WASHINGTON: Al-Qaeda's second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi was the target of a US drone strike that killed 15 people in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, US media reported.
The New York Times cited US officials as saying that Libi had been the target of Monday's attack in North Waziristan, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold along the Afghan border, but could not say whether he had survived. "People are looking very closely to see whether he's still alive," the Times quoted an official as saying.
"It'll take some time for people to gain a high level of confidence that he's dead. But he's number two in Al-Qaeda, and this would be a major blow." ABC News cited a senior US official as saying that Libi had been the target of the attack, the third drone strike in as many days and the deadliest this year.
The Times also quoted a senior Pakistani security source in Peshawar as saying it "looks like he as been killed." The militant leader, who has a $1 million US bounty on his head, was falsely reported dead previously, after a December 2009 drone strike in South Waziristan.
"This would be a major blow to core Al-Qaeda -- removing the number two leader twice in less than a year," a senior US official told AFP on condition of anonymity, declining to confirm whether Libi was dead or alive.
"The degradation to core Al-Qaeda during the past several years has depleted the ranks to such an extent that there is now no clear successor to take on the breadth of his responsibilities, putting additional pressure on (Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to try to manage the group in an effective way."
The official said Libi had served as "general manager" for Al-Qaeda's main branch, overseeing its daily operations in Pakistani's lawless tribal regions and managing links to affiliates around the world. Libi, a Libyan citizen believed to be in his late 40s, became the global terror network's deputy leader after the August death of Atiyah abd al-Rahman, another Libyan who was killed in a US missile strike in North Waziristan.
Pakistani officials said two missiles slammed into a compound in the village of Hesokhel, east of Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, before dawn. A security official in Miranshah told AFP that the bodies of those killed could not be identified and that there were unconfirmed reports that foreigners were among the dead, a possible reference to Al-Qaeda fighters.
Should his death be confirmed, Libi would be among the highest profile Al-Qaeda militants killed by US forces since a Navy SEAL raid killed the group's mastermind Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Ben Venzke, an analyst at the US-based IntelCenter, said that if Libi were to be killed, "confirmation will come fairly quickly from core Al-Qaeda," including written statements and online video eulogies. "The loss of Abu Yahya al-Libi would be felt throughout the jihadi community as he has been one of the most visible jihadi figures from any of the groups around the world, with prolific video releases and writings," he said.
Libi was captured in 2002, after NATO forces toppled Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, and was held at the US high-security prison at Bagram Air Base. But he escaped three years later, giving him added notoriety among militants.