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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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?

If this latest report of Libi's demise holds up (Pakistani officials falsely asserted in 2009 he had been killed in a US attack), a man who was directly involved in encouraging attacks on the US will have been removed from the equation. 

But the bigger discussion of whether all this is appropriate will continue, particularly following a New York Times report last week that said Obama has "placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical."

The US has been assassinating designated enemies with drones as far back as 2002 and labels most of the people who end up dead in such attacks militants who had it coming. How many of the dead were simply acquaintances of the targets will probably never be known.

Will the power to carry out long-term international assassination campaigns become a presidential prerogative through force of habit? That's the road the US is heading down now.

And are all these deaths in America's long-term interests? That's a thorny question right there. Libi for all his association with Al Qaeda, was probably among the moderates within the groups thinkers, reported to be an opponent of takfir – the practice of declaring all Muslims out of step with Al Qaeda's views on the faith as apostates, deserving of death – and some who follow the group believe his death may just create space for someone more extreme to climb up the ladder.

Leah Farrall, a former counter terrorism official with the Australian Federal Police, writes on her blog that:

"If he has in fact been killed, I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu. And yes, given his teachings I do note a certain irony in this, but sadly, it’s true. What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks  have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear. In the years to come, owing to this generation being killed off, this type of restraint will disappear; in fact it is clearly already heading in this direction. A significant part of this change  is directly attributable to the counter terrorism strategies being employed today."

Many, no doubt, will disagree with her analysis. But some reflection on whether "kill, kill, kill" is an effective long-term strategy against a jihadi movement that is built around an ideology that spreads in Internet chatrooms as easily as it does in militant training camps, will be useful in the years ahead (I and some other reporters looked at the question of rehabilitation programs for militants in a recent edition of the Monitor's magazine).

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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