Ilyas Kashmiri: The Possible Death of an Al Qaeda Mastermind
On the morning of June 4, news agencies reported that Ilyas Kashmiri, a top al Qaeda leader and militant commander, was probably killed in a U.S. drone strike in South Waziristan. On July 7, after a month of conflicting statements from U.S. and Pakistani officials, U.S. counterterrorism agencies “confirmed” to the media their belief that Kashmiri was indeed dead. Just over a week later, however, a Pakistani news outlet disputed those claims, saying Kashmiri was still alive. Given the seniority of Kashmiri’s position within the al Qaeda network and his active role in plotting attacks, his death, if true, would be a major setback for al Qaeda, especially with it coming so close on the heels of the death of Osama bin Laden. If Kashmiri is alive, however, it means that one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives remains a threat at large.
Claims and Counterclaims
Late at night on Friday, June 3, U.S. drones fired several missiles at a congregation of men drinking tea in an apple orchard in the village of Ghwa Khwa, South Waziristan, just a few miles from Wana, the tribal agency’s main town. Nine men were killed in the strike, most of whom were reportedly militants of Punjabi origin.
On June 4, a militant named Abu Hanzala Kashir claiming to speak for the 313 Brigade of Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), the group that Kashmiri led, “confirmed” reports of Kashmiri’s death. "We confirm that our emir [leader] and commander in chief, Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, along with other companions, was martyred in an American drone strike on June 3, 2011, at 11:15 p.m….God willing…America will very soon see our full revenge….Our only target is America,” Hanzala stated in a message that was faxed to Pakistani media outlets. Later, another senior HuJI commander and close aide of Kashmiri’s, Qari Muhammad Idrees, also confirmed to news outlets that Kashmiri had been killed.
Weeks after the strike in South Waziristan, Kashmiri’s death continues to be hotly debated. Despite some initially contradictory statements between Pakistani and U.S. officials regarding the terror leader’s fate, on July 7 a U.S. official said U.S. counterterrorism agencies had now “confirmed to their satisfaction” that Ilyas Kashmiri was, in fact, killed in that strike. On July 15, however, a Pakistani news outlet citing unnamed sources claimed that Kashmiri was still alive and “active,” and that Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials had failed to confirm Kashmiri’s death.
Kashmiri’s status will be impossible to determine with 100 percent certainty, short of the viewing of a body or DNA evidence. Unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, responding to claims of discrepancies in the statements announcing Kashmiri’s death noted, however, that while the reports of Kashmiri’s death may be an elaborate ruse to throw U.S. and Pakistani intelligence off of Kashmiri’s scent, militant organizations have never previously used martyrdom announcements to fake the death of a senior leader.
A Dangerous Man
One reason for the protracted debate on whether or not Kashmiri has been killed is due to the fact that Kashmiri is one of the most important individuals in the wider al Qaeda network. His death could be one of the more important victories in the fight against al Qaeda and its associated movements (AQAM) in recent years. Kashmiri embodied a nexus between al Qaeda’s senior leadership and deep operational involvement in the plotting and execution of high-profile attacks.
Ilyas Kashmiri is one of al Qaeda’s most operationally active senior leaders. He has a long history of violence on his résumé and is responsible for, or has been implicated in, a number of the most serious terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and across the world. The fourth most-wanted man in Pakistan, Kashmiri carries a bounty on his head of $5 million. Additionally, Kashmiri has been extremely active in plotting terrorist attacks, including inside the United States and Europe. Furthermore, even before the death of bin Laden, and especially following it, Kashmiri has come to assume a central position in the al Qaeda senior leadership. His killing would likely impact al Qaeda’s operational capacities, given how personally involved Kashmiri is in planning attacks, and may impede al Qaeda’s short-term ability to reorganize itself in the turbulent wake of bin Laden’s death.
Ilyas Kashmiri fought in the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union during the 1980s where he developed an expertise in guerrilla warfare and the use of explosives, and was instrumental in forming the group that was later to become HuJI. Kashmiri later formed and led the 313 Brigade, an offshoot of HuJI, after differences with HuJI’s central leadership. HuJI and Kashmiri became infamous for their militant activity in Indian-administered Kashmir. Kashmiri initially received support from Pakistan’s intelligence establishment, but eventually turned his guns on the government after Pakistan banned and cracked down on many of the domestic anti-India and sectarian terrorist organizations in the wake of 9/11. Kashmiri was arrested after being implicated in plots to assassinate then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2003, but was released due to lack of evidence. Kashmiri moved his operations to North Waziristan in 2005 where he was “back on familiar grounds from his days fighting the Soviets.” In 2007, following the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad, Kashmiri seemed to have made a permanent break with the state and began targeting it in earnest. Many militant Islamist groups saw the government’s siege of the mosque as a turning point and used it as a fulcrum upon which they realigned themselves against the state. Kashmiri was later credited with launching, among other attacks, the audacious raids on Pakistan’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi in October 2009 and on naval base PNS Mehran in Karachi in May 2011. Both incidents were highly embarrassing to the Pakistani military.
