PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan has evidence that al-Qaida's second-in-command was in a house destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in the country's northwest tribal region, but it is unclear whether he was killed, intelligence officials said Tuesday.
If Abu Yahya al-Libi is confirmed dead, it would mark a significant blow to the terror network, which has lost a string of top leaders at the hands of the American drone program. The U.S. has pressed ahead with the drone strikes, viewing them as a key weapon against al-Qaida and insurgents, despite repeated Pakistani demands to stop — and a hit on al-Libi would likely fuel Washington's determination.
U.S. officials have said they were targeting Abu Yahya al-Libi in Monday's strike in Khassu Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal area and were "optimistic" he was among those killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the drone program.
U.S. officials are hoping Pakistani intelligence sources who know al-Libi will be able to view his body in the wreckage of the house where he was seen before the strike, or at his funeral, to confirm he was hit. They are also monitoring enemy communications, listening for panicked chatter or word the militants are planning his funeral.
If al-Libi is confirmed killed, he would be the latest in the dozen-plus senior commanders removed in the clandestine U.S. war against al-Qaida since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden just over a year ago. Al-Libi, a hero in militant circles for his 2005 escape from an American military prison in Afghanistan, was elevated to al-Qaida's No. 2 spot when Ayman al-Zawahri rose to replace the slain bin Laden.
Militants and residents in the area told Pakistani agents that al-Libi was in the house when it was hit, Pakistani intelligence officials said. They said the mud and brick house was completely destroyed in the attack.
A vehicle used by al-Libi was destroyed during the strike, said one of the officials. Agents intercepted a militant phone call indicating an Arab was killed in the attack, but it is unclear if they were talking about al-Libi, who was born in Libya, said the official.
The officials said they were 80 percent certain al-Libi died Monday but that they were still trying to get confirmation.
But a local Taliban chief said al-Libi was not present at the house, though his guard and driver were killed in the attack.
The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The Taliban chief spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the Pakistani army.
The U.S. has carried out a flurry of drone strikes recently — seven in less than two weeks — some of which appear to have been trying to target al-Libi. The al-Qaida deputy appeared to have been injured in one of those strikes, although there were conflicting accounts as to which and there was little information about the extent of his wounds.
Pakistani intelligence officials said al-Libi had been slightly injured in a May 28 attack in a village near Khassu Khel, where he then moved. The Taliban chief said the strike that wounded al-Libi was two days earlier in a different village.
The White House maintains a list of terrorist targets to be killed or captured, compiled by the military and the CIA and ultimately approved by the president.
The stepping up of drone strikes since late May follows a relative lull driven by tensions between Washington and Islamabad over American airstrikes last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan seized the opportunity to renegotiate its relationship with the U.S. and demanded Washington stop drone strikes in the country — a demand the U.S. has ignored. The attacks are unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S.
Pakistan called Deputy U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday to protest the drone strikes.
"He was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty," said a statement sent by the Foreign Ministry to reporters.
Members of the Pakistani government and military have supported the strikes in the past, but that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.
The State Department's Rewards for Justice program had set a $1 million reward for information leading to al-Libi, who had filmed numerous propaganda videos urging attacks on U.S. targets.
As al-Qaida's de facto general manager, al-Libi is responsible for running the group's day-to-day operations in Pakistan's tribal areas and manages outreach to al-Qaida's regional affiliates.
Al-Libi, an Islamic scholar, was captured in 2002 and held by U.S. forces at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan until he escaped in 2005 in an embarrassing security breach. Almost immediately after reuniting with his Taliban and al-Qaida brethren he began appearing in videos released by the terror group.
The Rewards for Justice program describes al-Libi as using his "religious training to influence people and legitimize the actions of al-Qaida."
In a 2009 profile of al-Libi in Foreign Policy magazine, terrorism expert Jarret Brachman described al-Libi as "media-savvy, ideologically extreme, and masterful at justifying savage acts of terrorism with esoteric religious arguments."
Al-Libi was one of thousands of men from around the Muslim and Arab world who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to battle the Soviet Union. According to Brachman, he later went to Mauritania for advanced religious studies that he's since used in repeated videos and other al-Qaida outreach designed to attract followers and justify the group's deadly tactics. He honed his outreach skills while working in Karachi as webmaster for a Taliban website, Brachman said.
"This is one of the more prominent names" among the targets of drone strikes in Pakistan, added former CIA officer Paul Pillar.
He said al-Libi's death would help bolster the CIA's push to continue the drone program despite the continued political resistance from Pakistan and collateral damage.
Al-Libi's death would be "another reason not to accept Pakistan's demand for an end to drone wars," added Brookings Institute's Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the White House on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.
Mahsud reported from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan. Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot in Kabul, Afghanistan, Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.