuperate.
The resident said he could not be sure whether Libi had been killed or injured. A senior Pakistani security source in Peshawar said it “looks like he has been killed.’’
Libi and three other Al Qaeda militants escaped from the US military detention center at Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, in July 2005 after picking a lock and dodging guards.
His notoriety swelled after he appeared in a 54-minute video a year later, describing his capture by Pakistani forces in 2002 and his jailbreak from one of the largest military prisons in the world.
He went on to make many more videos, appearing more frequently than even Zawahri, then Al Qaeda’s deputy leader; at one point Libi was described as the face of Al Qaeda on the Internet. Last year he appeared in a new video urging his fellow Libyans to overthrow Moammar Khadafy.
Reports of Monday’s airstrike came during a continued scramble to reach agreement over NATO supply lines into Afghanistan, which have been closed since November, after US airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
NATO said Monday that it had reached agreement with three central Asian countries to completely bypass Pakistan when it removes thousands of vehicles and other military equipment from Afghanistan as it winds down its combat role there later this year.
It said Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan had agreed to allow the reverse transport of alliance equipment on overland routes.
Weeks of private negotiations on the Pakistan supply route have become bogged down in arguments over transit fees; with a congressional deadline looming, officials from both countries agree that time is running short. A senior Defense Department official, Peter Lavoy, is due in Islamabad this week as part of urgent efforts to break the deadlock.
The drones strike could further complicate the negotiations because Pakistani officials perceive them as being part of the US bargaining strategy.
“This is nothing but pressure tactics and preparing for the second term,’’ said a senior Pakistani security official, referring to both the NATO negotiations and President Obama’s reelection campaign. “They want to prove something.’’
A senior US official said the increase in drone strikes was driven by recent good weather over Waziristan, not any desire to pressure the Pakistanis.
“Until now the area was socked in by a long stationary front with cloud cover,’’ the official said.
Another factor in the increased strikes may be an intensifying of the fighting season in Afghanistan, as more Pakistan-based Taliban cells have been traveling across the border as the weather has improved.
The pace of the campaign is partly dictated by Obama, who approves every name added to the “kill list’’ of drone targets and can veto strikes in which civilians may be killed.