x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

US drone strike may have killed Al Qaeda's No 2

Pakistan has evidence that Al Qaeda's second in command was in a house hit by a US drone strike in the country's north-west tribal region, but it is unclear whether he was killed.

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // Pakistan has evidence that Al Qaeda's second in command was in a house hit by a US drone strike in the country's north-west tribal region, but it is unclear whether he was killed, intelligence officials said yesterday.

US officials have said they were targeting Abu Yahya Al Libi in Monday's strike in Khassu Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal area and were "optimistic" he was among those killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the drone programme.

If Al Libi is confirmed killed, he would be the latest in the dozen-plus senior commanders removed in the clandestine US war against Al Qaeda since Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden last year.

Militants and residents in the area told Pakistani agents that Al Libi was in the house when it was hit, said intelligence officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.

A vehicle used by Al Libi was destroyed during the strike, said one of the officials. Agents intercepted a militant phone call indicating an Arab was killed in the attack, but it is unclear if they were talking about Al Libi, who was born in Libya, said the official.

A local Taliban chief said Al Libi's guard and driver were killed in the strike, but the Al Qaeda commander was not there. Al Libi did survive a previous strike, said the Taliban chief, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the Pakistani army.

The White House maintains a list of terrorist targets to be killed or captured, compiled by the military and the CIA and ultimately approved by the president.

The US has stepped up drone strikes in Pakistan recently, carrying out seven in less than two weeks. The flurry follows a relative lull driven by tensions between Washington and Islamabad over American air strikes last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistan seized the opportunity to renegotiate its relationship with the US and demanded Washington stop drone strikes in the country - a demand the US has ignored. The attacks are unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the US

Pakistan called Deputy US Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the foreign ministry on Tuesday to protest the drone strikes.

"He was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty," said a statement sent by the foreign ministry to reporters.

Members of the Pakistani government and military have supported the strikes in the past, but that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.

The State Department's Rewards for Justice programme had set a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) reward for information leading to Al Libi, who had filmed numerous propaganda videos urging attacks on US targets after he escaped a prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2005.

Al Libi took the second-in-command spot when Egyptian-born Ayman Al Zawahri took charge of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death. As Al Qaeda's de facto general manager, Al Libi is responsible for running the group's day-to-day operations in Pakistan's tribal areas and manages outreach to Al Qaeda's regional affiliates.

"This is one of the more prominent names" among the targets of drone strikes in Pakistan, added former CIA officer Paul Pillar.