Abu Yahya al-Libi: Libyan militant who rose to become second-in-command of al-Qa’ida


Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qa'ida's charismatic, media savvy, second-in-command was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in the early hours of Monday morning. Upwards of 15 other suspected militants were also killed.

Al-Libi's death is seen by Washington as significant and a "major blow" to al-Qa'ida's core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to its operations, as he was one of the organisation's "most experienced and versatile leaders" who played a critical role in al-Qa'ida's terrorist planning against the West. He is believed to have functioned as a "gatekeeper" or interface between al-Qa'ida's Egyptian-born leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Pakistan's militant commanders and operatives in the field in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere. In addition, Al-Libi was considered the chief architect of al-Qa'ida's global propaganda machine.

His death is said to be the biggest setback to the terror network since the demise of Osama bin Laden. US officials now claim that "there is no clear successor to take on the breadth of his responsibility and that puts additional pressure on al-Qa'ida."

The US attacks are believed to be hurting al-Qa'ida. In documents seized from bin Laden's compound, the former leader warned his "brothers" in North Waziristan to travel only under cloud cover in order to thwart the drones. Perhaps the reach and apparent effectiveness of US intelligence in the region may well be as of much concern to al-Qa'ida's leadership as the death of their comrade.

However, this is not a view held by independent experts, who believe that "Killing the top leadership harms al-Qa'ida, but it won't defeat them... There are people who will step up to fill the void. Al-Qa'ida has a far deeper bench than the administration gives it credit for." It is suggested that in order to have a real impact on al-Qa'ida, its ideology, state support and ability to exploit ungoverned space in countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen needs to be tackled. Only time will tell.

Al-Libi is among more than 12 senior al-Qa'ida leaders assassinated since Bin Laden was tracked down and killed by US Navy Seals in May last year.

In 2008, a former CIA analyst dubbed Al-Libi "a man for all seasons... He's a warrior. He's a poet. He's a scholar. He's a pundit. He's a military commander. And he's a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within al-Qa'ida."

Born in Libya in the 1960s, Al-Libi became an Islamic scholar and was militant from an early age. In the 1990s, he became a member of an Islamist group that sought to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. Al-Libi then joined al-Qa'ida and moved to Afghanistan, but was captured in 2002 when NATO forces overran the country. However, he rose to prominence following his escape from a United States military detention centre at Bagram Air Force Base outside Kabul in July 2005. With three other al-Qa'ida operatives, he picked a lock and evaded the prison guards in a bid for freedom.

Within a year, in the first of many that would burnish Al-Libi's reputation as a propagandist, his exploits were posted on the internet in a 54-minute video, in which he boasted about his escape and mocked his American captors. At the time, his use of the internet was second only to Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical US-born cleric, designated "one of the most dangerous men alive", who was killed by a drone strike in September 2011.

Al-Libi had gravitas as a longstanding member of al-Qa'ida's leadership – and with his religious credentials, he was in a position to authorise and issue fatwas in addition to providing guidance to other militants. His cachet continued to rise with his chastising of critics, in particular America, and his views on world events via prolific internet video releases and writings, as well as the increased vociferousness of his calls for Muslims to wage jihad against the US. With this, Al-Libi unwittingly propelled himself towards the top of the Americans' "kill or capture" list, making himself a target for assassination by US forces or CIA drones. He had a $1m bounty on his head for information alone. In 2009, there was a similar unsuccessful attempt on his life by the US military.

In the lawless and volatile tribal areas of Pakistan's north-west, Al-Libi successfully negotiated with the ethnic Pashtun militant groups that have sheltered al-Qa'ida in the tribal belt for over a decade – and at one point he urged Pakistanis to overthrow their own government. He also presided 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. Nonetheless, Pakistan's tribal belt remains a hub of regional and international militancy. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, New York, said that he had received explosives training from the Pakistani Taliban, while insurgent fighters based in Waziristan regularly attack NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.

Al-Libi is believed to have been elevated to deputy leader last year, following the death of Atiyah abd al-Rahman in a drone strike in North Waziristan.

Within Pakistan itself, tensions are high among the general populous. Pakistan's government has condemned the most recent drone strike, summoning the US chargé d'affaires to express its "serious concerns" over the tactic. However, despite protestations from Islamabad that the attacks violate their sovereignty, privately Pakistan has sanctioned them.

Martin Childs

Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qa'ida militant: born Libya c.1963; died Mir Ali, Pakistan 4 June 2012.