The U.S. has confirmed that it killed Abu Yahya al-Libi who, according to various accounts, was effectively al Qaeda’s duputy leader. Al-Libi was taken out by a drone strike.
With the exception of bin Laden, I tend to view al Qaeda leaders as fairly easy to replace, but there is evidence that this is not the case here. According to this report from CNN’s Security Clearance, al-Libi “is universally admired in jihadist circles and among the younger generation of al Qaeda leaders.” He is considered “charismatic, intelligent, a religious scholar – and with the extra qualification of having escaped from U.S. custody in Afghanistan.” Thus, his loss is viewed as “a cataclysmic blow” to al Qaeda. The final statement seems a bit over-the-top, but you get the idea.
The main reason why al-Libi’s death is considered so consequential stems from his status as a religious leader. No one else within the group is said to rival his legitimacy as a religious scholar, and thus no one else can as credibly provide Islamic justifications for al Qaeda’s global campaign of terrorism.
The religious basis for that campaign has become an increasingly hard sell, particularly after the Arab spring pointed to non-terroristic (though hardly non-violent) paths to power. I doubt that al-Libi could have effectively made the case for sustained, largely unbridled terrorism over time. But we can still be happy that he won’t be around to try.
Al-Libi was Libyan, and very influential among al Qaeda forces there. Late last year, he told them, “At this crossroads you have found yourselves, you either choose a secular regime that pleases the greedy crocodiles of the West and for them to use it as a means to fulfill their goals, or you take a strong position and establish the religion of Allah.” It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, his demise has on al Qaeda’s efforts in Libya.
Al-Libi himself had a message for America in the event it succeeded in killing him:
I say to America: Don’t have hopes that you are about to defeat al Qaeda. Let al Qaeda be defeated and all their leaders and individuals be killed, and then what? The battle with America today is not with an organization or a group or a sect, but it is a battle with the Ummah of Islam [i.e., the global Islamic community].
Maybe. But this leaves open the question of how the battle will be fought. The hope is that, as al Qaeda is defeated, such a battle will be waged in more conventional, less ghastly ways.