US officials initially said they were “optimistic” that Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed when missiles destroyed his vehicle and a militant compound in North Waziristan, leaving 15 dead.
However, a senior militant figure later told The Daily Telegraph that Libi was not caught in the attack. “The vehicle belonged to al-Libi but at the time he wasn’t in the vehicle,” said a Pakistan Taliban commander.
Confirming the deaths of militant leaders in drone strikes is notoriously difficult. It can take weeks for the truth to emerge from the lawless border areas.
The death of Libi, a close aid to Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, would be a major blow to what is left of al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He would be among more than 12 senior al-Qaeda leaders assassinated since bin Laden was tracked down and killed by US Navy Seals in May last year.
Three separate drone strikes were launched from Saturday to Monday, killing at least 30 people, according to local sources.
The third barrage comprised two missiles, which slammed into a compound and a vehicle in the village of Hesokhel, near Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, before dawn. Pakistani intelligence officials said they had evidence that Libi was at the scene at the time of the strike.
A Western security analyst on condition of anonymity said: “The high intensity of strikes suggest there is some sort of good intelligence that a high value-target is in the area.”
Pakistan condemned the drone strike, summoning the US charge d’affaires to express it’s “serious concerns” over the tactic. The attack came at a time of increased tensions between Washington and Islamabad, following the conviction two weeks ago of a doctor who helped to track down bin Laden.
Libi, a Libyan citizen believed to be in his late 40s, was thought dead in 2009 only to re-emerge months later, churning out propaganda messages.
He carries a $1m US bounty on his head and was captured in 2002 when Nato forces overran Afghanistan. However, he was part of an al-Qaeda breakout three years later increasing his cachet in militant circles.
Some terror experts believe he took over as deputy leader last year, following the death of Atiyah abd al-Rahman also in a drone strike in North Waziristan.
Whatever his actual position, he is known as a propagandist and ideologue. Analysts believe he serves as al-Qaeda’s “general manager”, overseeing operations in Pakistan’s tribal belt and responsible for liaising with other militant groups in the area.
Ben Venzke, an analyst at the US-based IntelCenter, said that Libi’s death would be a severe blow to international jihadi groups.
“The loss of Abu Yahya al-Libi would be felt throughout the jihadi community as he has been one of the most visible jihadi figures from any of the groups around the world, with prolific video releases and writings,” he said.
Drone strikes are highly controversial in Pakistan, where many believe they serve as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda.
The latest blitz prompted Pakistan’s foreign ministry to summon the American charge d’affaires to receive a formal protest about the strikes on Tuesday.
At the same time, a letter retrieved from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout shows how effective they have been in hurting al-Qaeda. In it, the former leader warned his “brothers” in North Waziristan to travel only under cloud cover in order to thwart the drones.
The rate of attack slowed during the past year as relations between Washington and Islamabad soured.
However, they have intensified in ferocity during the past fortnight after the US and Pakistan failed to reach an agreement over Nato supply lines during talks in Chicago.
The Pakistani parliament has asked for an end to the strikes as part of a deal to allow Nato supplies through its territory to Afghanistan.