The reported killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi in a U.S. drone strike on the morning of June 4 in the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan, if confirmed, is a significant loss for Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), and comes at a tumultuous time for the militant organization. U.S. government officials announced a day after the missile strike that Abu Yahya, whose real name is Hasan Muhammad Qa’id, had been killed, though official confirmation has not yet come from AQC itself. Within the organization Abu Yahya served as its chief juridical voice, whose job was to justify, support, and defend its ideological positions. He was also at the forefront of the global jihadi movement as one of the juridical and ideological architects of AQC’s positions, particularly vis-à-vis the Pakistani government and military. Abu Yahya’s influence extends to AQC’s regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al-Shabab in Somalia. The United Nations Security Council noted in September 2011 when it added him to its sanctions list that he was also a key strategist and field commander for AQC in Afghanistan. His loss would be a significant blow to both AQC and the wider transnational jihadi current.
It is not unusual to see delays in the announcement, usually in the form of a eulogy, of the killing of AQC leaders. Some recent examples include the senior Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri and senior AQC ideologue and reputed operations chief Atiyyatullah al-Libi, whose real name was Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati. Kashmiri was reported to have been killed last June in a U.S. drone missile strike in South Waziristan but his death was not confirmed by AQC until March in an audiovisual release from Ahmad Faruq, the organization’s chief representative in Pakistan, who is a prolific lecturer and star of AQC’s Urdu-language missionary preaching (da‘wa) campaign. Atiyyatullah was reportedly killed in a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan on August 22 of last year but his death was not officially confirmed until early December in a video message from AQC’s amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri’s eulogy for Atiyyatullah was included in the eighth installment of the Egyptian militant’s series on post-Mubarak Egypt, A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings for Our People in Egypt.
Abu Yahya began his career as a revolutionary jihadi in the 1980s when he traveled with scores of other Libyans to Afghanistan to participate in fighting the Soviets and Afghan Communists. Beginning his militant career as a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, he only joined AQC following his 2005 escape from the U.S. military prison at Bagram, Afghanistan. Before his 2002 arrest in the Pakistani port city of Karachi he had worked as the webmaster for the Afghan Taliban. Following his escape Abu Yahya steadily rose within AQC’s ranks and da‘wa campaign, becoming a mainstay in the media productions of the organization’s Al-Sahab Media Foundation. He also was a prolific writer whose work was frequently published by the Al-Fajr Media Center, the shadowy transnational jihadi media network that coordinates the online distribution of all media materials produced by AQC, AQAP, AQIM, and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
The transnational jihadi current, represented most publicly by AQC, has long suffered from a deficit in religious and juridical legitimacy since many of its senior leaders and ideologues lack the credentials to even masquerade as religious jurists and scholars. This deficit made those ideologues who possessed at least some scholarly credentials, such as Abu Yahya, all the more valuable to transnational jihadis. Although AQC never fully elaborated upon his exact credentials, Abu Yahya was aided by his personal charisma and talents as an orator and rhetorician. As a member of AQC he continued cultivating his image as a battlefield jurist, an image that he began to develop after his escape from Bagram in videos produced by the Afghan Taliban-affiliated Labayk Media.
Following the Pakistani government’s siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Pakistan in July 2007, AQC ratcheted up its verbal attacks on the legitimacy of the Pakistani state, and moved beyond only criticizing then-president Pervez Musharraf and senior political and military leaders. Abu Yahya was at the forefront of this campaign, serving as one of the juridical architects of AQC’s attack on the Pakistani state. In 2009, the Al-Fajr Media Center published a 29-page treatise he penned, Sharpening the Spearheads to Fight the Government and Army of Pakistan, which was meant to serve as a comprehensive juridical treatise legitimizing the targeting of the Pakistani state. Marshaling selectively chosen Qur’anic verses, hadith traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and citations from classical and medieval Muslim jurists and scholars, Abu Yahya’s treatise was a multi-layered, systematic attack on the legitimacy of the Pakistani state, which he accused of both failing to implement Islamic law (shari‘a), as he defined it, and actively persecuting those Muslims who seek to fulfill their duty of jihad. The rulers of Pakistan and the commanders of its military forces represent, according to Abu Yahya, sinful, idolatrous tyrants (taghut) in league with the enemies of Islam, led by the United States. He argued that it was thus the duty of all Pakistani Muslims to fight them and work toward overthrowing them. From a legal (shar‘i) perspective, he argued, there was no legitimate excuse not to fight these rulers. Abu Yahya was thanked by al-Zawahiri for his help in preparing the latter’s 65-page monograph attacking the "un-Islamic" Pakistani constitution, which was released in mid-December 2009.
