Top Al-Qaida Militant Killed in Pakistan: Officials

A U.S. drone strike likely killed Pakistan’s Al-Qaida commander Ilyas Kashmiri, in what would deal a major blow to the terror network a month after Osama bin Laden’s death, officials said June 4.

The 47-year-old Kashmiri is one of the most feared operational commanders of the network that bin Laden founded and has been blamed for a string of high-profile attacks on western targets, as well as in India and Pakistan.

He has a maximum U.S. bounty of $5 million on his head, and Pakistani officials said he was the target of a U.S. drone strike in South Waziristan on the Afghan border on June 3, in which nine members of his banned group died.

His killing would likely be seen as a huge achievement in the United States after U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Pakistan, itself feted as the greatest psychological victory over al-Qaida since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A senior Pakistani security official said there were “strong indications” that Kashmiri had been killed, but that it was impossible to provide 100 percent confirmation so soon after the attack without access to the bodies.

The corpses were burnt beyond recognition and swiftly buried. Militants also barred access to the site of the attack in Ghwakhwa in South Waziristan, a militant stronghold despite a sweeping Pakistani offensive in 2009.

“There are strong indications that he has been killed in the strike, but we cannot confirm it and we are still trying to confirm it,” the senior Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.

Pakistani officials said Kashmiri had been in the area for several days and that all those killed were from his Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islam (HuJI) group.

Senior security officials explained that confirmation would be difficult unless Kashmiri’s family or his group officially announced his death.

“According to our reports, he was present here in this area. We have information that he has been killed but no one has seen his dead body,” local administration official Naimat Ullah told AFP.

Another security official said two close associates who usually travel with Kashmiri, Amir Hamza and Mohammad Usman, were killed.

Kashmiri is understood to have been in the area to discuss strategy should the Pakistani military launch an offensive in North Waziristan, as has been predicted as part of the fallout surrounding bin Laden’s killing.

Anti-terrorism experts have long described Kashmiri as one of al-Qaida’s main operational commanders. He reportedly escaped a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan in late 2009.

He has been blamed for multiple attacks in Pakistan, including the two most humiliating assaults on the military – a May 22 siege on a naval air base in Karachi and in October 2009 on the national army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Counterterrorism officials believe he was the main coordinator of a terror plot targeting Britain, France, Germany and the United States, which was apparently in the early stages when detected by intelligence agencies in 2010.

Kashmiri’s family in the village of Thathi in Bhimber district, more than nine hours’ drive from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, said June 4 they had not been in contact with him for six years.

“We came to know through TV. We don’t know whether he is dead or alive,” his elder brother Mohammad Asghar said by telephone.

A spokesman for Pakistan’s umbrella Taliban faction said Kashmiri was “alive and safe,” and had not been present at the time of the strike.

In January 2010, a U.S. federal grand jury indicted him for terrorism-related offences in connection with a plot to attack Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten following uproar over blasphemous cartoons.

Listed on U.S. and U.N. terror blacklists, Kashmiri was born in 1964 in Azad, Kashmir. He is about 6 feet tall and weighs about 200 pounds.

He has black hair and been seen with a thick beard dyed white, black, or red at various times.

He has lost sight in one eye, and often wears aviator-style sunglasses. He is missing an index finger, according to the U.S. State Department.

The June 3 drone attack was the ninth reported in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan, branded by Washington the global headquarters of al-Qaida, since U.S. commandos killed bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad on May 2.

The raid sent shockwaves through Pakistan’s seemingly powerful security establishment, with its intelligence services widely accused of incompetence or complicity over the presence of bin Laden close to a military academy.

Islamabad – AFP