Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of al Qaeda’s top strategists and seen as the most prominent figure in the network after leader Ayman al Zawahri, may have been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said on Tuesday.
If his death is confirmed, it would be the biggest blow to al Qaeda since US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in a secret raid in May 2011.
Pakistan summoned a senior US diplomat and lodged a protest over the drone attacks which it branded “unlawful”.
US sources said Libi, a Libyan cleric with a degree in chemistry who has survived previous attacks by drone aircraft, was a target of a strike early on Monday in northwest Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, home to some of the world’s most notorious militant groups.
Sajjan Gohel, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation security research consultancy, said Libi was one of the few remaining key figures within al Qaeda’s core.
“Libi has also been at the centre of al Qaeda’s plans to reconstitute itself and try and remount a trans-national terror campaign. This is one of the reasons he was viewed as a high value target,” he said.
Some US officials describe Libi, whose real name is Mohamed Hassan Qaid, as number two to Zawahri, the former Egyptian doctor who took over al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death.
Pakistani intelligence officials said they believe Libi, which means Libyan in Arabic, may have been among seven foreign militants killed in Monday’s strike by a drone aircraft.
One of the officials said Pakistani authorities had intercepted telephone chatter about Libi, an al Qaeda theologian and expert on new media whose escape from a US-run prison in Afghanistan in 2005 made him famous in al Qaeda circles.