The “Death” of Ilyas Kashmiri: Has Another Key al-Qaeda Leader Bitten the Dust?

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BBC Urdu reports that U.S. drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal agency of South Waziristan have killed eight militants, including Ilyas Kashmiri, a notorious jihadist who some suspect could even be al-Qaeda’s top operational commander. The U.S. had placed a $5 million bounty on Kashmiri’s head — the grizzled fighter is linked to terror attacks across South Asia. He has evaded pursuers in the past: in 2009, reports circulated that he was slain by a drone strike in North Waziristan. But Kashmiri, known for always wearing Rayban sunglasses after losing an eye while fighting the Soviets, emerged unscathed. It appears now that his luck has run out.

Kashmiri’s background, like that of most top al-Qaeda operatives, is shrouded in uncertainties. As his alias indicates, he was born in Mirpur, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and was raised with a healthy animosity toward India. There are conflicting reports as to whether he ever served in the Pakistani Army, but it’s clear he trained and fought among the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedin fighting the Soviets, a struggle that saw him lose both an eye and a finger. Joining the fundamentalists, Kashmiri went on to become an instrumental member of the Harkat-ul Jihadi-al-Islami, known as HUJI, a terrorist outfit that seeks to chase India out of the Kashmir valley, but also is linked to bomb plots in the West. According to Indian authorities, HUJI has spent years fueling fundamentalist terrorism, a key player (from dens in neighboring South Asian states like Bangladesh) in the insurgent activity roiling Kashmir and an accomplice to shocking assaults like the 2009 Mumbai terror strikes. For the Indians, bringing figures like Kashmiri to justice precedes any negotiated peace with Pakistan.

Kahmiri, 45, is believed to head what’s known as the “313 brigade,” one of six operational units that make up the Lashkar al-Zil, al-Qaeda’s evocatively named “shadow army.” According to some Pakistani reporters, the 313 brigade was behind the recent assault on a prominent Pakistani naval base near Karachi, an embarrassing raid that saw two multi-million dollar American-made surveillance aircraft reduced to scrap metal. Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistani journalist whose murder last week (possibly at the hands of Pakistan’s notorious military intelligence agency, the ISI) made international headlines, is one of the only reporters to have interviewed Kashmiri — an excellent piece that’s worth reading. Shahzad has long speculated on the links between al-Qaeda figures like Kashmiri and sympathizers within the Pakistani military establishment and the ISI; his last ever article traced the connection in the context of the Karachi navy base raid. It’s an investigative interest that likely led Shahzad to an early grave.

Yet if Kashmiri has indeed been taken out, then it’s a positive step forward. Al-Qaeda has lost one of its most important strategic operatives, a man who, along with Saif al-Adel, was possibly running the show. Moreover, Kashmiri was always on the move in Pakistan’s tribal areas, wary of the drones seeking him — it would have required real local intelligence to find him and may be a sign that Pakistan’s military is finally coming around to purging some of the demons in its midst. Or at least, in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s discovery and death, making a damn good show of doing so.