WASHINGTON -- A senior national security adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign downplayed the importance of a drone strike in Pakistan that killed al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, but other Republicans gave President Barack Obama kudos for taking out another key terrorist figure.
The death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda's chief propagandist and one of its most seasoned operatives, was confirmed by a U.S. official on Tuesday. It's being portrayed by some as the most important setback for the terror network since Osama bin Laden was killed last year.
"If true, it eliminates an experienced leader," said the Romney adviser, who replied to an email on condition his name not be revealed. "But not a game changer."
That reaction contrasted sharply with the views of another Romney adviser, former CIA Director Michael Hayden. When asked for his reaction, he referred The Huffington Post to his "Hayden 7" list that ran in Forbes magazine last November. The list named al-Libi among the most influential players on global security and called him "al Qaeda's emerging rock star."
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has accused the Obama administration of making political hay out of bin Laden's killing by sharing sensitive information with a Hollywood director about the fatal Navy SEAL raid. But the New York Republican on Tuesday called al-Libi's demise "another very important development."
Michael Rubin, a leading neoconservative scholar who focuses on terrorism at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed on the significance of the strike.
"These decapitation strikes are important and President Obama deserves credit for his counterterrorism success," Rubin said in an email. "After the bin Laden raid, U.S. forces acquired a treasure trove of intelligence about other al Qaeda leaders, but as soon as the first tweet went out that Americans were at bin Laden's compound, the clock started ticking down on the utility of that intelligence as al Qaeda operatives changed plans and scrambled for cover. That the United States continues its counter-terror success a year after bin Laden's demise is hugely important and strikes a blow at the capability of the group to organize new attacks, especially as so many operations remain compartmentalized."
Rubin cautioned, however, that the drone strikes are likely to drive al Qaeda's remaining leaders to flee the remote tribal territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and seek shelter in densely populated urban areas of Pakistan’s Punjab region. Such a move will make the United States' task harder, he suggested.
"It's bad enough when drone strikes miss and kill a handful of Pakistan civilians," Rubin wrote. "When drone strikes miss in Lahore, however, hundreds can die and that will be a game-changer."
For now, though, intelligence experts said the significance of the strike cannot be underestimated.
"This fellow is close to being irreplaceable, in terms of longevity, expertise and religious legitimacy within the organization," said Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who later headed the agency's Counterterrorism Center. "You could plausibly make the argument that his loss is more serious than that of bin Laden himself, given that al-Libi was a key operational commander and that bin Laden can continue to act as a symbol even in death. Whatever one may think of the drone program otherwise, this is the sort of target which justifies its use."
Michael Hurley, a counterterrorism expert who worked on the 9/11 Commission, said via email that taking out "a big fish" like al-Libi shows "that we will keep pursuing the terrorists regardless of how long it takes. This has to be very worrying to [al Qaeda chief Ayman] al Zawahiri and others as well as to other aspiring AQ leaders."
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South East Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, said by email that the loss of the Libyan-born strategist is a "huge blow" given the dwindling number of original Arab members of al Qaeda's inner circle.
"It also speaks to the use of good ground intelligence," Nawaz wrote. "If the US can operate in this manner, it may not have much of an incentive to negotiate with Pakistan. And the drone operation may then become the tail that wags the dog of US policy in the region."
But not everyone with national security expertise was impressed.
Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the end of al-Libi is good news because it silences a propagandist who had called for attacks on Americans. But he added there is little evidence that the al Qaeda leader was more than a mouthpiece.
"I cannot find any failed, let alone successful, plots that he is said to have organized or carried out," said Friedman. "Absent evidence that he was a successful terrorist, it's [too much to] say that his death much contributes to our security."
He observed that al Qaeda had been far weaker than generally portrayed in the media even before bin Laden's death and "had practically ceased to exist, except, of course, as a brand." Al-Libi's killing may make "a very small threat smaller. I say maybe because in doing so, we may be enraging new sets of terrorists," Friedman warned.
Tom Fuentes, a former director of the FBI's Office of International Operations, also was more measured in his reaction, predicting in an email how the development would be spun: "It means #3 moves up to #2. AQ is down but not out. They were already weakened before bin Laden's death. The experts will say it's a big deal. I think AQ will continue about the same."
Fuentes added that administration officials will trumpet the strike as "a tremendous blow to AQ until someone threatens to reduce their budgets. Then it's back to 'keep fear alive.'"
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