U.S. Drone Strike Kills One Of Al-Qaida's Top Leaders

U.S. officials say a drone strike killed al-Qaida's number two operative. Abu Yahya al-Libi had risen to the top ranks within the terrorist group after the death of Osama bin Laden. He gained notoriety in 2005 after escaping from the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. A U.S. official says Abu Yahya's death is a major blow to the group. Robert Siegel talks to Tom Gjelten for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The senior leadership of al-Qaida appears to have taken a serious hit. U.S. officials say the network's deputy commander, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was one of perhaps a dozen militants killed in drone strikes yesterday in Pakistan. The announcement came today from White House spokesman Jay Carney.

JAY CARNEY: I can tell you that our intelligence community has intelligence that leads in to believe that al-Qaida's number two leader, al-Libi, is dead.

CORNISH: Joining us now with more on this story is NPR's Tom Gjelten. And, Tom, in that announcement, the White House press secretary said that the death of Abu Yahya is a, quote, "major blow to al-Qaida." We've heard about major blows to this group several times before, so how significant is this one?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, you could actually make the case that this is just about the single biggest victory in the whole eight years this drone campaign has been operating in Pakistan. And, of course, this is a program that's had its ups and downs. But the truth is it has taken out most of the top al-Qaida leaders in that region, and of all the ones killed in those drone attacks, Abu Yahya may in fact be the most important of them all.

CORNISH: What is known about him, and what made him so important?

GJELTEN: Three things, Audie. First of all, he was skilled in prolific propagandas. He actually produced more al-Qaida videos than anyone else, more than Osama bin Laden, more than bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was a very charismatic figure with a big following in the rank and file of al-Qaida. Second, he was a theological leader. That means that he had the authority and the standing to issue fatwas or religious decrees. And that's very important in jihadi circles. And finally, he was an operational commander with military skills and experience.

Jay Carney today called him al-Qaida's general manager. He is said to have been the key figure linking the al-Qaida core leadership in Pakistan with the regional affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, for example.

CORNISH: And was one of bin Laden's original al-Qaida fighters.

GJELTEN: Yeah. He was a veteran. He was among the last al-Qaida figures from Arab countries who went to fight alongside Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then he stayed. He was - he stayed there and fought the Americans when the Americans came. He was actually captured by U.S. forces in 2003, put in a U.S. military prison, but then he escaped along with three other militant leaders. They picked the lock and climbed over a prison wall. And of the four, he was the only one still around. He actually made videos bragging about his escape from the Americans, and he became something of a hero in al-Qaida circles.

One senior U.S. official said this in confirming Abu Yahya's death: There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise al-Qaida has just lost.

CORNISH: And lastly, Tom, we said he was apparently killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. Is there any question that Abu Yahya really was killed in these strikes?

GJELTEN: Well, it's good to ask. He was reported to have been killed by a drone strike once before back in 2009. But U.S. officials seem very confident that this time they really did get him. One we should point out, that this will probably inflame tensions even more with Pakistan where those drone strikes are very unpopular.

But U.S. officials see the Pakistani opposition to these as being largely political. And one thing to keep in mind, very hard to find people - up there in the mountains, it's hard to imagine that he could have been found without some Pakistani collaboration.

CORNISH: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thank you.

GJELTEN: You bet.

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