By Radha Vinod Raju
With the confirmation of the news of the death of Ilyas Muhammad Kashmiri in a drone attack in Wana in South Waziristan by the spokesperson of the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, one should recall similar reports in September 2009, in North Waziristan. Born in Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Ilyas Muhammad Kashmiri became one of the most dreaded terror leaders of the world. He was wanted in India and the United States in connection with terrorist attacks or planned terrorist attacks. The US government had announced a US$5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Pakistan had also announced a Rs50 million reward for his arrest. What are the implications of the death of Kashmiri for India, Pakistan, the United States, and the al Qaeda network?
David Coleman Headley (Dawood Gilani) was working closely with Ilyas Kashmiri to identify more targets for terrorist attacks in India, and for targeting the office of Jyllands Posten, a Danish newspaper, for publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. His interview with Pakistani journalist, the late Syed Saleem Shahzad, gives an insight into his thinking about India, the United States and Pakistan.
Though Ilyas Kashmiri started his militant career during the anti-Soviet jihad, where he lost one eye and an index finger, his militant activities in the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI) became India-centric. His operations in India were daring; one known operation was to abduct foreigners in Delhi, along with the now infamous Omar Sheikh who India had to release in December 1999, and Masood Azhar and Mustaq Ahmed Zargar, to secure the release of passengers of IC-814.
Ilyas Kashmiri escaped from their hideout in Ghaziabad in 1994, when the Indian Police arrested Omar Sheikh. We are also aware of one of his operations in which he is reported to have taken the head of an Indian Army officer to Pakistan as a trophy. There are unconfirmed reports of a successful operation in the Indian Akhnoor sector after the Gujarat riots of 2002, in which Kashmiri claimed to have killed Brigadiers and Lieutenant Colonels. These reports are grossly exaggerated.
David Headley has disclosed to Indian investigators that Ilyas Kashmiri was interested in operations in India and that he had conducted surveillance of several potential targets after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. Headley’s disclosures also indicate Kashmiri’s intention to target Europe, and that he had supporters in European cities for this purpose. This makes it clear that had Ilyas Kashmiri taken over the leadership of the al Qaeda, India would have strongly figured on their radar because of Kashmiri’s focus on Jammu & Kashmir.
His death may reduce the focus of al Qaeda on India, though Kashmiri’s interview with Shahzad, given in late 2009, claims that the network of 313 Brigade, Ilyas Kashmiri’s creation within the HUJI, is widespread across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, something not borne by any evidence, though HUJI itself is known to operate in these countries.
Ilyas Kashmiri was arrested in Pakistan a couple of times, once for an attempted assassination on Musharraf, though he was subsequently released for lack of evidence. He then shifted his operations to FATA and became close to the al Qaeda. According to Shahzad, Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade became the catalyst for operations like the one in Mumbai, and in other parts of the world, including Iraq and Somalia. Kashmiri told Shahzad that he shifted his base from Kashmir to the Afghan border because he believed it was the great ‘Satan’ US that decided matters in the world and therefore it was necessary to target it.
While there are credible reports that Kashmiri was a one time member of the SSG Commandos of the Pakistan Army, Shahzad said that Kashmiri was not a member of the SSG. He gained his experience on the ground in the Afghan jihad. This is yet to be confirmed. This battle-scarred veteran was known to be the operational commander of the al Qaeda, though a low key one. In the words of Shahzad, “If today al-Qaeda is divided into three spheres, Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly the symbol of the movement and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri defines al-Qaeda’s ideology and broader strategic vision. Ilyas, with his unmatched guerrilla expertise, turns the strategic vision into reality, provides the resources and gets targets achieved, but he chooses to remain in the background and very low key.”
In a recent list given by the US government to Pakistan of the 5 most wanted terrorists, the name of Ilyas Kashmiri figured prominently. Despite the Pakistan Parliament resolution against the US Drone attacks, the fact that the United States continued with their determined attacks inside Pakistan and was successful in eliminating someone like Ilyas Kashmiri would send a strong message to the al Qaeda and its supporters inside Pakistan and elsewhere that the Americans mean business. It is also a signal that the intelligence gathering capabilities of the United States, and its strike power, are matchless.
For the government of Pakistan, there would be mixed feelings – their sovereignty is being repeatedly violated by their strategic partner, but can they complain when someone like Ilyas Kashmiri is targeted after his 313 Brigade’s attack on the Mehran base of the Navy in Karachi a few days earlier, and the previous one on the GHQ itself?
Radha Vinod Raju
Former Director General, National Investigation Agency (NIA). Currently, Distinguished Fellow, IPCS
email: [email protected]