A top al Qaeda leader and longtime Osama Bin Laden confidant Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed in a U.S. drone strike Monday morning in Pakistan, according to several U.S. officials.
Hours after the strike Pakistani officials said that al-Libi, second-in-command to current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the 15 people killed when a U.S. drone fired four missiles into a suspected militant hideout in Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, at 5:30 a.m. local time Monday. Today U.S. officials confirmed that al-Libi had been killed but disputed the death toll in the Pakistani version of events, saying al-Libi was the only one killed in the strike that took his life. One of the officials said other, previous strikes had taken the lives of "less than a handful" of militants in recent days.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney declined to comment on the details of the operation that took out al-Libi beyond confirming that he had been killed. "I would simply say that this president is firmly committed to carrying out his policy objectives in Afghanistan and in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda," Carney told reporters today.
One U.S. official described al-Libi as a man "among al-Qaeda's most experienced and versatile leaders... and [who] played a critical role in the group's planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts."
"There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise [al Qaeda] has just lost," he said.
The strike was the third in the tribal region that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the past four days, and seventh in the past two weeks -- a span during which Pakistani officials said more than two dozen suspected militants have been killed.
Al-Libi is among the highest profile al Qaeda members to be killed by U.S. forces since a Navy SEAL raid killed top al Qaeda commander bin Laden in May 2011. The U.S. government had offered a $1 million reward through its Rewards for Justice program for information leading to his capture.
Al-Libi recently emerged as one of the most public faces of al Qaeda, appearing in several training and propaganda videos in the past two years. A letter from al-Libi chastising the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban was found among bin Laden's documents captured during the U.S. raid.
It's believed al-Libi spent a short period studying Islamic theology in Mauritania in the early 1990s, before moving to Afghanistan to fight alongside bin Laden and other al Qaeda figures.
Shortly thereafter, he is believed to have returned to Libya, where he became part of the fledgling Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, working to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi and establish an Islamic state in the African country, before returning to Afghanistan.
In 2002, after NATO forced toppled the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, al-Libi was captured and sent to the high security U.S. prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. Three years later, he escaped, rejoining militants in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As recently as last year, al-Libi appeared in a video produced by As-Sahab, al Qaeda's media wing, urging Libyans to overthrow Gadhafi.
"The only solution for our country is Jihad for Islam", al-Libi said, praising the Arab Spring that toppled other Arab rulers.
"These revolutions have shown us that the Western governments only care about their own interests. They only speak out when they see them endangered. By now: the wind of revolution is blowing, and they evacuate their own citizens."
Other Sahab videos show al-Libi preaching to a group of militants in a mountainous region, wearing a tactical vest and reading from a script. Another shows clad in a black turban, preaching to an unidentified gathering indoors. The black flag of the Taliban is mounted on a wall behind him as he speaks.
Unlike videos of other Al Qaeda leaders that emphasize their role on the battlefield, most of al-Libi's videos appear to emphasize his role as a theologian, showing him preaching to groups of men and quoting extensively from the Quran.