From U.S. prison to the heights of Al Qaeda
By Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet
On the night of July 10, 2005, an obscure militant preacher named Abu Yahya al-Libi escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan and rocketed to fame in the world of jihadists.
The breakout from the Bagram Air Base by Libi and three cellmates - they picked a lock, dodged their guards and traversed the base's vast acreage to freedom - embarrassed U.S. officials as deeply as it delighted the jihadist movement. In the nearly three years since, Libi's meteoric ascent within the leadership of Al Qaeda has proved to be even more troublesome for the authorities.
Libi, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, is now considered to be a top strategist for Al Qaeda, as well as one of its most effective promoters of global jihad, appearing in a dozen videos on the Internet in the past year, counterterrorism officials said.
At a time when Al Qaeda seems more inspirational than operational, Libi stands out as a formidable star whose rise to prominence tracks the group's growing emphasis on information in its war with the West.
"I call him a man for all seasons for AQ," said Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is now research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and whose provocative studies on Al Qaeda have drawn praise from U.S. counterterrorism officials. "He's a warrior. He's a poet. He's a scholar. He's a pundit. He's a military commander. And he's a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement."
The secrecy that still envelops Al Qaeda's leadership structure makes such estimates speculative, other analysts noted.
But one Islamist insider said that in addition to youth and charisma, Libi had one skill that Al Qaeda's top leadership had been lacking: religious scholarship. Perhaps with this in mind, Al Qaeda is featuring Libi in as many of the videos as the group's two top leaders, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
"Bin Laden is an engineer and Zawahri is a medical doctor," said Muhammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident who lives in London. "So it is important that they also present someone who has the role of scholar."
The varied roles that Libi plays in these videos, from recruiter to ideological enforcer, also shed light on Al Qaeda's shifting tactics. In recent months, those tactics have come to include defensive maneuvers aimed at defusing the media counteroperations of the United States and its allies.
Astute and comfortable on video, Libi delivers his message with a preacher's cadence. His stylish black turban drapes down his chest, and he alternates between white Arabic robes and camouflage jackets.
"O Muslim youth in the East and West, who listen to God calling you: 'Go forth to war, whether it be easy or difficult for you, and strive hard in God's cause with your possessions and your lives,' " he said in a video sermon released this year.
1) From U.S. prison to the heights of Al Qaeda