06.04.11

Al Qaeda Commander Ilyas Kashmiri Killed in U.S. Predator Strike

In a major blow to the terrorist organization, a U.S. Predator strike in Pakistan killed one of al Qaeda's most active leaders, Ilyas Kashmiri, sources confirm to The Daily Beast.

Just over one month after killing Osama bin Laden in a daring commando attack in a city deep inside Pakistan, the U.S. has scored another major success in its fight against the world’s most-wanted terrorist leaders. Yesterday a U.S. Predator drone firing Hellfire missiles killed Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al Qaeda’s most active and experienced operational commanders.

A local journalist says he has been told by Taliban sources in the area that Kashmiri and up to nine other men were drinking tea in an apple orchard yesterday where the missiles struck, killing them all. His militant group, the Harkatul-Jihad al-Islami, which is also known as the 313 Brigade, quickly acknowledged his death. A man named Abu Hanzala who claims to be a member of Kashmiri’s terror outfit sent out a fax today confirming that Kashmiri was “martyred” last night (11:15 local time) in a drone attack. “God willing, the Pharaoh of our times, America, will soon see our strong avenging response. Our enemy is only America.” Two years ago he was also reported to have been killed in a Predator strike, but he surfaced soon afterward, disproving the reports. But clearly not this time.

According to a local villager named Ghami Khan who lives in the vicinity of the attack, a group of Punjabi militants were on their way from nearby Khyber Agency to a militant hideout in South Waziristan when they stopped to rest in an apple orchard. He said this was a well-worn path of Kashmiri and Punjabi militants moving from one base to another. “They got tired, were taking a rest and drinking tea when they were hit,” the man told The Daily Beast by cell phone. He said local militants said they saw the broken jug, cups of tea, and six or seven bodies, Kashmiri among them, scattered about the orchard.

His death is a major blow to al Qaeda and Pakistani militants for whom he was arguably the most hard-charging, seasoned, wily, and bloodthirsty leader. He was also the key coordinator among the various and sometimes competing jihadi groups operating out of the tribal area. “We will never recover from his loss,” a young Afghan who fought with al Qaeda in the tribal area in 2009 and who had seen Kashmiri there tells The Daily Beast. “He was the bridge between al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban...But his spirit will rest calmly because he did his job, and his revenge will be bigger than bin Laden’s revenge.”

An Afghan Taliban liaison officer agrees, saying that other than bin Laden’s death, Kashmiri’s loss is the biggest blow to al Qaeda since 9/11. “He promoted jihadist activities in troubled times and was perhaps the most worthy commander of al Qaeda and Pakistani militiants,” the liaison officer says. “But it’s not the end of the game.”

Two years ago Kashmiri was also reported to have been killed in a Predator strike, but he surfaced soon afterward. Clearly not this time.

“We know the nest of the falcon will not remain empty,” he adds. “Someone will take up his position and his mission as this is a war of ideology and not personalities.”

At least that’s the hope among al Qaeda and other militants, but Kashmiri is almost impossible to replace. According to the young Afghan al Qaeda fighter, Kashmiri was known in terrorist ranks as “the commando commander.” He was so important that U.S. officials have been speculating that Kashmiri, who is listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a “specially designated global terrorist,” along with bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, was also on al Qaeda’s “short-list” of possible successors to Osama bin Laden. Born in Pakistani-controlled Kashmiri, he had plenty of combat experience first in the Afghan War against the Soviets in the 1980s and later as a key Pakistani military asset in the guerrilla war inside Indian-occupied Kashmir against the Indian army. But when then President Pervez Musharraf dampened down the cross-border war into Kashmir after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kashmiri turned against his former mentors with a vengeance. He helped plot and execute two nearly successful assassination attempts against Musharraf in 2003.

But his most recent work was his most chilling. He was one of the top masterminds of the 2008 plot to attack Mumbai in which some 166 people were killed. According to a book that has just been published by Pakistani militant expert Syed Saleem Shahzad—who was kidnapped and tortured to death earlier this week, a brutal act that most Pakistanis believe was linked to the country’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency—the Mumbai attack was Kashmiri’s brainchild. “With Ilyas Kashmiri’s immense expertise on Indian operations, he stunned the al Qaeda leaders with the suggestion that expanding the war theater [against India] was the only way to overcome the present impasse,” wrote Shahzad, 40, who scored a major scoop by interviewing Kashmiri in the tribal area in October 2009. “He presented the suggestion of conducting such a massive operation in India as it would bring India and Pakistan to war and with that all proposed operations against the al Qaeda would be brought to a grinding halt. al Qaeda excitedly approved the attack-India proposal.” Kashmiri’s bloody idea was eventually implemented by the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba reportedly with the help ISI agents.  

