Al-Qaida’s No. 2 position opened up again last week after a U.S. drone killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, who had been functioning as a general operations manager and headquarters liaison with al-Qaida affiliates elsewhere.
Believed to be in his early 40s, al-Libi was described as a popular and influential commander and copious producer of virulently anti-U.S. videos.
He escaped in 2005 from U.S. custody in Bagram, Afghanistan, and emerged in the al-Qaida hierarchy with a price on his head in 2009. He’d moved up in the organization when a drone strike killed its chief of military operations and rose to the No. 2 position when Ayman al-Zawahri advanced to replace the organization’s slain leader, Osama bin Laden.
During a visit to Afghanistan on Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joked, “The worst job you can get these days is to be a deputy leader in al-Qaida or, for that matter, a leader.”
He strongly suggested there would be other U.S.-provided opportunities for advancement in Pakistan’s terrorist havens, brushing aside Pakistani objections that the raids are a violation of their sovereignty and international law.
The Associated Press’ take from his news conference was a “tougher stance and a suggestion that the U.S. is becoming even more willing and quick to strike terrorist targets inside Pakistan.”
Panetta was particularly harsh on Pakistan’s lame efforts to rein in the Haqqani network, a militant and heavily armed organization that has operated with impunity for nearly three decades in North Waziristan. Increasingly, the U.S. claims, Haqqani fighters have been conducting cross-border raids targeting American troops.
If the U.S. is to successfully begin withdrawing its troops and turn security operations over to the Afghan military, it must do something about the terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Pakistan so far has refused to move against the Haqqani network. It denies the widespread suspicion that the extended Haqqani clan is in league with Islamabad’s intelligence services and that it plans to use the network to project its influence in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves. Or maybe the Pakistani military is reluctant to take on a legendarily tough group of fighters holed up in their remote mountain fastness.
Panetta says that his patience is running out and that the situation has become “intolerable.” Absent any serious help from Pakistan, the Haqqani network may soon rival al-Qaida in offering opportunities for quick, if short-lived, advancement.