Al-Qaeda's New Leadership
Abu Laith al-Libi, Field Commander and Spokesman
A longtime jihadist, Libi was a leader in the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization dedicated to overthrowing Col. Moammar al Gaddafi.
U.S. intelligence officials said he is close to the Taliban and does not have a longtime formal association with al-Qaeda, but that Osama bin Laden's core command has become increasingly dependent on his organizing and military skills. "He's still not a full, sworn AQ member," a senior U.S. official said.
He was named in an al-Qaeda video this year, however, as a field commander in Afghanistan and has become more visible on the Internet in recent months.
Libi fought in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, then returned to Libya in 1994 to lay the groundwork for a coup attempt against Gaddafi's government, said Noman Benotman, a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who lives in political exile in London.
The plot fizzled and Libi fled the country, moving to Saudi Arabia, where he was arrested in the aftermath of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings, which killed 19 U.S. military personnel. He spent time in prison in Riyadh but somehow escaped or was released, according to Benotman and security analysts who have studied his career.
Libi joined subversive circles in yet another Middle Eastern country that Benotman wouldn't identify, before returning to Afghanistan. "He had been tortured badly, very, very badly," in Saudi Arabia, Benotman said. "He's a very brave guy."
Libi began to work more closely with al-Qaeda in 1999 and appeared in a video in 2002, in which he spoke out on behalf of the Taliban. He reappeared briefly in 2004 in another video, but has become more prominent in the past year, taking the lead role in two al-Qaeda Internet productions.
Al-Qaeda has named Libi one of its primary field commanders in Afghanistan. Jarret Brachman, research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said Libi has close contacts with al-Qaeda's top echelon.
"It's clear he's plugged in at the senior level," Brachman said. "That's apparently al- Qaeda's intent, to raise his operational battle credentials."
The U.S. military has blamed Libi for a suicide bombing that killed 23 people outside Bagram air base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Cheney in February.
In June, Libi was the target of a U.S. rocket attack on a compound in Afghanistan's Paktia province in which several children were reported killed. Libi apparently survived.
— Craig Whitlock and Munir Ladaa