Dead or alive: Who is al-Qaeda’s Abu Yahya al-Libi?
Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al-Qaeda number two man who may have been killed on Monday in drone strikes in Pakistan, may rank highly on the U.S. Department of State’s “most wanted” list, but details about his life are scarce.
Libi, whose real name is Mohamed Hassan Qaid, reportedly born in 1963, made numerous appearances in al-Qaeda propaganda videos and became a key target for western intelligence services after the death of Osama Bin Laden a year ago.
He is described by U.S. officials as number two to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former Egyptian doctor who took over al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. But while a “fog of covert war” has surrounded Libi, as described by the Guardian’s Jason Burke, he went relatively unnoticed by the media in recent years.
Perhaps his most famous stint was back in 2005, when he escaped from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan after three years of imprisonment, making him more prominent within al-Qaeda circles.
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Libi fought against Soviet Union forces, which occupied Afghanistan for a decade, by becoming part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
The U.S. state department’s website describes Libi as “a key motivator in the global jihadi movement,” with messages that convey “a clear threat to U.S. persons or property worldwide.” The statement also describes him as an “Islamic scholar” and notes that he has used “his religious training to influence people and legitimize the actions of al-Qaeda.”
The state department’s “Rewards for Justice” website placed a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to his whereabouts and/or capture.
But reports of his killing on Tuesday have been murky. U.S. officials confirmed to The New York Times that Libi had been the target of a missile 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,” a U.S. official told the Times.
“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,” the official added.
But U.S.-based author and expert on al-Qaeda, Seth Jones, voiced doubts that Libi is dead.
“We have no evidence he’s been killed, when we see evidence then I’ll believe it,” Jones said, recalling many times the death of Libi and other al-Qaeda leaders, including Anwar al-Awlaki (who was killed late last year) were falsely announced.
Jones added that evidence of Libi’s death would include statements from senior al-Qaeda leaders mourning the loss and funerals celebrating his life.
Meanwhile, a militant commander in North Waziristan closely associated with foreign fighters reportedly said: “He [Libi] has not been killed. 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.”
But a confirmation of Libi’s death would be a major blow to al-Qaeda. He would also be one of the most recent senior al-Qaeda members to be killed by the U.S. over the last two years.
U.S. drone missile strikes during that time period have killed at least 18 senior al-Qaeda leaders and commanders, as well as several top Taliban commanders,” reported The Los Angeles Times’ Alex Rodriguez.
“If he [Libi] has been killed, it will be significant in that he plays an important role in reaching out to the organizations affiliates in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, coordinating with groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. This all indicates that he is in a key position, and would be a significant loss [for al-Qaeda],” said Jones.
Jones also said that the surge in drone strikes or raids on al-Qaeda, particularly in Pakistan, has uncovered a significant trend.
“If you look at the pattern, where many leaders have been killed, it shows that al-Qaeda is becoming heavily penetrated in Pakistan, there are now a range of people on the ground willing to give up information on al-Qaeda leaders,” adding that this could boil down to tribal differences between the group’s members.