Ilyas Kashmiri reported killed in drone strike in Pakistan

June 4, 2011

Ilyas Kashmiri, commander of the al Qaeda-linked Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI), has been reported to have been killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan in Pakistan. He had been pronounced dead before in 2009, only to have his death disproved through an interview he gave to the late Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad. So any assessment of the significance of his death needs to carry a big health warning.

That said, there appears to be rather more evidence this time around of his death, including a statement faxed to Pakistani media from someone who claimed to be a spokesman for HUJI. And if accurate, it would be very significant for reasons which go far beyond one man.

For a start, it would be the first clear result of renewed and redefined cooperation between Pakistan and the United States after the May 2 killing by U.S. forces of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.  Pakistani officials, who publicly condemn drone missile strikes while condoning them in private, have said these are effective when carried out in coordination with Pakistani intelligence. Those carried out by the CIA acting alone have been blamed for causing the civilian casualties that help make these strikes deeply unpopular in Pakistan. A Pakistani intelligence official said that Ilyas Kashmiri was killed following a tip-off from local intelligence.

Ilyas Kashmiri inhabited the netherworld between Pakistan’s former jihadi proxies once cultivated for use against India and the Arab “outsiders” from al Qaeda. Though HUJI  was affiliated to al Qaeda, it was never clear how far it had been integrated into the organisation. Yet it is precisely that netherworld that is the source of many of the  “double-game” allegations levelled at, and denied by, Pakistan – that its security establishment, or parts of it, maintain links to some militans while fighting others. 

Ilyas Kashmiri once fought India in Kashmir. But after being blamed for organising attacks within Pakistan, he became an enemy of the state and decamped to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Yet India in particular has alleged that he retained links to some of his former contacts in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

An Indian government report on David Headley, the American arrested in Chicago who has admitted to carrying out surveillance for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, makes several references to links between Ilyas Kashmiri and individual ISI agents. Headley, it says, visited Ilyas Kashmiri twice in 2009, and discussed plans for an attack on Denmark, where the newspaper Jyllands-Posten had published cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. The men present “even discussed a general attack on Copenhagen,” it quoted Headley as saying. On both occasions, Headley travelled there with a man it named as Abdul Rehman, who in a separate part of the report is described as backed by the ISI. Another of the men who accompanied him, named as Ijaz, had retired from the airforce. “Ilyas Kashmiri knew Ijaz’s brother who happened to be an ISI agent,” it quoted Headley as saying.

Pakistan rejects accusations that individual ISI agents might have been in touch with Ilyas Kashmiri. Officials also frequently complain of Indian propaganda levelled against Pakistan in a “psyops” campaign by its intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW.) It has blamed its earlier inability to track down Ilyas Kashmiri on the fact that he moved frequently, and has pointed to the numerous attacks within Pakistan as evidence of its determination to fight Islamist militants. Cvilians, soldiers and the ISI itself have all been targetted in a wave of bombings across Pakistan.

Whatever the truth — and that is something we are unlikely to know for years –  Ilyas Kashmiri’s death could herald an important shift in Pakistan’s battle against Islamist militants, which so far has been primarliy targetted at the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and al Qaeda leaders.

According to media reports, and first reported by ABC News on May 27, Ilyas Kashmiri had been included on a list of five militant leaders the Untied States had asked Pakistan to provide intelligence about immediately and possibly target in joint operations. ABC News said the list, conveyed during a visit to Islamabad by Secretary of State Hillary Clnton, also included bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, Atiya Abdul Rahman, the Libyan operations chief of al Qaeda,  Haqqani network commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

I have subsequently heard a somewhat similar version of that list from an official who also named Zawahiri, Abdul Rehman and Ilyas Kashmiri as likely targets for joint operations.  Haqqani, whose fighters form part of the Afghan Taliban and are dominant in eastern Afghanistan, was also cited in the list I was given. The United States and Pakistan, however, have different views on the extent to which the Haqqanis need to be targetted and how far they might eventually be brought into a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar, whose representatives are reported to be holding direct talks with the Americans, was not, from what I was told, included as a target.  As Ahmed Rashid has argued, it would make little sense to kill Mullah Omar while trying to work out whether it is possible to negotiate a peace deal with him.

In the absence of any transparency about what is actually going on,  we are unlikely to know for sure who is actually on that list (assuming it exists.)  It is worth remembering, though, that leaks by unnamed officials which include Mullah Omar and Haqqani on that list, combined with reports of Ilyas Kashmiri’s death,  could have the effect of putting pressure on one or both them to be more open to negotiating a settlement.

Lastly, but not leastly, Ilyas Kashmiri’s death could help reduce the risk of a militant attack on India designed to provoke a war with Pakistan on its eastern border and take the pressure off al Qaeda and other militants holed up on its western border with Afghanistan.  While little is known for sure about Ilyas Kashmiri, his interest in attacking India was never in doubt – unlike the Arabs in al Qaeda whose sights have historically been set on the Middle East and the United States.

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