By Ken Dilanian and Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times –
WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida’s second-in-command was killed in a U.S. drone missile strike on a Pakistani compound near the Afghan border, a U.S. official said Tuesday, confirming previous speculation.
The death of Abu Yahya al-Libi was another big step in Washington’s effort to dismantle the al-Qaida network. Al-Libi became top deputy to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawairi following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011.
“Zawahri will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into (al-Libi’s) shoes,” said a U.S. official who confirmed the drone strike but was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Al-Libi’s “religious credentials gave him the authority to issue ‘fatwas,’ operational approvals, and guidance to the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates,” the official added. “There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise al-Qaida has just lost.”
The drone strike occurred Monday in Hesokhel, a small village in North Waziristan, a tribal region that has long been a stronghold for al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militant groups.
Pakistani intelligence sources said Tuesday that al-Libi may have been killed in the second of two drone strikes targeting the area. He was in a vehicle at the time, the sources said.
Washington has stepped up its drone campaign against al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions in recent weeks, despite Islamabad’s repeated demands that the U.S. abandon the use of drone attacks as a tactic against militant groups.
Pakistani civilian and military leaders insist that the tactic violates their country’s sovereignty and provides tribesmen along the Afghan border a motive to join the ranks of insurgents. Nevertheless, Washington has carried out seven drone strikes within Pakistan in the last two weeks.
In the aftermath of errant U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last November, Pakistani officials have demanded an end to all drone strikes as a condition to a full restoration of ties between Washington and Islamabad. Pakistani officials have yet to end a six-month blockade that has prevented Afghanistan-bound NATO supply convoys from using Pakistan as a transit route.
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Deputy Ambassador Richard Hoagland to protest the continuation of drone strikes on Pakistani territory. The issue of drone strikes, the ministry said in a prepared release, “represented a clear red line for Pakistan.”