In July 2009, during a then-ongoing offensive by the Pakistani military against the Swat Taliban, Abu Yahya appealed to the country’s religious scholars (‘ulama) and "students of knowledge" (tulab al-‘ilm) to "clarify the truth" to the Pakistani people with regards to the "legitimacy" of the "mujahideen" in their struggle against a corrupt, sinful state. He accused the Pakistani state of perpetrating a massacre in Swat against both the "mujahideen" and ordinary Muslims who only sought to fully implement the shari‘a. The attacks by the Pakistani state, like those of the Yemeni state, against jihadis was an example of the "new form" of warfare being employed by the U.S. government — that of its "agents" and proxies, he said in a sermon marking the annual Muslim religious holiday of Eid al-Adha last year.
In addition to serving as AQC’s unofficial chief religious jurist (mufti), Abu Yahya was popular among the transnational jihadi grassroots, represented by users of jihadi Internet forums, AQC’s rank-and-file, and the regional affiliates such as AQAP, AQIM, and Al-Shabab. When rumors arose in December 2009 that he had been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, cyber jihadis reacted with dismay at the possibility and were relieved when it became clear that the Libyan ideologue had not, in fact, been killed. Abu Yahya’s writings, sermons, and audio and video messages are widely cited by AQC’s regional affiliates. He is particularly popular with AQIM and Al-Shabab. AQIM has quoted him in a number of its videos, particularly in installments of its series The Shade of Swords, which documents ambushes of Algerian security forces and army personnel. Al-Shabab has long relied on Abu Yahya’s juridical views and ideological positions to defend its actions. The Somali insurgent movement has quoted him in its videos since at least 2008, including in a martyrdom video dedicated to the founder of Al-Shabab, Adan Hashi Farah Ayro. In a video released in mid-October 2009 documenting the execution of two alleged spies, Al-Shabab’s media department quoted at length a 2009 book written by Abu Yahya on the shari‘a punishment for spying. Somalia was a favorite topic of Abu Yahya’s and he recorded several video messages for Al-Shabab on the ongoing conflict in that country. In his Eid al-Adha sermon last year Abu Yahya argued that the Kenyan military intervention in Somalia was the latest example of America’s proxy war against Islam. He was also widely respected by other jihadi leaders such as Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s military commander, who has referred to him as one of the "leaders of jihad." In addition to AQC’s affiliates, Abu Yahya served, it seems, as one of the emissaries of Osama bin Laden to regional allies such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The Libyan also maintained ties to other groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan such as the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uzbek jihadi group.
Following his reported killing, U.S. government officials alleged that Abu Yahya had risen to the rank of AQC’s deputy leader (amir) and a key operational leader. The evidence of his operational role, at least in open source materials, is inconclusive. However, his importance as a senior ideologue has been well-established. Even if he had an operational role, the Libyan’s most important contribution was as a widely-cited and respected jihadi juridical voice and missionary preacher who was a key defender of AQC’s positions. The organization’s sole remaining publicly-known juridical voice, Khalid al-Husaynan, has emerged as a major figure in AQC’s da‘wa campaign but is not widely cited by either the transnational jihadi grassroots or other organizations such as AQAP, AQIM, and Al-Shabab. It is unclear whether or not he will be able to step into Abu Yahya’s very large shoes.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.