'Kick in the Gut' for Al-Qaeda Killers

Elite commando possibly killed, while Somali terror chief meets his demise.

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.

He was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 for planning to kill President Musharraf, but was later released. He became increasingly important to Al-Qaeda, becoming the leader of its “Shadow Army,” and became involved with operations against the West. One European intelligence officer said this position makes him “the most important guy linking Al-Qaeda with Western recruits.” One such recruit is Raja Lahrasib Khan of Chicago who has been arrested for providing material support to Al-Qaeda. Khan said that Kashmiri is actively seeking operatives for attacks in the U.S., and is the “main key, after Osama Bin Laden.”

Kashmiri has been tied to various plots in the West. He was involved in the 2009 plot to blow up New York City subways, and was one of the masterminds behind plans to carry out Mumbai-style attacks throughout Western Europe last year. He also planned an attack on a Danish newspaper that published cartoons mocking Mohammed. An American terrorist recruit named David Headley testified that Kashmiri dispatched operatives to conduct surveillance on the CEO of Lockheed Martin in preparation for his murder.

He is also responsible for highly-sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He put together the suicide bombing of Operation Base Chapman, which assists the drone campaign. He orchestrated several assassination plots against Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Gilani. Al-Qaeda vetoed one plan of Kashmiri's to kill General Kayani, the army chief of staff. He also is believed to be behind a dramatic attack on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in 2009 and a raid on a naval base in May. He also planned spectacular attacks in India with the goal of provoking war between India and Pakistan. Kashmiri hoped that a war would end Pakistani operations against terrorists.

Kashmiri’s latest activity is said to be overseeing the creation of “Lashkar-e-Osama,” or “Army of Osama.” A few days before the drone strike that allegedly killed him, Kashmiri met with members of the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan to plan the group’s campaign. The participants discussed attacking the embassies of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Pakistan. They also talked about poisoning NATO soldiers in Afghanistan and attacking Pakistan’s largest munitions factory.

Although we do not know if Kashmiri is indeed dead, the confirmed death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed in Somalia is also a major setback for Al-Qaeda. Thought to be the chief of the terrorist group’s operations in East Africa, Mohammed was at the top of the FBI’s most-wanted list for masterminding the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed 224 people. He is also believed to be behind a 2002 bombing of a hotel in Kenya owned by an Israeli that killed 14 people. The bombing coincided with an attempt to down an Israeli airliner with a missile.

Mohammed was killed after he and his driver got lost and unexpectedly ran into a security checkpoint. Their truck was fired upon when they tried to flee. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official described his death as a “strong kick in the gut” for Al-Qaeda.

The war against radical Islamic terrorism will continue, but the death of every enemy commander brings us a step closer to its finish.