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Commander Ilyas Kashmiri: Terror successor to Osama bin Laden

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Ilyas Kashmiri, the fugitive chief of the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), the first Pakistani jehadi leader to have been tagged by the United Nations and the United States as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for his al-Qaeda connections, has now been described as a “terror successor to Osama bin Laden” by none other the CNN.

The CNN labeling makes Kashmiri the world’s most wanted militant after Osama bin Laden because he is probably the only fugitive jehadi who is not only wanted by India and Pakistan but also by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France. It was on August 6, 2010, that the United States Treasury Department, in conjunction with the United Nations, named the 46-year Ilyas Kashmiri as a “specially designated global terrorist,” putting him in the same league with Osama and his second-in-command Dr Ayman Zawahiri, men to whom he has pledged allegiance. Stuart Levey, US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in his official statement that Ilyas Kashmiri has supported terrorist attacks against Pakistan government personnel and facilities, besides planning the assassination of [Army Chief] General Ashfaq Kiyani, which was eventually abandoned due to al-Qaeda’s strategic considerations.

Now the CNN has reported in its November 10 investigative story that going by the estimates of the counter-terrorism officials in three continents, ‘Kashmiri is one of the most dangerous men in the world today’. “If Osama bin Laden is al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader and Egyptian cleric Dr Ayman al Zawahiri its philosopher, Kashmiri is the organization’s military brain. As one US official put it recently, Kashmiri is “the key ingredient in the bad stew of senior terrorists who are planning operations in the region and beyond”, the CNN report stated.

While a cloud of mystery surrounds Kashmiri, he is on the record as swearing allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar as far back as 1999 when he told a Pakistani journalist Amir Khakwani in an interview: “We folks have taken oath from Mullah Omar and we consider him as Ameerul Momineen. We have absolute permission from him to go to any place and engage ourselves in jehadi activities”. Kashmiri disclosed: “I have learned the art of war from the Arabs. The Arabs fighting in Afghanistan, including Egyptians and Palestinians, have adopted a separate style combining the war strategies of the Russians and Americans. I am an expert in that style. We have trained our boys also in that mode so that they can fight better than the Indian regular army commandos”.

Currently operating from Pakistan’s largely lawless North Waziristan area bordering Afghanistan, Ilyas Kashmiri is the ameer of the Azad Kashmir chapter of the HUJI, whose Pakistan chapter is led by another al-Qaeda-linked jehadi, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who was named by Benazir Bhutto in her posthumous book as a principal suspect in the October 18, 2007 attempt to kill her in Karachi in a suicide bomb attack, shortly after her homecoming from self-exile. The HUJI chief has emerged as a new international jehadi plotter who is being described as the most important guy linking al-Qaeda with Western recruits. American and European security agencies believe Kashmiri is trying to infiltrate highly trained terrorists into Europe and the United States to launch Mumbai style terrorist attacks.

As things stand, Pakistani intelligence sleuths on the ground and the American drones in the air are out to hunt Ilyas Kashmiri in the trouble-stricken tribal areas, amidst fears in Islamabad that if yet another major terrorist strike in conducted either in India or in the West, Pakistan could suffer massive retaliation this time. On February 25, 2010, during the Indo-Pak foreign secretary talks, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao handed over three files to her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir, containing dossiers of Pakistani nationals allegedly involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. And Kashmiri was one of them. The dossier detailed Kashmiri’s activities and links to the Mumbai terrorist attacks, claiming that his Brigade 313 was mentioned in conversations between the 26/11 attackers and their Pakistan-based handlers.

According to the findings of the usually well-informed journal ‘The Long War Journal’, besides heading al-Qaeda, Kashmiri is now also serving as the acting chief of al-Qaeda’s military committee as Saif al Adel has moved up the ranks. Since his promotion in al-Qaeda hierarchy, Kashmiri attends all the meetings of the Arab terrorist top brass which are usually held at the terrorist republic in North Waziristan. Going by the journal’s findings, Brigade 313 is al-Qaeda’s military organisation in Pakistan which is made up of the Taliban and allied jehadi groups. Members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Jandullah, and several other Pakistani militant groups are known to have merged with al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and the group operates under the name of Brigade 313.

