A month after Osama bin Laden's death, one of the men tipped to succeed him as leader of al-Qaeda is believed to have been eliminated by a CIA-operated drone strike on Friday. U.S. and Pakistani officials say that they are increasingly certain that Ilyas Kashmiri, the head of the 313 Brigade affiliated with the global terrorist organization, was slain in South Waziristan. His followers are vowing revenge against the U.S. Full confirmation, officials say, will only come from a DNA test. Caution is a necessity: Kashmiri was reported killed once before, only to resurface.
If he is indeed dead, the killing of Kashmiri will be a major success for the U.S. in its attempts to eliminate senior al-Qaeda and Taliban figures hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border. Kashmiri rose to prominence as a leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) militant organization that carried out a bombing in the Indian city of Pune. In more recent years, he has grown close to al-Qaeda and is suspected to have played a major role in the Mumbai massacre in November 2008 and a number of attacks within Pakistan. Some suspect he was behind last month's attack on a naval base in Karachi. Parts of Kashmiri's biography remain murky. Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel wrote that Kashmiri was a former Pakistani army commando an allegation denied by a senior Pakistani military official.
It is unclear whether Friday's attack received Pakistan's assistance. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a brief visit to Islamabad on May 27, she carried a list of five top militant leaders Washington would like to pursue with Pakistan's help. Kashmiri was on the list. The others were Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, the North Waziristan warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani and Atiya Abdul Rahman, the Libyan operational commander of al-Qaeda. Given the bloodshed Kashmiri has caused on its soil, Pakistan has very powerful reasons for wanting him dead: he has allegedly been behind a series of deadly attacks on Pakistani security forces including the one on a Karachi naval base, according to the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, whose body was recently discovered after a controversial disappearance.
The Kashmiri slaying may also boost the CIA's case for maintaining the current, near daily pace of drone strikes within Pakistan's tribal areas. The day before the strike, there was a debate among senior U.S. officials on whether to slow down the covert program, the Wall Street Journal reported. While all officials supported the program, some argued that less frequent strikes would help Washington win greater cooperation with the Pakistanis. Since mid-March, the Pakistani security establishment has been calling for all drone strikes to end.
With Kashmiri's death, that argument will have been weakened. While drone strikes principally target militants fighting across the border in Afghanistan, Kashmiri is the latest in a series of prominent militant leaders who attack Pakistani targets to have been cut down. Baitullah Mehsud was eliminated by a drone strike in August 2009. His chief strategist, Qari Hussain Mehsud, was also killed in a drone strike. Little has been heard from his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, in several months.
Once described as the "next bin Laden," Kashmiri was first reported to have perished in a drone strike in September 2009. He resurfaced in an interview by Shahzad of Asia Times Online, a journalist whose own body was discovered on May 31. Shahzad was a journalist who covered security issues, regularly traveling to the tribal areas and interviewing militant figures like Haqqani and Kashmiri. He also regularly cited Pakistani intelligence officials in his articles.
Shahzad's last article, published just two days before he went missing, claimed that al-Qaeda had attacked the Karachi naval base after talks had broken down between the Pakistani navy and the global terrorist organization. The journalist wrote that his contacts had confirmed to him that Kashmiri had authored the attack. At the time of his disappearance, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had been informed through "reliable interlocutors" that Shahzad was being held by the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's leading military spy agency.
In a rare statement, issued through Pakistan's state press agency, the ISI robustly denied any role in Shahzad's disappearance or murder. The ISI, an unnamed official told the Associated Press of Pakistan, saw Shahzad's death as "unfortunate and tragic" and as a "source of concern for the entire nation." The official quoted from an e-mail that Shahzad passed on to HRW after his last meeting with the ISI but denounced suggestions that it carried "veiled or unveiled threats," saying that such suggestions were the "basis of baseless allegations leveled against the ISI."
But Hameed Haroon, the CEO of Pakistan's Dawn Media Group and the head of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, countered the ISI officials' remarks. "[T]he allegations leveled by HRW on the ISI are essentially in complete consonance with the contents of the slain journalist's e-mail," Haroon said in a statement. Haroon, a former employer of Shahzad's, added that over the past five years, Shahzad had informed him and several others that he had "received death threats from various officers of the ISI on at least three occasions."
The Pakistani government has called for an inquiry into the circumstances that led to Shahzad's kidnapping and killing. But few are holding out any hope for answers. Similar promises were made eight months ago, when another investigative reporter, Umar Cheema, was abducted and tortured for six hours before being dumped on the side of the road. "Zero work" has been done on his case, says Cheema. Even the report of a judicial commission supposedly looking into it has not been shared with him, the journalist says, let alone made public.