Al-Qaida Figure Killed in Pakistan Attack

A missile fired at a compound in northwest Pakistan earlier this week left a senior al-Qaida leader dead. Pakistanis in the area say 11 other people were killed in the strike that claimed Abu Laith al-Libi.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When a U.S. missile hit a compound earlier this week in a village along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, it left a senior al-Qaida leader dead. Pakistanis in the area said a dozen people were killed in that strike. Western government officials have identified one of them as Abu Laith al-Libi, said to be one of the top five or six leaders of al-Qaida.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Abu Laith al-Libi, the Libyan and Arabic, was hardly a familiar name, but his killing this week is a big deal to those who have studied al-Qaida over the past few years.

Robert Grenier directed the CIA Counterterrorism Center until 2006.

MONTAGNE: He has been a known and a fairly prominent al-Qaida leader for quite sometime.

GJELTEN: A Western govern official says al-Libi had been an active jihadi or Islamist at least since the early 1990s. One of his many roles was as a spokesman for al-Qaida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONTAGNE: (Speaking in foreign language)

GJELTEN: In this message broadcast in 2005, al-Libi told Muslims around the world that their religion would be victorious. But he was even more important to al-Qaida as a military commander in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan in Pakistan.

Tom Johnson is a terrorism and South Asia expert at the Naval Postgraduate School.

INSKEEP: People that know him talk about his tenacity and his straight nature and his military knowledge so this was no private. This guy was clearly one of the senior officers in bin Laden's al-Qaida.

GJELTEN: The Western government official knowledgeable about al-Libi's role says he was believed to be heavily involved in planning attacks against Western targets in Afghanistan. Tom Johnson, who was consultant for the U.S. military on the ground in Afghanistan, says al-Libi was believed to have been an al-Qaida military trainer, working with Taliban militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In that sense, Johnson says, al-Libi personified what al-Qaida is now doing generally with the Taliban movement - strengthening its military capability.

INSKEEP: The role that al-Qaida plays is much like many of our soldiers and Marines play relative to the Afghan National Army. They're embedded with different units to give them detailed instructions on how to conduct the insurgency.

GJELTEN: Abu Laith al-Libi's particular expertise, Johnson says, was in explosives. That's an area in which the Taliban guerrilla movement has made great advances. Just a few years ago, there were almost no roadside bombings using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Afghanistan.

Last year, there were more than 140. Al-Qaida has long been known to provide inspiration to local terrorist groups, but this training role may be just as important.

Former CIA official Robert Grenier, now a managing director at Kroll Corporation, says Taliban fighters did not use IEDs previously, in large part because they didn't know about them, much less how to make them.

MONTAGNE: This mindset and these actual physical capabilities are transferred by people, a specific trainer who has capabilities - who then goes from the Middle East region and travels physically to Afghanistan and begins to train others who in turn influence and train others beyond that circle.

GJELTEN: The missile that killed Abu Laith al-Libi this week was fired, according to U.S. officials, by an unmanned predator aircraft, presumably under CIA control.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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