The Brigade 313 has been found to be behind many high-profile attacks and bombings inside Pakistan, including the October 2009 audacious commando assault and siege of the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. Interestingly, the Brigade 313 also has a website whose landing page has the words “Al-Qaeda Brigade 313” in the center, besides inscribing the names of Harkatul Jehadul Islami, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundallah, and the Movement of Taliban in Pakistan in the four corners of the page. Further surfing of the website would show images of slain al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu Yazid and ideologue Abu Yahya al Libi on the left side of the page, and an image of Commander Ilyas Kashmiri on the far right.

The extent of the danger being posed by Kashmiri can be gauged from the nature of the charges brought against him by the US Justice Department in January 2009 when a federal grand jury in the Northern District of Illinois indicted him for terrorism-related offenses in connection with a terror attack against the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark which had published odious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Going by the charge sheet, one of the Kashmiri’s jehadi operative, David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American [originally named Dawood Gillani and now serving a life sentence in US for terror-related offenses] cased the main targets for the Mumbai attacks by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The US Justice Department had concluded in its charge sheet that Kashmiri that he was working with David Headley in late 2008, immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, to plot new terrorist attacks by infiltrating highly trained terrorists into America and Europe.

While being questioned by India’s National Intelligence Agency, which was given access to him in the UN in June 2010, Headley revealed that he had been taken to Pakistan’s tribal belt on the Afghan border in 2009 to meet Kashmiri. As per his confessional statement, Kashmiri subsequently sent Headley on another trip to survey possible targets in India. One of the places he had video-taped was the German Bakery in Pune [which was quite popular with foreigner] and was subsequently targeted with a bomb that killed nine people, including two foreigners.

Some recent findings by Western intelligence agencies say Kashmiri is a key facilitator in al-Qaeda’s plan to carry out Mumbai-style commando attacks in Europe, particularly in Germany, France, and England. According to these reports, Ahmed Siddiqi, a German national of the Afghan descent, told his American interrogators in Afghanistan that he and some other ‘white jehadis’ were part of a conspiracy to launch a commando attack in Europe. Siddiqi, who was trained under Kashmiri’s command before being arrested in Afghanistan in June 2010, further told interrogators that at a campfire chat in North Waziristan earlier this year, Ilyas Kashmiri told him that he had already dispatched advance teams to Britain and Germany. These revelations led to a spate of unprecedented number of drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal area, which are still continuing, with an aim to target the ‘white jehadis’ who are being trained to take part in the possible European attacks.

Ilyas Kashmiri has also been named in a charge sheet filed by the Pakistani police in connection with the November 2008 murder of Major General (retd) Amir Faisal Alvi, the former commanding officer of the Special Services Group (SSG) of the Army who was killed because of his role in fighting Taliban militants in the country’s tribal areas. Kashmiri, who is clearly more than just another jehadi commander, was born in Bhimbur in the Samhani Valley of the Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir on February 10, 1964. He passed the first year of a mass communication degree at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. But he could not continue his studies due to his heavy involvement in jehadi activities. The freedom movement in Kashmir was his first exposure in the field of militancy, then the HUJI and ultimately his 313 Brigade. Kashmiri lost an index finger and one eye while fighting against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan as a junior commander in the 1980s. Therefore, in his various pictures, he is seen wearing aviator sunglasses of different colours.

After the war ended with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, Kashmiri turned his attention towards the ‘jehad’ in the Indian administered part of Kashmir as a commander of the HUJI, , led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar. But sharp disagreements with Qari eventually led Kashmiri in the mid 90s’ to launch his own faction of the HUJI. He is reported to have conducted several major guerilla actions in India, including the 1994 Al-Hadid operation in Delhi to get some of his jehadi comrades released. His second-in-command at that time was none other than Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, who has already been convicted for the 2001 beheading of an American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi.

