ISLAMABAD — A CIA drone strike in Pakistan's tribal belt killed al-Qaida's deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, U.S. officials said Tuesday, dealing a fresh blow to the group in a lawless area that has long been considered the global headquarters of international terrorism but the importance of which may now be slipping.
Al-Libi's death would be another dramatic moment for a U.S. covert war in Pakistan that has been particularly active over the past year, starting with the death of the group's founder, Osama bin Laden, in May 2011 and followed up by drone strikes against several senior lieutenants.
But that very success could, paradoxically, signal a shifting target: As al-Qaida's leadership in the tribal belt has been cornered or killed, new efforts to attack Western targets have been mounted by the group's affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
Unlike many of the relatively unknown figures killed in other drone strikes, al-Libi, who had a $1 million bounty on his head, was a virtual ambassador for global jihad. An Islamic scholar by training, he used frequent video appearances to expound on world events, chastise critics and boast about his escape from a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan in 2005.
He negotiated with the ethnic Pashtun militant groups who have sheltered al-Qaida in the tribal belt for more than a decade, and at one point urged Pakistanis to overthrow their own government.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that as a result of al-Libi's death, "there is no clear successor to take on the breadth of his responsibility and that puts additional pressure" on al-Qaida, "bringing it closer to its ultimate demise than ever."
The details of his death in Hassu Khel, a village in the North Waziristan tribal agency, remained hazy. And it is not the first report that he has been killed: Rumors of his death coursed through jihadi websites in December 2009 after a similar strike in South Waziristan that U.S. officials claimed had killed a high-ranking figure in al-Qaida.
His death would mark a milestone in a covert eight-year airstrike campaign that has infuriated Pakistani officials but that has remained one of the United States' most effective tools in combating militancy.
Local tribesmen and U.S. officials said that a CIA-controlled drone fired on a compound early Monday morning. Word spread quickly among local tribesmen that al-Libi had been killed or wounded, and U.S. intelligence officials using powerful satellite and other surveillance equipment listened and watched carefully for a sign of his fate.
Apparent confirmation came late Tuesday, although U.S. officials did not give supporting details. Following previous strikes in the tribal belt, the National Security Agency has monitored cellphone, radio and Internet messages to confirm the effects of the missions.
Al-Libi, who was thought to be in his late 40s, was born in Libya, and during the 1990s he was a member of an Islamist group that sought to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
He gained prominence in al-Qaida after he escaped from a U.S. military detention facility at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul in July 2005, picking a lock and dodging the prison guards, along with three other al-Qaida operatives.
After bin Laden's death, al-Libi moved up to become al-Qaida's deputy, behind Ayman al-Zawahri.
Al-Libi's death raises questions about the center of gravity of al-Qaida's global operations. In 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate, a document produced by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, declared that the tribal belt had become al-Qaida's global headquarters. Yet in recent years, some of the most dangerous plots have come from its affiliate in Yemen.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian who tried to detonate a bomb in his underwear as an airliner approached Detroit in December 2009, was trained in the mountains of Yemen. In September 2011, a U.S. drone attack 90 miles of the Yemini capital, Sana, killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. preacher and jihadist recruiter, and Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin.
Some U.S. officials consider al-Awlaki's death to be at least as significant, in counterterrorism terms, as the killing of al-Libi. Even in death, al-Awlaki's archived exhortations for jihad are still considered a potent radicalizing force.