Al Qaeda’s Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri Makes a Terror List

Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, already on both India and Pakistan’s most-wanted lists, has just been given a special U.S. terror designation. Bruce Riedel on his evolution from Pakistani hero to al Qaeda commander.

The United States government and the United Nations are taking action against one of the world’s most dangerous al Qaeda terrorists, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a man whose life story is the epitome of the modern global jihadist.

The State Department designated Kashmiri a specially designated global terrorist, and the U.N. placed his name on the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctions list. This means he is on special watch lists globally, and any assets of his can be seized—making him one of the most wanted men in the world today. Kashmiri was already on India’s and Pakistan’s most-wanted lists, an unusual distinction indeed. He deserves it.

They would do a mini-Mumbai, seizing the offices and then beheading all the employees and fighting it out to death with Danish security forces.

A Pakistani born in Kashmir on Feb. 10, 1964, Kashmiri began his career fighting with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, losing an eye and a finger in combat. He was trained by the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, and after the Soviets were defeated he went on to fight in his native Kashmir against the Indian army. Some say he received special training with Pakistan’s elite Special Services Group, its top commandoes. He carried out many successful missions in Kashmir and even in New Delhi, where he took Western hostages. Captured by the Indians once, he escaped and famously brought home the severed head of an Indian officer in 2000. The Pakistani army and President Pervez Musharraf treated him like a hero.

Then Kashmiri turned on them and joined al Qaeda in 2002, helping to train Afghan Taliban fighters to attack Americans and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and then attacking his former ISI handlers and the army. He has been linked to the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto by the U.N. and to plots to kill Musharraf, earning him a spot on Pakistan’s most-wanted list.

Kashmiri is now most famous for his connection to David Headley, the American who was the master spy behind the November 2008 attack on the city of Mumbai that killed and wounded hundreds. The Mumbai attack was the work of a close al Qaeda ally, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT. Headley has pleaded guilty to traveling five times to Mumbai over three years before 2008 to help plot the attack and is serving a life term.

After Mumbai, LeT and al Qaeda sent Kashmiri to Denmark. His new task was to do a surveillance of the offices of a Danish newspaper that published cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons had aroused a storm of anger in the Islamic world, where depictions of the prophet in any form are rare but ones making fun of him are scandalous. Al Qaeda has promised to make Denmark pay and has already attacked the Danish embassy in Pakistan. Headley made at least two trips to Denmark and surveilled the newspaper’s offices in Copenhagen. He even got inside the offices using a travel-agent cover.

The American reported back to al Qaeda in Pakistan, meeting now in Waziristan with Kashmiri, his new handler. Kashmiri told him the “elders” of al Qaeda were very interested in the Copenhagen project and that an al Qaeda suicide cell was already in Europe ready to conduct the operation once Headley collected all the necessary intelligence. They would do a mini-Mumbai, seizing the offices and then beheading all the employees and fighting it out to death with Danish security forces. Headley had a meeting with the al Qaeda team in Europe, according to his guilty plea last March.

Headley was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare airport in October 2009 before he could get on a flight back to Pakistan for a final planning session with Kashmiri. There is speculation among Danish authorities that the plot was set to take place in December 2009, when Copenhagen hosted the climate-change summit and dozens of world leaders would have been in the city along with journalists from media outlets around the world.

Kashmiri was rumored to have been killed in a drone attack last year, but the U.S. and U.N. decisions to sanction him suggest he is alive and still dangerous. Now he is said to command a special cell within al Qaeda called Lashkar-e-Zil, or “The Shadow Army.” His past demonstrates he will be a hard man to track down.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At the president's request he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. His book, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future, came out in paperback in March with a new postscript.