Pakistani sources are reporting the death in a drone strike this weekend of Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri. If true, it is a big setback for al Qaeda and could help ease tensions between Pakistan and the United States a bit.
Kashmiri is al Qaeda's top Pakistani operative. He was born in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir on February 10, 1964. Trained in the camps of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) and then the elite Pakistani commando group, the Special Services Group (SSG), he was the darling of the Pakistani army for years. He fought in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan where he lost an eye and a finger. Then he took the war to India both in Kashmir and in New Delhi itself.
He formed his own militant group called the 313 Brigade, after the 313 fighters who joined the prophet Muhammad in an early Islamic victory. His exploits in India were legendary. He was personally decorated and thanked by the then head of Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), Mahmud Ahmad and Pakistani's dictator, Pervez Musharraf, in 2000. But Kashmiri broke with his ISI and army friends in 2002 when Musharraf decided to give the Americans at least some help against al Qaeda.
Kashmiri took his 313 Brigade into al Qaeda's camp and assisted in training Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and began targeting his former friends in the ISI. His teams killed at least one senior ISI officer. He was involved in an attempt to assassinate Musharraf in 2004. The United Nations credits him as a key player in the plot to murder former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
The Pakistani American David Headley, who has confessed to plotting the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008, says Kashmiri was his key contact in al Qaeda. The two worked on a plot to attack a Danish newspaper office in Copenhagen in 2009. That was foiled when the FBI arrested Headley, but Kashmiri continued planning to carry out Mumbai-style attacks in Europe. Another was foiled in Denmark at the end of 2010.
Just last week one of Pakistan's best investigative reporters Syed Salam Shahzad was murdered after finishing a new book on al Qaeda in Pakistan. According to excerpts published in India and Pakistan, Shahzad had evidence Kashmiri may have been the real brains behind the Mumbai plot and hoped it would precipitate an Indo-Pakistani war that al Qaeda could exploit.
This is not the first time Kashmiri has been reported killed by a drone attack; he has reappeared after claims of his demise. But if this time he is dead, it is a significant setback for al Qaeda just a month after American commandoes killed Osama bin Laden. Kashmiri would have played an important role in helping al Qaeda recover from bin Laden's demise. He had key connections inside the Pakistani syndicate of terror groups with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and with al Qaeda operatives in Europe and fund raisers in the Persian Gulf. And he had penetrations deep inside the Pakistani army and ISI.
So both Washington and Islamabad will be glad to see him gone. Kashmiri's demise won't solve all the problems in the tortured American relationship with Pakistan by any means but it will help.
Of course, if Kashmiri is not dead and reappears yet again unscathed, it will only add to his credentials. Bin Laden benefited enormously from surviving the cruise missile attack that targeted him in 1998. Recriminations could damage the Pakistani-American relationship further. Nonetheless those are risks worth taking. In either case we will know soon. Al Qaeda is quick to eulogize its martyrs. If Kashmiri's dead, they will say so.