Kashmiri’s targets extend beyond his native Kashmir and, over time, he has come to espouse the more internationalist ideology espoused by al Qaeda. In a rare interview with a Pakistani journalist, Saleem Shahzad, Kashmiri said “I and many people all across the world realized that….the defeat of American global hegemony is a must if I want the liberation of my homeland Kashmir.” Kashmiri masterminded some of the worst terrorist attacks in the region and was plotting large-scale violence against the West from his Waziristan lair. According to Shahzad, the 2008 Mumbai attack carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba was originally Kashmiri’s brainchild. Shahzad stated that Kashmiri hoped to cripple U.S.-Pakistani cooperation by involving Pakistan in a war with neighboring India; the Mumbai attacks were to be the trigger. If that was, indeed, Kashmiri’s plan, it nearly worked.
Kashmiri’s group was also credited with a later bombing in Pune, India, and Kashmiri was plotting with international terrorist and Mumbai attacks-conspirator David Coleman Headley to launch an assault on the Dutch offices of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper that was responsible for producing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Kashmiri threatens to be as dangerous in the future as he has demonstrated himself to be in the past and his target list includes Western interests outside of South Asia. In reference to the Mumbai attacks, Kashmiri said “that was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future.” In September 2010, Europe and the United States went on high alert after receiving intelligence reports that Kashmiri was plotting, along with German and Uzbek militants in North Waziristan, to launch a series of Mumbai-style raids in Germany and the U.K. According to the confession of a detained German Islamist, Ahmad Sidiqi, Kashmiri had told Sidiqi that he had dispatched strike teams to carry out attacks in Europe in a plot that had allegedly received the blessing of and even funding from bin Laden. Kashmiri had apparently also looked into the possibility of assassinating the CEO of Lockheed Martin in the U.S., out of the mistaken belief that Lockheed was responsible for building the drone aircraft that regularly pounded militants in North Waziristan.
The death of bin Laden gave Kashmiri new motivations and fresh clout to carry out new attacks. Kashmir’s name had been one of those mentioned as a possible successor to bin Laden, and in the aftermath of the May raid, Kashmiri stood up a “special squad” tasked with preparing and carrying out new devastating attacks to avenge the late al Qaeda founder’s death. Kashmiri allegedly plans to launch suicide bombings and commando raids in the northwest, Lahore, southern Punjab and Azad Kashmir, and to target diplomats and embassies in Pakistan, including those of the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Ports, airports, oil terminals and naval bases are all on the hit list. The PNS Mehran attack appears to have been one of the first major targets—the attacks bore the hallmarks of Kashmiri’s preferred commando raids.
Implications of Kashmiri’s Death
Kashmiri’s death, while highly possible, remains difficult to certify one way or the other without definitive proof. This fact highlights one of the drawbacks of using drone strikes in the targeting of enemy senior leadership. While drones remain highly effective and deadly tools, the chaotic aftermath of a strike makes it difficult to authenticate whether or not they killed their intended quarry. It is partly for this reason that the strike on Osama bin Laden was carried out by ground troops and not drones.
The death of Ilyas Kashmiri, if eventually confirmed, could not have come too soon. Kashmiri’s stock in al Qaeda was rising. In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, he was reportedly selected as one of three men to sit on al Qaeda’s new “special operations council” alongside Saif al Adel and Adnan al Shukrijumah, two of al Qaeda’s most senior operational figures. His links with other militant groups in Pakistan have been growing stronger. Kashmiri was targeted in an orchard belonging to a commander under Maulvi Nazir, the top militant in South Waziristan and an avowed al Qaeda ally, soon after he had arrived in the area. Kashmiri was reportedly in the process of shifting his operations to the area in order to escape a potential Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan.
American intelligence officials consider Kashmiri to be “among the most dangerous militant leaders in Pakistan today because of his training skills, commando experience and strategic vision to carry out attacks against Western targets.” Killing Kashmiri is a key step in stopping short his post-bin Laden ambitions. The death of such an operationally active senior leader, so soon after the morale blow of the death of bin Laden, would certainly not help al Qaeda’s self-esteem. Al Qaeda has shown remarkable resilience in the past to the death of its key operational figures, but the compounding wounds they are suffering, especially one such as might come from the death of Ilyas Kashmiri, will make that task more difficult than before.
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