By Craig Whitlock and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 1, 2008
BERLIN, Jan. 31 -- A senior al-Qaeda commander was killed this week in Pakistan, according to Western officials and an Islamic radical Web site, marking a rare success in the flagging U.S. and Pakistani campaign to hunt down members of the network.
Abu Laith al-Libi, the nom de guerre of a Libyan fighter who had served alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban since the late 1980s, had become an influential field commander in recent years, overseeing many operations against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, officials said. The U.S. military blamed him for organizing a suicide attack that killed 23 people outside Bagram air base during a visit by Vice President Cheney in February last year.
The Western officials declined to give details of how Libi died. But there is evidence he was targeted in a missile strike that killed 12 people early Tuesday in a remote village in northwestern Pakistan.
Villagers reported seeing an aerial drone shortly before the attack, and local officials said Libi and his deputies were known to visit the area. The CIA has previously used unmanned Predator aircraft to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan; U.S. personnel are officially barred from conducting operations in the country.
Following previous strikes, U.S. and Pakistani officials have sometimes prematurely claimed the deaths of specific al-Qaeda leaders, only to be proved wrong. Libi's death, however, was also reported Thursday by Al-Fajr Media Center, which distributes al-Qaeda statements on the Internet.
In a eulogy, it said he was "martyred with a group of his brothers in the land of Muslim Pakistan" and lauded his skills as a battlefield commander and a trainer of other fighters.
"He was an artist in what he did," the statement said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private organization that researches terrorism.
Libi is the first major al-Qaeda leader known to have been killed or captured in Pakistan in more than two years. In December 2005, a senior operational planner, Abu Hamza Rabia, was killed in a Predator attack in North Waziristan, not far from where Libi is believed to have died.
Another senior al-Qaeda commander, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, was captured in late 2006 in Turkey after departing Pakistan in an attempt to reach Iraq. He was held for several months in a secret CIA prison overseas before his transfer to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in April 2007.
The U.S. military announced a $200,000 reward last October for information leading to Libi's capture. In June, he was targeted in a U.S. rocket attack on a Taliban compound in Afghanistan's Paktia province, but survived.
A former top U.S. counterterrorism official described Libi as a skillful fighter and tactician, and one of the first senior al-Qaeda figures from outside the original leadership circle of Saudis and Egyptians.
"Operationally he was very competent," said Henry A. Crumpton, formerly the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator and a veteran of the CIA's campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. Crumpton said the death of a senior leader such as Libi can foil or disrupt planned attacks and throw the organization off-balance.
Libi was also an instrumental figure in al-Qaeda's efforts to build an alliance with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization founded in the early 1990s to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi.
The Libyan network had all but disbanded in recent years after many senior leaders were killed or arrested. In November, however, Libi and al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a formal partnership with the remnants of the Libyan group, many of whom had sought refuge in Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Over the last two or three years, Libi "became one of the real leaders for al-Qaeda," Noman Benotman, a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who knew Libi, said in a telephone interview from London. If his death is confirmed, "it's a huge blow to their whole plan" to persuade Libyan fighters to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda, Benotman said.
One Afghan militant leader who worked with Libi, speaking on condition of anonymity, said by telephone late Thursday that the Libyan "was considered to be like the right hand of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Dr. Zawahiri is considered to be the right hand of Osama bin Laden, so you can understand his position."
U.S. military officials have said Libi frequently crossed the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and served as an important conduit among al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups in the region. He appeared in several propaganda videos distributed on the Internet by al-Qaeda, most recently in April.
His presence in Pakistan became a sore point between the Bush administration and the government of President Pervez Musharraf, especially after the suicide bombing during Cheney's visit to the region a year ago. Musharraf has faced criticism for allowing al-Qaeda's leadership to secure a haven in Pakistan's rugged border areas, while simultaneously resisting U.S. requests to send Americans there to hunt Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.
Pakistani officials said they suspect Libi ordered two suicide bombings that targeted former Pakistani interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao in April and December last year. The attacks killed more than 80 people during visits by Sherpao to his home town of Charsadda, near Peshawar. Sherpao survived the blasts with minor injuries.
One Pakistani official based near the Afghan border, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Libi's death would represent "a big victory because he has been very instrumental in the whole tribal unrest and cross-border terrorism."
Tuesday's missile strike targeted a home in Khushali Torikhel, a village in volatile North Waziristan, a tribal area near the Afghan border where Pakistani troops have struggled to subdue pro-Taliban fighters.
The home belonged to Abdul Sattar, a cabdriver suspected of having ties to local and foreign militants, residents and local officials said.
Some villagers said suspicious guests had visited Sattar's home in recent weeks, arriving in four-wheel-drive vehicles that were uncommon in the area. They said local Taliban sympathizers barred access to the collapsed home afterward, though witnesses reported seeing bodies taken from the rubble.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.