While waging ‘jehad’ in Jammu Kashmir, Kashmiri was captured by the Indian Army near Poonch [in the mid-1990s] and sent to prison, where he had to spend the next two years before managing a jail breaking and returning to Pakistan. Kashmiri was once again made to resume his cross border ambushes against the Indian security forces. As Indian troops carried out a raid into Pakistani part of Kashmir on February 25, 2000, killing two dozen civilians including several women and children, Kashmiri is reported to have led a retaliatory raid in the Nakyal sector of Jammu Kashmir the next day and kidnapped and beheaded an Indian army officer whose head was then paraded in the streets of Azad Kashmir. However, soon afterwards, he fell out of favour with his powerful spy masters, when he refused to serve under the command of a junior jehadi — Maulana Masood Azhar, who had just founded Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) after being released from an Indian jail in the wake of an Indian plane hijacking.

As Kashmiri resisted his khaki bosses, he was arrested in 2003 in the connection with the investigations of a failed attempt by two suicide bombers to kill General Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003. But he was released a few months later in March 2004. He was once again picked up in 2005 after he refused to close down his cross border jehadi operations in Jammu Kashmir, only to be released a few months later. Kashmiri apparently did little until Musharraf decided to carry out the bloody Operation Silence in the heart of Islamabad against the fanatic Lal Masjid clerics and their followers in July 2007. But afterwards, he rebuilt his jehadi network and reactivated his 313 Brigade in the HUJI, while collaborating with the fanatic Pakistani and Afghan Taliban cadres in the Waziristan region. It was in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation that he moved his operational base from his home town Kotli to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Temporarily switching from the freedom struggle in Jammu Kashmir to the Taliban-led resistance against NATO forces in Afghanistan, Ilyas Kashmiri established a training camp in the Razmak area of North Waziristan and shifted most of his warriors from HUJI’s Kotli military training camp in Azad Kashmir. He soon became a target of the American drones and was reportedly killed in a predator attack in North Waziristan on September 14, 2009 along with Nazimuddin Zalalov, a top al-Qaeda leader. Yet, hardly a month after his reported death, Kashmiri re-surfaced and promised retribution against the United States and its proxies [in an October 13, 2009 interview], saying the Americans were right to pursue him. “They know their enemy quite well. They know what I am really up to”, Kashmiri added.

Since then, he seems to have established himself as the chief of al-Qaeda’s shadow army - Lashkar-e-Zil (LeZ), which is a loose alliance of al-Qaeda-and Taliban-linked anti-US militia which has distinguished itself by conducting unusual guerilla operations, like the one that targeted the CIA’s Forward Operating Base in Khost on December 31, 2009, killing seven CIA officials. The CIA base was at the heart of a covert program overseeing drone strikes by remote-controlled aircraft along the Pak-Afghan border. While the LeZ is mainly active in Pakistani tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, and Swat in the NWFP, it has already carried out several deadly bombings against the US-led Allied Forces in the Afghan provinces of Khost, Kabul, Kandahar, Nuristan, Nangahar, Wardak, Paktika, Ghazni and Kunar, killing dozens. Keeping in view Ilyas Kashmiri’s guerilla skill and his wide relations with Pakistani and foreign militants, terrorism experts describe him as the most dangerous man for India, Europe, and the United States. Even Pakistani agencies suspect his involvement in a series of suicide bombings in Azad Kashmir, targeting the Pakistani security forces.

Usually described as the ‘commando commander’ amongst his cadres, Kashmiri has proved himself to be a survivor so far who has a knack for staying alive against all odds. And he is set to become a legendary jehadi figure the more he is targeted by the American drones and the longer he survives.

* Lahore

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