The bloodletting in Mumbai was not enough for Kashmiri. By the next year he had his operatives casing future targets in Europe and the U.S., also with the aim of pulling off Mumbai-style massacres using a bevy of gunmen and powerful bombs. David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-born American citizen, former drug dealer, and DEA informant, who is now serving a life sentence in the U.S. for his role in conducting reconnaissance for the Mumbai massacre, is describing Kashmiri’s key role in terrorism during his testimony in a Chicago courtroom. Headley says he met with Kashmiri, who lost an index finger and one eye during the fight against the Soviets and who speaks with a lisp, twice to deliver the surveillance videos that he had made that year outside the newspaper offices of Jyllandis-Posten, which had published insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005. The Kashmiri-concocted and -financed plan included killing the editor, and attacking the building and a nearby synagogue, Mumbai-style. Headley also testified that Kashmiri wanted to assassinate the chief executive of Lockheed Aircraft, one of the manufacturers of the Predator that had killed so many militants in Pakistan’s tribal area, and that ironically finally got him. “Kashmiri was working on a plan,” Headley testified. “He said he knew people who had already done surveillance [of Lockheed.] And he asked if weapons were available in the US.”

Shahzad and others also believe Kashmiri and his 313 Brigade were behind the May 22 attack on Karachi’s Mehran Naval Air Station. A handful of well-trained militants armed with Kalashnikovs and RPG successfully stormed the base, killing some 10 sailors and army commandos and destroying two PV3-Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft in a 16-hour siege. The assault went so smoothly that the attackers clearly had inside information on the details of the base and its security. Kashmiri, it seems, had planted his men inside the Pakistani armed forces. In fact, Shahzad wrote that the attack was in retaliation for the navy having arrested several al Qaeda moles in its ranks just weeks before. Shahzad wrote in a May 27 dispatch that “the attackers were from Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade, the operational arm of al-Qaeda.” He said that the attack was meant to punish the navy for having refused to release the imprisoned al Qaeda operatives. Many Pakistanis believe that Shahzad’s dispatch, pointing out al Qaeda’s infiltration of the navy, may have led to his kidnapping and brutal murder.

Kashmiri, who favored aviator-style sunglasses and who frequently dyed the color of his beard to hide his identity, operated at the center of al Qaeda. According to the young Afghan who fought with al Qaeda in 2009, Kashmiri was one of bin Laden’s favorite sons. He rode around in a new four-wheel-drive pickup truck, flying a white flag. He was one of the few non-Arabs who was admitted to the terror group’s inner councils. “He came to the most restricted meetings of the Arab mujahideen,” the young Afghan told The Daily Beast. “He could go to meetings and to areas that were off-limits to some Arab al Qaeda leaders.”  

Kashmiri was so well-connected that he was an operational link among the myriad militant groups—the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and various Punjabi militant groups such as Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad—that operate out of the tribal area. He seemed to be their go-to guy who could provide ideas for attacks, get groups to cooperate together and get resources, manpower, and money flowing to carry out his plots. “This guy ties everybody together,” says a veteran U.S. intelligence officer who has been watching Kashmiri’s rise to prominence closely but is not authorized to speak publicly. Over the past few years he had been recruiting and nurturing would-be jihadis from the West, the so-called “white jihadis.” “He took care of the special training of chosen newcomers, especially Westerners,” says the young Afghan. Adds a European intelligence officer: “Kashmiri is the most important guy linking al Qaeda with Western recruits.”

No longer. Al Qaeda and other jihadi outfits are going to miss his hands-on expertise and drive, a definite and serious setback for the forces of violence. It’s unclear if the Predator strike that killed bin Laden was guided solely by U.S. gathered intelligence in the air and on the ground. Or if Pakistani intelligence provided key inputs in the tracking of Kashmiri. If the Pakistanis were involved, it would certainly help improve the present rocky state of relations between the two countries in the wake of bin Laden’s discovery and death in Abbottabad only 80 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. At least this is one Predator attack that the Pakistani government and military will not denounce as a violation of their sovereignty since Kashmiri was their enemy as much as America’s.

But even with Kashmiri out of the way, the U.S. wants Pakistani cooperation on other most-wanted targets such as Ayman al-Zawahri and the leader of the Haqqani family militia, Sirajuddin. If the U.S. doesn’t get the support it is demanding then more unilateral actions are certainly in the cards, which could further strain relations between the two countries. Already there are unconfirmed reports of helicopter-borne U.S. commando raids into North Waziristan over the past few days in which Pakistani or Haqqani militants have been abducted and taken for interrogation in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have denied the reports. But if they are true, those operations could only raise the tensions and increase the pressure on Pakistan to do more. Kashmiri’s death, as important as it is, is only one milestone in a very long and rough journey.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, al Qaeda and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.

Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek Magazine and The Daily Beast. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance, and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.