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The Life and Death of al-Qaida’s ‘General Manager’

June 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Deputy al-Qaida leader Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed by a drone attack Monday inside Pakistan, according to U.S. officials. Jeffrey Brown and Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation discuss the strike and the life story of the man described as the general manager of the terror network.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we fill in some of the details now with Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation and author of the new book “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al-Qa’ida After 9/11.”

Seth, so tell us more. Who was he and why was he an important target?

SETH JONES, senior political scientist, RAND Corporation: Well, Abu Yahya Libi was an individual from Libya who had spent time first fighting in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

And then he had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, made his way up the leadership structure of al-Qaida in Pakistan and become the head of its religious committee, or shura. After the death of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the general manager, last year in a drone strike. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: General manager of the entire network?

SETH JONES: Of the entire network. He took that place.

So, for the several months, he has been the gatekeeper to al-Qaida’s leader now, Ayman al-Zawahri.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what does general manager mean in this — it goes to this whole question of the structure of al-Qaida and how they communicate, how they carry out actions.

SETH JONES: Well, it’s probably something along the lines of a managing editor at a newspaper, somebody who is involved in helping run the day-to-day operations of the group.

Anybody that wanted to talk to or send messages to Zawahri, the leader, would have to generally go through Abu Yahya. And when Zawahri pushed messages out to the field, the affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq or North Africa would generally do it down to Abu Yahya al-Libi and out.

JEFFREY BROWN: He had also been captured and escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan. Tell us about that.

SETH JONES: Yes. Well, he had been captured by U.S. forces around the Afghan-Pakistan border. And then he had escaped after serving some time at Bagram Air Base, along with several others.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there have been other killing — killings of others said to be number two or high-ups in al-Qaida. How easily replaceable is anyone? How does — again, it goes to the structure of the organization.

SETH JONES: Well, a couple things.

One is, it’s not easy to replace this kind of individual. Somebody like this needs to have legitimacy among the affiliates in the field. Abu Yahya had that. He was from Africa, Libya in particular. So he had a good network of individuals from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, Yemen and Somalia.

There are some potential individuals who might be able to fill that slot. And al-Qaida has after a range of these drone strikes pushed up individuals. But I think what we’re seeing though is the al-Qaida structure in Pakistan has definitely been weakened by the strike.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we know or can we know how he was targeted in a drone strike or where the information would come from?

SETH JONES: No, it’s not entirely clear in this particular case.

In many cases with drone strikes, one collects information from a variety of means, signals intelligence, human intelligence. What looks to be the case, though, based on the pattern of drone strikes, is that the U.S. and a range of other organizations have increasingly penetrated where al-Qaida sits in Pakistan. That can not bode well for al-Qaida, because it’s clearly losing its support network there.

JEFFREY BROWN: These drone strikes of course continue to be highly contentious and vehemently opposed in Pakistan. One assumes the same would be true in this case.

SETH JONES: Well, at least publicly.

The Pakistan government has publicly criticized some of these strikes. Privately, I think there’s a different issue here. They have allowed the U.S. to conduct a range of operations. But we know publicly and from the Pakistan population in general they are not popular.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you’re suggesting, in a case like this, you were talking about the impact in Pakistan, but it has implications to what are sometimes called affiliates in Yemen, in Somalia?

SETH JONES: Well, obviously, Pakistan is not the only location where al-Qaida has been targeted. The challenge with an enemy like this, like al-Qaida, is that unlike traditional enemies and adversaries that may be only operating in one country, al-Qaida operates on multiple continents and in multiple countries.

So this war and the drone campaign then is in Africa. It’s in Pakistan. It’s in a range of other places.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Seth Jones, thanks.

SETH JONES: Thank you.