The latest US drone strike in Pakistan reportedly targeted al Qaeda's deputy commander. Pakistani officials say there are indications that he was killed, but militants in North Waziristan say he's alive and well.
The US government targeted al Qaeda's second in command in a drone strike that killed 15 people in northwestern Pakistan, according to Pakistani and American officials on Tuesday.
US officials confirmed to the New York Times that Abu Yahia al Libi was the target of Monday's drone strike. Pakistani intelligence officials also told the news agency Reuters that the Libyan national had been targeted, suggesting that he may have been killed.
"We intercepted some conversations between militants," one of the intelligence officials told Reuters. "They were talking about the death of a 'sheikh.' They did not name this person but we have checked with our sources in the area and believe they are referring to al-Libi."
But a militant commander in North Waziristan closely associated with foreign fighters denied that Libi had been killed.
"He has not been killed," the unnamed commander told Reuters. "This is not the first time claims have been made about his death. The Americans are suffering heavy losses in Afghanistan so they have resorted to making false claims."
The al Qaeda operative was falsely reported dead after a December 2009 drone strike in South Waziristan. Libi, a trained chemist, had been captured in 2002 after US-led forces ousted the Taliban from power. He was subsequently held at the high-security Bagram Air Base prison for three years, but managed to escape.
Al Qaeda under pressure
Libi became al Qaeda's second in command after his predecessor, Atiyah al-Rahman, was killed in a drone strike last August. There has been a high turnover in al Qaeda's ranks since Osama bin Laden was assassinated by US special forces in May 2011.
The terrorist group's original second in command, Egyptian-born Ayman al Zawahiri, became al Qaeda chief after bin Laden's demise.
Washington has stepped up its drone campaign in Pakistan, launching six strikes in less than two weeks. Three strikes took place over the past four days, killing four suspected militants on Saturday, 10 on Sunday, and 15 people on Monday.
Pakistan has publicly criticized the drone strikes as a violation of its sovereignty. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International consider the program illegal. But the US considers the strikes an effective way to take out high-level al Qaeda operatives and prevent terrorist attacks.
"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," a senior unnamed US official told the news agency AFP in reference to Libi, adding that his death would put "additional pressure on Zawahiri to try to manage the group in an effective way."
slk/ncy (AP, AFP, Reuters)