With apologies to Freddie Mercury and Queen for appropriating their lyrics, I was pleased to see the announcement today (5 June) that the current deputy leader of al Qaeda got up close and personal with the wrong end (from his perspective, at least) of a Hellfire missile launched from a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on 4 June. The target, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was second in the al Qaeda command structure after Ayman al-Zawahiri, who himself ascended to the number-one spot after the death of Osama bin Laden.
Al-Libi was a very public figure in al Qaeda, a common figure in the group’s propaganda videos. Last month I discussed the initial release of documents captured from bin Laden’s hideout, and one of those documents was a letter from al-Libi that criticized the Pakistani jihadist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for causing excessive collateral damage among civilians in the course of its attacks.
He was a militant preacher and recruiter for al Qaeda, charismatic and a member of the Bagram Four, a quartet of senior al Qaeda members who escaped from detention at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan on 10 July 2005. Of the four, al-Libi was the last holdout. Omar al Farouq was killed by British special operators in Basrah, Iraq in September 2006; Abu Nasir al Qahtani was recaptured by U.S. forces in Khost province in November 2006; and Abu Abdallah al Shami was killed by an airstrike in Afghanistan in July 2008.
Clearly religious ideology is important to al-Libi; in addition to his criticisms of TTP, in April 2006 he posted online a long fatwa that took Hamas to task for its breaches of Islamic principles. He also posted a 17-page fatwa entitled “The Infidel Karzai Regime and the Necessity of War” in October of that year. In his many videos he has made some particularly memorable statements, in one telling Afghan militants that “Allah will not be pleased until we reach the rooftop of the White House” and “You have to get well-prepared by starting with exercise, and then you have to learn how to use technology until you are capable of nuclear weapons.” Well, these are Afghan insurgents we’re talking about here, and everybody has to start somewhere. It seems al-Libi could top just about anyone’s “reach for the stars” motivational speech.
So between his charisma, his wide exposure in the jihadist community, and his religious scholarship, al-Libi would have been a logical replacement when the day finally comes that al-Zawahiri finds himself in the crosshairs of a Predator drone or a U.S special operator. Removing him was a definite plus.
Of course, the core al Qaeda group has long been little more than symbolism and ideology. The merciless U.S. pursuit of its personnel and assets has kept it on the run and unable to mount any serious operations. These days it is the al Qaeda “franchise groups,” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula foremost among them, that pose the threat.
It is also worth noting where al-Libi was killed: Mir Ali, North Waziristan, which is part of Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. It’s shocking, I know, but even after the death of Osama bin Laden at his home (you know, the one right down the street from a Pakistani military academy), senior members of al Qaeda are apparently still finding refuge in Pakistan.
It makes you wonder what country we’ll be invading after the next 9/11.