On June 3, Al-Qaeda may have suffered its biggest blow since the killing of Osama Bin Laden when a drone strike targeted Ilyas Kashmiri, an elite commando and possible replacement for the terror chief. Pakistani officials are certain of his demise but U.S. officials are skeptical. If Kashmiri was killed, then Al-Qaeda has lost one of its most prized operatives, and the West can celebrate the loss of a terrorist whose skill earned him the nickname “the commando commander.” And on June 11, the head of Al-Qaeda’s operations in East Africa was killed in Somalia, making him possibly the third senior commander to be killed in six weeks.
The fate Kashmiri is unfortunately unclear at this time. The Pakistani interior minister was quoted as saying, “I can confirm 100 percent that he is dead,” but said to Reuters that he was “98 percent sure.” Prime Minister Gilani is similarly confident. A spokesman for Kashmiri’s group, Harakut-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI), confirmed his death to the Pakistani Dawn newspaper, as has a spokesman for a Taliban commander connected to the bombed compound. A HUJI commander named Qari Mohammad Idrees also said Kashmiri is dead. The Pakistanis also arrested a man alleged to have hid Kashmiri in the days following the strike.
U.S. officials believe the odds are that Kashmiri is alive. The Pakistani Taliban has denied his death. Strangely, HUJI posted a photo online that it claimed was of Kashmiri’s corpse, but it was really of a terrorist killed in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. The statement announcing his death that accompanied the photo had two misspellings of the group’s name. There is reason to be skeptical of the Pakistani government’s claims. It incorrectly announced his death in September 2009, and it has an interest in declaring Kashmiri dead. He was one of five terrorists that the U.S. is demanding immediate action against, alongside Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Atiya Abdel Rahman. The Pakistanis were reportedly given until July to cooperate.
It is difficult to make sense of why HUJI commanders would confirm his death while the Pakistani Taliban would deny it. The distribution of a false photo of Kashmiri is further puzzling. “So did HUJI botch the photograph, or are they attempting to fake Kashmiri’s death?” asks Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal.
Kashmiri has been described as “the most effective, dangerous and successful guerilla leader in the world.” A look at his background shows why his death would be such a setback for Al-Qaeda. He served as a commando in Pakistan’s elite Special Services Group where he trained the mujahideen battling the Soviets in Afghanistan. He lost an index finger and an eye in the fighting. He then went on to train militants in Kashmir to fight India. He joined the HUJI and ultimately became its chief of operations.
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