Tensions flare after US drones strike top al Qaeda leader's hideout in Pakistan

U.S. drones destroyed the Pakistani hideout of al Qaeda's No. 2 commander on Monday, inciting public protests from Islamabad and prompting a senior-level meeting between American and Pakistani diplomats on Tuesday.

Abu Yahya al-Libi was reportedly one of the 15 individuals killed when U.S. drones launched the airstrike against the suspected al Qaeda hideout, located in North Waziristan along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

On Tuesday, a U.S. official confirmed to The Hill that al-Libi was one of the 15 killed during the Monday airstrike. 

“Abu Yahya was among al-Qaeda’s most experienced and versatile leaders ... and played a critical role in the group’s planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts," the official said. 

DOD spokesman Capt. John Kirby declined to comment on the incident during a briefing at The Pentagon 

Al-Libi's senior position in al Qaeda allowed him to issue "fatwas," or religious declarations of war against targets in the West, according to the U.S. official. 

He also had the final say on any new terror operations the group planned to launch, and was a key liaison between "the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates," the official said. 

"There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise [al Qaeda] has just lost," the official added.

The unmanned airstrike was the third such attack carried out by U.S. military and intelligence forces in Pakistan in as many days.

The strike drew sharp condemnation from Islamabad, which has repeatedly pressed the United States to end the controversial counterterrorism tactic inside its borders.

On Tuesday, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador Richard Hoagland was summoned to Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the wave of recent drone strikes.

During the meeting, Hoagland "officially conveyed the government’s serious concern regarding drone strikes in Pakistani territory,” according to a ministry statement released on Tuesday.

“He was informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” it added.

Pakistan had demanded outright cancellation of all American-led unmanned airstrikes inside its borders before it would even consider re-opening critical supply lines into Afghanistan to U.S. and coalition forces. 

If confirmed, al-Libi will be the second top-tier al Qaeda leader to be taken out by American unmanned drones. 

In late May, the Pentagon confirmed Sakhr al-Taifi, the group's second-in-command in Afghanistan, was killed by a U.S. aerial drone in Kunar Province in Eastern Afghanistan.

Taifi was responsible for coordinating al Qaeda forces in the country and was the liaison between the Afghan insurgency and the group's leadership headquartered in Pakistan, according to recent reports.

The Taifi and al-Libi attacks were likely carried out under the White House's newly expanded authority governing unmanned airstrikes.

U.S. military and intelligence officials can now launch airstrikes under the assumption any individual in or around a suspected terror target — whether it's a house, car or building — can be considered terrorist suspects.

If those individuals are killed during an American drone strike, those deaths can be counted as legitimate kills, even if there is no tangible proof those killed in an airstrike had any terrorist ties.

That new authority has allowed American drones operated by U.S. military and intelligence officers to hammer away at suspected terror targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen with increased accuracy and lethality in recent weeks.

But critics argue the expanded drone-strike policy includes loopholes allowing the White House to claim drops in collateral damage, when in reality the strikes are no safer to civilians than before.

— This story was first posted at 12:54 p.m. and has been updated.