WASHINGTON (AP) — A US official says a drone strike in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region has killed Al Qaeda’s second-in-command.
The death of Abu Yahya al-Libi is a significant blow to the terror network, which has lost a string of top leaders at the hands of the American drone program.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, says that no one left in Al Qaeda comes close to replacing the expertise Al Qaeda has just lost.
Al-Libi would be the latest in the dozen-plus senior commanders removed in the clandestine US war against Al Qaeda since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden just over a year ago. Al-Libi, a hero in militant circles for his 2005 escape from an American military prison in Afghanistan, was elevated to Al Qaeda’s No. 2 spot when Ayman al-Zawahri rose to replace the slain bin Laden.
The US has carried out a flurry of drone strikes recently — seven in less than two weeks — some of which appear to have been trying to target al-Libi.
Pakistani intelligence officials said al-Libi had been slightly injured in a May 28 attack in a village near Khassu Khel, where he then moved. The Taliban chief said the strike that wounded al-Libi was two days earlier in a different village.
The White House maintains a list of terrorist targets to be killed or captured, compiled by the military and the CIA and ultimately approved by the president.
The stepping up of drone strikes since late May follows a relative lull driven by tensions between Washington and Islamabad over American airstrikes last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan seized the opportunity to renegotiate its relationship with the US and demanded Washington stop drone strikes in the country — a demand the US has ignored. The attacks are unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the US
Pakistan called Deputy US Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday to protest the drone strikes.
‘‘He was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,’’ said a statement sent by the Foreign Ministry to reporters.
Members of the Pakistani government and military have supported the strikes in the past, but that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.
The State Department’s Rewards for Justice program had set a $1 million reward for information leading to al-Libi, who had filmed numerous propaganda videos urging attacks on US targets.
As Al Qaeda’s de facto general manager, al-Libi was responsible for running the group’s day-to-day operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas and manages outreach to Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates.
Al-Libi, an Islamic scholar, was captured in 2002 and held by US forces at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan until he escaped in 2005 in an embarrassing security breach. Almost immediately after reuniting with his Taliban and Al Qaeda brethren he began appearing in videos released by the terror group.
The Rewards for Justice program describes al-Libi as using his ‘‘religious training to influence people and legitimize the actions of Al Qaeda.’’
In a 2009 profile of al-Libi in Foreign Policy magazine, terrorism expert Jarret Brachman described al-Libi as ‘‘media-savvy, ideologically extreme, and masterful at justifying savage acts of terrorism with esoteric religious arguments.’’
Al-Libi was one of thousands of men from around the Muslim and Arab world who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to battle the Soviet Union. According to Brachman, he later went to Mauritania for advanced religious studies that he’s since used in repeated videos and other Al Qaeda outreach designed to attract followers and justify the group’s deadly tactics. He honed his outreach skills while working in Karachi as webmaster for a Taliban website, Brachman said.
‘‘This is one of the more prominent names’’ among the targets of drone strikes in Pakistan, added former CIA officer Paul Pillar.
He said al-Libi’s death would help bolster the CIA’s push to continue the drone program despite the continued political resistance from Pakistan and collateral damage.
Al-Libi’s death would be ‘‘another reason not to accept Pakistan’s demand for an end to drone wars,’’ added Brookings Institute’s Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the White House on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.