Reports of his demise were not greatly exaggerated.

Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan, an American official confirmed on Tuesday, in the biggest single success in the controversial campaign’s eight-year history…

Characterizing what the loss would mean to Al Qaeda, the American official said: “Zawahri will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into Abu Yahya’s shoes — in addition to his gravitas as a longstanding member of AQ’s leadership, Abu Yahya’s religious credentials gave him the authority to issue fatwas, operational approvals, and guidance to the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates. There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise AQ has just lost.”

A “senior Pakistani official” told the Times he had no independent confirmation of al-Libi’s death but other Pakistani intel sources reportedly heard from locals at the scene that he was inside a house in Waziristan when it was hit by a missile. An unnamed Taliban leader who spoke to Reuters called it a “big loss” and said, “After Doctor Sahib (al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri), he was the main al Qaeda leader.” The White House is confident enough in what they’ve heard that Jay Carney saw fit to mention it at today’s briefing. My sense of al-Libi is that he was more like Anwar al-Awlaki than any other prominent AQ chieftain insofar as he was known mainly for his preaching/propagandizing but evidently was an operational mover-and-shaker behind the scenes as well. More from NBC:

Pakistan security reports indicated the pre-dawn strike killed 15 insurgents, with a total of nearly 30 killed in three weekend attacks. A U.S. official challenged those numbers, telling NBC News that the death toll was “less than a handful.”…

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterize him as irreplaceable in his expertise, ability and influence…

In May 2011, shortly after bin Laden was killed, U.S. officials identified Abu Yahya as one of five potential successors to the slain al-Qaida leaders. The leading candidate, Ayman al Zawahiri, ultimately did succeed bin Laden. The other four potential successors now have all been killed in drone strikes.

Have a look at the graphic (from Reuters) that NBC chose to accompany its piece. It actually undersells the success Obama and the CIA have had with drones: Atiyah Abdel Rahman, AQ’s field general, is listed as being at large but he was actually liquidated last year. Ilyas Kashmiri, another jihadi mastermind in the making, was eliminated three months before Atiyah and he’s not mentioned in the Reuters graphic at all. Unless I’m forgetting someone, there are only three big-name Al Qaeda members left. One is Saif al-Adel, who may or may not still be under house arrest in Iran; the second is Adnan al-Shukrijumah, who was identified as a major threat by U.S. officials not long after 9/11 and really hasn’t been seen since; and the third is Zawahiri himself. If the intelligence we’re getting on the ground is now strong enough to let us reach even someone as important as al-Libi, there’s no reason to think Zawahiri will last much longer. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Petraeus and company already have a hunch where he is and, a la Bin Laden, Obama and his national security team are now weighing whether to use drones or to try to grab him. Another military incursion deep inside Pakistan would risk a permanent rupture of relations, but if he’s hiding in or around a major city, the White House might decide that a blunt instrument like a drone strike is too dicey. Tough call.

Go read this post from lefty Michael Tomasky spiking the football over yet another drone-driven success. It’s important to bookmark stuff like that now, because if/when Romney becomes president, liberal CW on drones will move instantly from appreciation for a surgical counterterror weapon that dismantled Al Qaeda to horror at a brutal automated killer that spares neither the guilty nor the innocent on the ground. It’s coming, so prepare.