Was al-Libbi Al Qaeda’s Number Three?

There is serious doubt as to whether Abu Faraj al-Libbi, captured last week by the Pakistanis to great fanfare, was indeed al Qaeda’s number three man.

Captured Al-Qaeda kingpin is case of “mistaken identity” (Times of London)

THE capture of a supposed Al-Qaeda kingpin by Pakistani agents last week was hailed by President George W Bush as “a critical victory in the war on terrorâ€. According to European intelligence experts, however, Abu Faraj al-Libbi was not the terrorists’ third in command, as claimed, but a middle-ranker derided by one source as “among the flotsam and jetsam†of the organisation.

Al-Libbi’s arrest in Pakistan, announced last Wednesday, was described in the United States as “a major breakthrough†in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Bush called him a “top general†and “a major facilitator and chief planner for the Al- Qaeda networkâ€. Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, said he was “a very important figureâ€. Yet the backslapping in Washington and Islamabad has astonished European terrorism experts, who point out that the Libyan was neither on the FBI’s most wanted list, nor on that of the State Department “rewards for justice†programme.

Another Libyan is on the FBI list — Anas al-Liby, who is wanted over the 1998 East African embassy bombings — and some believe the Americans may have initially confused the two. When The Sunday Times contacted a senior FBI counter-terrorism official for information about the importance of the detained man, he sent material on al-Liby, the wrong man. “Al-Libbi is just a ‘middle-level’ leader,†said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French intelligence investigator and leading expert on terrorism finance. “Pakistan and US authorities have completely overestimated his role and importance. He was never more than a regional facilitator between Al-Qaeda and local Pakistani Islamic groups.†According to Brisard, the arrested man lacks the global reach of Al-Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s number two, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, or Anas al-Liby.

Although British intelligence has evidence of telephone calls between al-Libbi and operatives in the UK, he is not believed to be Al-Qaeda̢۪s commander of operations in Europe, as reported.

Quite bizarre and embarrasing if true. While it’s long been pointed out by critics that Western intelligence lacks a proper order of march for al Qaeda, one would think we would know who the top leadership is. Or, if we don’t, that we would refrain from holding major press conferences until we had better information.

Dan Darling is not buying it.

No offense, but it’s pretty insulting for these anonymous European officials to assert that our guys can’t tell the difference between two high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives, do they think that all those Libyan terrorists look alike to the CIA? Abu Faraj has either psoriasis or leucoderma, while Anas suffers from neither. Moreover, we have Anas’s fingerprints from his UK flat when it was raided and unless he has undergone reconstructive surgery he still has that comic book villain-esque scar on the left side of his face. Anas, I believe, is also somewhat shorter than Abu Faraj. I highlight all of these differences between the two men to try and illustrate just how patently absurd it is that the US would have mistaken the two men. There is also the small point that even if we had, it still wouldn’t have led to mischaracterizations of al-Libbi as the al-Qaeda third-in-command, since Anas al-Liby, while an important member of the group’s ruling council, is not himself that high up in the pecking order.

(Darling cites a different story, thus the “anonymous” reference.) He provides substantial background information indicating that, at least, our team can differentiate al-Libbi from al-Libby. On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like other man was al Qaeda’s ops chief. Somebody’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Still, one wonders what’s in the vaunted notebook discussed yesterday. . . .

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Excellent, let us all just forget for a moment, that none of the 9-11 hijackers were in Al Qaida’s top three. I’m curious on Sept 10, 2001 if you were in charge, would you have been more interested in a name Laden, or Atta?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Paul: The question isn’t whether capturing the guy was a good thing; obviously, it was. The question is why he is being touted as the #3 guy if he’s not that. If he is “merely” a well-connected mid-level guy, he could be a big catch. But it makes us look like buffoons if we issue false reports.

  3. Paul says:

    Your right about releasing to the media before even the incidental facts are solid. There is enough justifiable bad press. To give more due to negligence definitely justifies your word Buffoons.

  4. Joe Tucker says:

    As of today, Monday, it appears that this story has still gone nowhere. On Sunday, all the morning political shows mentioned the capture of Al-Liby but none mentioned the Time Of London article or suggestion there was any question or would be further scrutiny of Al Liby’s actual station within the Al Qaeda organization.