WASHINGTON - Al Qaeda’s number two leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, the charismatic commander who helped steer the terrorist group after Osama bin Laden’s death last year, was killed by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan’s lawless frontier region, US officials confirmed Tuesday.
US intelligence officials said the death of the Libyan jihadist, who escaped from US custody in Afghanistan in 2005, leaves Al Qaeda’s leadership ranks in Pakistan so depleted that there is no obvious successor.
Libi, the second Al Qaeda deputy commander to be killed in 10 months, died in a drone strike early Monday on a house in North Waziristan, US officials said. Despite Pakistani reports that more than a dozen people died in the strike, US officials said Libi was the only one killed.
A US official described Libi as one of Al Qaeda’s “most experienced and versatile leaders.’’ His death was viewed as a particularly heavy loss for Al Qaeda because of his standing as both a spiritual figure and operational manager for a terrorist organization that has been struggling since bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs last year.
The death of Libi “puts additional pressure on Al Qaeda in the post-bin Laden era,’’ said White House press secretary Jay Carney. It “damages the group’s morale and cohesion and brings it closer to demise than ever before,’’ Carney said.
The missile strike also illustrates the Obama administration’s determination to continue the CIA drone campaign despite escalating Pakistani objections, which were reiterated Tuesday when an American diplomat was summoned to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad.
US charge d’affaires Richard Hoagland “was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law, and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,’’ according to a news release from the Islamabad government.
The message was delivered amid a flurry of drone activity in Pakistan, with three strikes since Saturday. US officials said Libi was among a total of three operatives killed.
The pace of the drone campaign reflects the extent to which the CIA has continued to patrol Pakistan by unmanned aircraft, even as the terrorist threat has shifted. US officials now see Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen as significantly more dangerous than the core group in Pakistan, but the number of strikes in each country stands about even this year.
According to the Long War Journal website, there have been 22 strikes in Yemen and 21 in Pakistan.
Libi’s death “underscores we cannot give in to Pakistan’s demand for an end to drone operations,’’ said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution.
Libi was among a collection of aliases used by a militant whose given name was Muhammad Hasan Qaid, according to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
He was one of the last surviving members of the generation of Al Qaeda fighters who battled against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He was admired among the group’s rank and file and served as a bridge between Al Qaeda’s Pakistan leadership and affiliate groups around the world.
Libi also possessed credentials that allowed him to issue religious edicts and operational mandates to the group’s adherents.
Libi “played a critical role in the group’s planning against the West,’’ said the US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss US counterterrorism operations. “There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise AQ has just lost.’’
Libi, thought to be in his late 40s, had moved into the number two spot after the death in August of Atiyah abd al-Rahman, another Libyan national who was killed in a missile strike. Like his predecessor, Libi was regarded as the group’s general manager, answering to Al Qaeda’s senior commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri.