The U.S. dealt a significant blow to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri when an American drone aircraft killed his right-hand man, say terrorism experts, but they caution the group has a deep bench to fill the void.
U.S. officials confirmed Tuesday that a drone strike in Pakistan killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group's most significant setback since Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. He became the terror syndicate's No. 2 leader when Zawahiri assumed the top spot after bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos.
Terrorism experts say al-Libi had become a major force—and thinker—within the organization.
"There's no doubt this is significant. He had a unique set of skills that made him an up-and-comer," says Rick "Ozzie" Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He was charismatic, like bin Laden was. He was more of a scholar. ... And he was a seasoned operator."
"Someone with those three characteristics will be very hard to replace," adds Nelson.
Al-Libi ascended al Qaeda's power ranks after he escaped from an Afghan prison in 2005. CBS News first reported U.S. officials on Tuesday confirmed the drone strike killed the No. 2 terrorist.
Joshua Foust of the American Security Project dubbed al-Libi "the guy behind Zawahiri," saying he "has been in one of the most dangerous positions for a terrorist to have the last decade."
Terrorism analysts noted since Washington launched its war on al Qaeda following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have touted drone and ground attacks that have killed high-ranking terrorist leaders.
"I can think of at least [several] al-Libis to have risen through the ranks of al Qaeda only to be killed off in some way by the U.S.," Foust says. "Ultimately, this is because 'the guy behind Zawahiri' must take a slightly more visible role. So he is easier to target."
Every time the U.S. has captured or killed a senior al Qaeda official, the group has quickly replaced them without veering off its major goals of attacking the United States, as well as its interests and allies around the globe.
"This is not going to change their game plan," says Nelson. "They have taken a lot of hits lately ... but they will stay focused on their goal of killing the United States."
Some question whether the strike will give the U.S. much of a leg up against al Qaeda.
"It seems like every time the U.S. announces one of these killings, it's going to be the final nail in al Qaeda's coffin," says Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal. "But their bench is far deeper than this administration gives credit."
Roggio panned the Obama administration for its heavy reliance on drone strikes. "George W. Bush got raked over the coals for doing just what the Obama administration is doing: Trying to kill their way out this." Roggio says to eventually defeat al Qaeda, the U.S. needs a broader strategy that combats several issues: state sponsorship of—"and indifference to"—terrorism; ungoverned areas where al Qaeda operatives and cells "can hide and grow"; and combating the group's ideology.
Terrorism experts predict the No. 2 official's death likely will not cripple the organization, but they agree it will distract al-Zawahiri and his top aides while they settle on a replacement.
"The sad fact of the matter is that this really won't alter things too much," says Foust. "Al-Qaeda is, in a way, used to losing the No. 2 guy behind Zawahiri because it's happened so often."
"It will make things more difficult for them in the short term," says Roggio. "But they've been at war just as long as the U.S. has, and they've been grooming new leaders just as the U.S. has."
What will the al Qaeda leader do next? He will likely choose a new second-in-command with skills that offset his own weaknesses.
"Al-Zawahiri is a terrible manager. His operational credibility is suspect," says CSIS's Nelson. "He's been there since the beginning of the organization, but he's really always been al Qaeda's spiritual leader."
Recruiting, building and cultivating the group, planning operations—all were tasks that for years fell to bin Laden. Since his death, experts say, it appeared al-Libi had taken on a larger role in each area.
"Al-Zawahiri doesn't have the tools to run this organization on his own," says Nelson. "Any strike like this one is a success. But it's not a cause for celebration. There's still a lot more work to do against al Qaeda."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
- In Wake of Bin Laden's death, Al Qaeda Remains Lethal
- Obama's Iran Options: Talk, Threaten or Attack
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy