In the wake of a U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's right-hand man, terrorism experts say only another brazen commando raid on Pakistani soil would be needed to nab the group's elusive commander.
U.S. officials said Tuesday a drone strike in Pakistan had killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group's most significant setback since Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Experts say al-Libi, like other Zawahiri aides before him, are easier to target because that position requires a more public role, making the aides easier to find and target.
Sources say U.S. intelligence and military officials believe al-Zawahiri is holed up inside Pakistan, just as bin Laden was when American commandos killed him in his compound near Islamabad.
And just like bin Laden, experts say a number of factors mean it will take another commando raid to finally get al-Zawahiri.
"I think it will take a full-on OBL-style raid to get Zawahiri," says Joshua Foust of the American Security Project. "If he's smart, and he is, he is hiding with enough women and children nearby to make a drone strike unpalatable without rock solid intel—and we never got rock solid intel on OBL."
Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal, says the U.S. likely won't capture or kill al-Zawahiri "unless we do another bin Laden-type raid."
But that would raise a new set of problems for a relationship that has been strained for some time. Following the May 2011 bin Laden raid—which President Obama ordered without consulting Pakistani officials—relations between Washington and Islamabad ran cold for months.
U.S. lawmakers threatened to cut off American aid dollars. After a November U.S. air strike along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border killed around 30 Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad shut down supply routes that had been used by U.S. and NATO forces for years to move equipment and supplies into Afghanistan. And U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said recently senior U.S. and Pakistani officials did not talk directly for a full year.
Another secretive U.S. assault into Pakistan, Roggio warns, might put a final nail into the shaky relationship: "How many times can we do that against another nuclear-armed power before they simply tell us to get lost?"
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.