Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of al-Qaida's top strategists, and seen as the most prominent figure in the network after leader Ayman al Zawahri, may have been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said on Tuesday.
If his death is confirmed it would be the biggest blow to al-Qaida since U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in a secret raid in Pakistan in May 2011.
U.S. sources said Libi, a Libyan cleric with a degree in chemistry who has survived previous attacks by drone aircraft, was a target of a strike early on Monday in northwest Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, home to some of the world's most notorious militant groups.
Sajjan Gohel, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation security research consultancy, said Libi was one of the few remaining key figures within al Qaeda's core.
"Libi has also been at the centre of al Qaeda's plans to reconstitute itself and try and remount a trans-national terror campaign. This is one of the reasons he was viewed as a high value target," he told told Reuters by email.
Some U.S. officials describe Libi, whose real name is Mohamed Hassan Qaid, as number two to Zawahri, the former Egyptian doctor who took over al-Qaida after bin Laden's death.
Pakistani intelligence officials told Reuters they believe Libi, which means Libyan in Arabic, may have been among seven foreign militants killed in Monday's strike by a drone aircraft.
One of the officials said Pakistani authorities had intercepted telephone chatter about Libi, an al-Qaida theologian and expert on new media whose escape from a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan in 2005 made him famous in al-Qaida circles.
"We intercepted some conversations between militants. They were talking about the death of a 'sheikh'," one of the Pakistani intelligence officials said, referring to the title given to senior religious leaders.
"They did not name this person but we have checked with our sources in the area and believe they are referring to Libi."
The intelligence official said according to informants, Libi was seriously wounded in the strike and was taken to a private hospital where he died.
However, a militant commander in North Waziristan closely associated with foreign fighters however said: "He has not been killed. This is not the first time claims have been made about his death. The Americans are suffering heavy losses in Afghanistan so they have resorted to making false claims."
It can take months to confirm whether drone strikes have killed an Islamist militant leader because the area of the attack is often sealed off by the Taliban in the lawless northwest of Pakistan.
Burials are quick in order to hide casualties and identities.
Residents of the village where Pakistani intelligence officials says Libi may have been killed, Hesokhel, noted an unusually high number of militants gathered there after the drone strike on Monday and they kept people away.
"They usually bury the bodies after a drone strike in the nearest graveyard," said one of the villagers, describing the aftermath of previous strikes in the area. "This time they put all the bodies in their cars and took them away."
A senior Taliban commander in North Waziristan said Libi had been living in Pakistan near the Afghan border since 2005 when he escaped along with three cell mates from the Bagram military base north of Kabul, where U.S. forces run what is considered the most secure U.S. prison in Afghanistan.
Militants often looked up to Libi because of his background as a religious scholar and sought his advice in resolving disputes, the Taliban commander said.
For the United States, Libi is one of al-Qaida's most dangerous figures. In September last year, the United States Treasury imposed financial sanctions against him. It said Libi, in his late 40s, released 68 public messages on al-Qaida's behalf and was second in visibility only to Zawahri.
Recently released letters written by bin Laden and captured during the U.S. raid in which he was killed last year show Libi to have been one of a handful of al-Qaida officials relied upon by bin Laden to argue al-Qaida's case to a worldwide audience of militants, in particular to the young.
Believed to have received more theological training than either bin Laden or Zawahri, Libi has a multi-faceted reputation as a man of action, a jihadi scholar and a populist propagandist.
He was also a unifying figure in al-Qaida, said Gohel.
"There has often been a terse relationship between the Libyan and Egyptian factions within al-Qaida and it is believed that Libi had bridged that gap," said Gohel.
"His death 'if confirmed' will be another significant blow to al-Qaida and another example that the controversial drone strike policy is working."
A Western expert on al-Libi, U.S. scholar Jarret Brachman, wrote on his blog: "If true (Libi's death), (this would be) a cataclysmic blow to the future of al-Qaida's General Command. For my money, there's no recovering from this one."
Some analysts say the death of an al-Qaida leader does not necessarily spell disaster for the group, arguing it is de-centralised and offers inspiration to militants and not just logistical support or financing.
If a drone strike did kill Libi, it would bolster the American argument that the unmanned aircraft are a highly effective weapon against militants.
Pakistan says that, while the CIA-run drone campaign has some advantages, it fuels anti-American sentiment and is counterproductive because of collateral damage.
Drones are a sticking point in talks between the United States and Pakistan aimed at repairing ties damaged by a series of issues, including the recent imprisonment of the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA hunt down bin Laden.
According to reports from North Waziristan, which U.S. government sources did not contest, U.S. drones launched three attacks along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan from Saturday to Monday.
Reports from Pakistan said nearly 30 people were killed in the strikes, including 15 in the strike in which Libi was targeted.
Libi, reportedly born in 1963, made repeated appearances on al-Qaida videos and wrote prolifically, becoming one of the group's most prominent media warriors.
Brachman, also a biographer, says Libi was seen as having made al-Qaida "cool" for a younger generation.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.