According to his press over the years, if ever there was a Renaissance man among al Qaeda's senior leadership, it was Abu Yahya al-Libi, the terror network's deputy leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan on Monday. Unlike other al Qaeda members who specialize in operational management, scholarly study or propaganda outreach, al-Libi had his hands in everything. Believed to be in his late 40s, al-Libi ascended to deputy leadership under Ayman al-Zawahri after Osama bin Laden was killed last year. “I call him a man for all seasons for A.Q.,” former CIA official Jarret Brachman told The New York Times in a 2008 profile. “He’s a warrior. He’s a poet. He’s a scholar. He’s a pundit. He’s a military commander." Here are the many hats al-Libi wore:
Leader. According to the AP, al-Libi's operational role in Al Qaeda came fairly recently as the killing of bin Laden prompted a series of promotions. Following May 2011, al-Libi was tasked with day-to-day operations in Pakistan's tribal areas. The BBC describes him as a general manager who, given his long-standing membership in the network and religious credentials, had the "authority to issue fatwas and provide guidance to the Pakistan-based operation."
Religious scholar. What made al-Libi stand out was his devotion to religious studies. Growing up in Libya, al-Libi left for Afghanistan in the late 80's where he joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group that fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In a 2009 profile of him in Foreign Policy, Jarret Brachman says al-Libi's religious training began shortly after that. "Abu Yahya must have shown promise because, around March 1992, LIFG's leadership dispatched him to Mauritania, where he was instructed to pursue advanced religious studies under some of the country's most prominent clerics." Spending several years on "intensive religious studies," al-Libi became masterful at creating at using esoteric religious arguments to justify horrific acts of terrorism. According to Norman Benotman, a former extremist who spent time with al-Libi in the '90s, this was a major source of his influence. "No one else within the group rivals his legitimacy as a religious scholar nor has the credibility in the Arab world to provide Islamic justifications for al Qaeda's global campaign of terrorism."
Pundit. In many ways, al-Libi was al Qaeda's new media guru, releasing video after video and weighing in on a range of subjects involving the Muslim world. As CNN's Paul Cruickshank reports, "Al-Libi became one of al Qaeda's chief ideologues and propagandists, appearing in numerous recruitment videos in which he cast himself as a sheikh with the legitimacy to issue fatwas." In a lengthy video address in December 2011, he painted a stark choice for followers of Islam. "At this crossroads you have found yourselves, you either choose a secular regime that pleases the greedy crocodiles of the West and for them to use it as a means to fulfill their goals, or you take a strong position and establish the religion of Allah." Foreign Policy chalks up his web expertise to a position he took around 2001 as a webmaster for the Taliban's Al-Imarah al-Islamiyah Web site, "a job that offered him important insights into the power of new media for reaching out to young people." After that, he became a star in the global jihad community. "His releases have included countless feature-length videos, multiple extended monographs, numerous articles, and even a published photo shoot," wrote Brachman. "In many ways, al Qaeda 'rolled out' Abu Yahya as a marketing firm might do a new product. And he has been welcomed with open arms by the global terrorist movement."
Warrior. Al-Libi's reputation as a fighter is mixed. According to the Associated Press, "Al-Libi was one of thousands of men from around the Muslim and Arab world who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to battle the Soviet Union." He became legendary in 2005 following his daring escape from the U.S. Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which according to a 2008 profile of him in The New York Times, "embarrassed American officials as deeply as it delighted the jihadist movement." However, Benotman has said his military role in Al Qaeda shouldn't be over-emphasized. "He's not a frontline fighter or someone very capable of military strategy," he told CNN. "He didn't have fighting skills or knowledge of military leadership."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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