Doubts persist over whether or not Ilyas Kashmiri, the head of al-Qaeda’s operational arm, has been killed in a United States Predator drone strike in Pakistan, with speculation swirling that reports of his demise might be a ploy to take the heat off the most wanted man in the region.
Kashmiri, 46, the operational commander of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami militant group and its 313 Brigade, was reported by intelligence officials in Pakistan on Sunday to have been killed in a drone attack on Friday in the South Waziristan Agency tribal area on the border with Afghanistan.
His body, however, has not been found, leading to doubts over the veracity of the claims.
Kashmiri, a highly trained militant who once served as a commander in the Special Services Group of the Pakistan army, has previously twice been reported killed, on 7 and 14 September, 2009. He is wanted in connection with a number of major terrorist attacks in Pakistan and India, including the three-day militant attack on Mumbai in November 2008 in which 163 people were killed.
Most recently, he is believed to have masterminded the brazen attack on a naval air base in the southern port city of Karachi on May 22. (See Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strike Asia Times Online, May 27.)
Kashmiri, the only Pakistani militant to have risen high into al-Qaeda’s ranks, was appointed “acting chairman” by Saif Al Adel, the Egyptian chief military strategist of al-Qaeda who is de facto acting as a replacement for Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan last month.
Kashmiri is known to have wanted to reignite conflict between Pakistan and India, diverting Islamabad’s attention from Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas and preventing India from playing a strategic role. In February 2010 he wrote to Asia Times Online with a warning along these lines. (See Al-Qaeda chief delivers a warning.)
Kashmiri was born in Pakistani-administered Kashmir in 1964. He lost a finger and an eye during the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Most photographs show him wearing aviator sunglasses. He is an expert in guerilla warfare and notorious for his cunning, honed in the struggle against the Indian armed forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan bureau chief kidnapped and killed this month in Pakistan, wrote of Kashmiri:
Ilyas Kashmir was once a hero figure of the Kashmiri separatist movement, but he fell from official grace when Islamabad, under pressure from the United States, wound down operations in Kashmir and diverted its attention to the Pakistani tribal areas to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Ilyas Kashmir was arrested by the military [in 2003] on concocted charges of plotting to murder then-president General Pervez Musharraf in 2003. After being released he left Kashmir, abandoning the jihad there, and settled in the North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. (See The rise and rise of the neo-Taliban Asia Times Online, April 2, 2009.)
American intelligence agencies and top military officials say that Kashmiri is the most dangerous of men due to his training skills and commando expertise. The US has placed a bounty of US$5 million on his head following the galvanizing effect he has had on the Taliban in Afghanistan, and labeled him a “specially designated global terrorist.”
Dead or alive?
According to two private Pakistani news channels, Express TV and Saman TV, a man who called himself Abu Hanzallah and claimed to be a spokesman for 313 Brigade confirmed that Kashmiri had been killed. He added that the group would take revenge against the Americans.
Video footage received from unidentified sources aired by private Pakistani news channels showed the bodies of nine people in a garden, none of them identifiable. However, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the media: “All ground intelligence shows that he is dead. What I can say is there is a 98% chance he is dead.”
Hameed Ullah Khan, a resident of South Waziristan, told Asia Times Online he had heard the news of Kashmiri’s death in Ghwakhwa, a village in the Wana area of South Waziristan, but added “it would be difficult to confirm at this stage”.
At least 18 militants have been reported killed in a series of attacks in South Waziristan by pilotless Central Intelligence Agency drones following the one in which Kashmiri is said to have been killed.
Contacts in the Inter-Service Intelligence of Pakistan told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity that the confirmation received by the Pakistani media over Kashmiri’s death could be a move by Kashmiri to save his life as he is top of the most wanted lists of US and Pakistan forces.
Other contacts claim that 14 people were in the compound targeted by the drone’s missiles and that five escaped – Kashmiri could have been one of these. However, the contacts added that confirmation of the death of most-wanted militants often takes a couple of weeks for the security forces and agencies to counter-check.
However, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said on Monday in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, that the United States had confirmed the death of Kashmiri. The US subsequently denied this was the case.
If, though, Kashmiri is dead, in practical operational terms, al-Qaeda and its militant associates would have been dealt a bigger blow than the death of Bin Laden.