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The latest 'top Al Qaeda leader' reported killed in Pakistan

The US says it has confirmed that it killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, an Al Qaeda leader who escaped US custody in 2005, in a drone strike in Pakistan, but what's in this report?

By Staff writer / June 5, 2012

This March 2007 file photo, made from video posted on a website frequented by Islamist militants and provided via the IntelCenter, shows Al Qaeda militant Abu Yahya al-Libi. A US drone strike killed Al Qaeda's second-in-command inside Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, according to various reports.

IntelCenter/AP/File

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Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan cleric who shot to stardom in jihadi circles after escaping from US custody at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in 2005, has been killed by a US drone attack inside Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, according to various reports.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Time, ABC, CNN, Reuters, and a few other news outlets confirmed the killing within minutes of each other, citing an unnamed US "official" (very likely the same official in all cases and almost certainly authorized to go to the press by the White House). 

Mr. Libi is being described variously as a "senior Al Qaeda ideologue" and " Al Qaeda's No. 2" in press accounts, but his precise role and importance to the group is difficult to pin down. It's clear that he was a major propagandist for Al Qaeda, a more important version of the US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated in a US drone attack in Yemen last year.  A big deal? Yes. The second incarnation of Osama bin Laden? Hardly.

For a few days, at least, the discussion of whether it's appropriate for the US president to be empowered to carry out an international assassination campaign beyond judicial or independent oversight will be drowned out by cries of "but it works."

Indeed, the US drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere has been an effective killing machine.

The New America Foundation estimates that between 1,845 and 2,836 people have been killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, with approximately 17 percent of those killed civilians. By the organization's analysis, the practice has really taken off under President Obama. From 2004-2007 there were roughly 112 killings at the hands of US drones in Pakistan and in the final year of the Bush administration, the number was 314. In 2009, Obama's first year in office, the tally jumped to 725 and then in 2010 up to 993, the peak. In 2011 at most, 536 people were killed in US drone attacks in Pakistan. So far this year, the tally is about 156.

What is all of this accomplishing?

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