In reporting on the recent capture of Al Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libbi, many news outlets -- including the Associated Press, USA Today, CNN, and The Boston Globe -- echoed claims by the Bush administration and Pakistani officials, who described al-Libbi as Al Qaeda's "third-in-command." But these outlets have generally failed to qualify these initial reports, even as European intelligence officials and U.S. terrorism experts have questioned al-Libbi's role in the organization, describing him as a " 'middle-level' leader" and even raising doubts about the captive's true identity.
The Libyan-born al-Libbi was Pakistan's most wanted man for his involvement in two plots to kill Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, according to numerous news reports. Following al-Libbi's May 2 capture in Pakistan, President Bush described al-Libbi as "a top general for [Osama] bin Laden," and "a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al Qaeda network," declaring al-Libbi's arrest a "critical victory in the war on terror." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called al-Libbi a "field general," saying, "[t]his is a truly significant arrest."
But over the past week, doubts about al-Libbi's role in Al Qaeda have surfaced -- doubts that potentially undermine the administration's claims. A May 8 article in London's Sunday Times quoted several sources questioning al-Libbi's importance within Al Qaeda. According to French intelligence investigator and leading expert on terrorism finance Jean-Charles Brisard, "Al-Libbi is just a 'middle-level' leader. ... 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." The Times also quoted "a senior FBI official" admitting that al-Libbi's "influence and position have been overstated."
Similarly, a May 6 op-ed in the New York Sun (subscription required) by Christopher Brown, a member of the Transitions to Democracy project at the conservative Hudson Institute, lamented "the incorrect assertion that Mr. al-Libbi was the operational chief of the Al Qaeda network." Brown wrote that al-Libbi was not a likely candidate for al Qaeda's third-in-command, noting that Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian terrorist who does appear on the FBI's most wanted list, likely became al Qaeda's "military commander" in 2003. Al-Adel has been implicated in "every major al Qaeda operation," according to Brown; by contrast, al-Libbi is apparently tied to terrorist plots in Pakistan alone, and has "never appeared on America's list of most-wanted terrorists."
The Los Angeles Times quoted a Congressional Research Service analyst saying that "[t]here may be some grade inflation going on" in claims about al-Libbi's (also known as Abu Faraj Farj) importance.
The Sunday Times article also noted that al-Libbi was not on the FBI or State Department terrorism lists: "One American official tried to explain the absence of al-Libbi's name on the wanted list by saying: 'We did not want him to know he was wanted.'" Speculating that some confusion may exist over who was actually apprehended, the Times noted:
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.
CNN published a May 10 column on its website by senior producer Henry Shuster that discussed questions about al-Libbi's status. But CNN's television coverage on May 10 and 11 continued to refer to al-Libbi as Al Qaeda's "operations man," or "the terror suspect described as Al Qaeda's third in command." A Nexis search produced no instances of CNN reporting on the dispute over al-Libbi's disputed status since his capture. CNN did note al-Libbi's questionable status prior to his capture, however. Justice correspondent Kelli Arena reported on the September 10, 2004, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight:
ARENA: Intelligence officials say there is evidence Osama bin Laden is still involved in planning, but beyond that, the new command structure is unclear. For example, Pakistani officials are currently searching for Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who is described as an operational planner. Some say he is among the most of the senior operatives. Others aren't so sure. Even more complicated: untangling the web of affiliates.
A Media Matters for America Nexis search revealed that few U.S. media outlets have noted the questions surrounding al-Libbi's status. The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the New York Daily News have each published articles that mention the dispute. The Christian Science Monitor described al-Libbi as "Al Qaeda's new No. 3 leader" in a May 5 article reporting on his capture. The Monitor did subsequently address al-Libbi's disputed importance -- not in print, but in a May 10 "Terrorism & Security" online column. The Boston Globe ran a May 12 letter to the editor that noted the dispute over al-Libbi's importance, but no Globe news articles have addressed the issue.