DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – A top al-Qaida commander and possible replacement for Osama bin Laden was killed in an American drone-fired missile strike close to the Afghan border, a fax from the militant group he heads and a Pakistani intelligence official said Saturday.
Ilyas Kashmiri’s apparent death is another blow to al-Qaida just over a month after bin Laden was killed by American commandos in a northwest Pakistani army town. Described by U.S. officials as al-Qaida’s military operations chief in Pakistan, the 47-year-old Pakistani was one of five most-wanted militant leaders in the country, accused of a string of bloody attacks in South Asia, including the 2008 Mumbai massacre, as well as aiding plots in the West. Washington had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his location.
His death was not confirmed publicly by the United States or Pakistani officials. Verifying who has been killed in the drone strikes is difficult. Initial reports have turned out to be wrong in the past, including one in September 2009 that said Kashmiri had been killed. Sometimes they are never formally denied or confirmed by authorities here or in the United States.
But a fax from the militant group he was heading — Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami’s feared “313 Brigade” — confirmed Kashmiri was “martyred” in the strike at 11:15 p.m. Friday in South Waziristan tribal region. It was sent to journalists in Peshawar.
“God willing, America, which is the ‘pharaoh’ of this, will soon see a revenge attack, and our real target is America,” it said. The statement was handwritten written on a white page bearing name of the group, which has not previously communicated with the media.
The Pakistani official also said Kashmiri was among nine militants killed in the strike. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with his agency’s policy. On Friday night, officials said several missiles hit a compound. The official Saturday said the men were meeting in an apple orchard near the house when the missiles hit.
Kashmiri’s name was on a list of militants that the United States and Pakistan recently agreed to jointly target, officials have said. The successful strike could help repair ties between the two countries that were badly damaged by the unilateral American raid, especially if Islamabad helped provide intelligence leading up to the attack.
Said to be blind in one eye and missing a finger, Kashmiri was one of the country’s most accomplished — and vicious — militants. He fought with jihadi fighters in Afghanistan and in Indian-held Kashmir in the 1990s and was so close to al-Qaida’s central command that he had been mentioned as a contender for replacing bin Laden, though many analysts thought the fact that he was not an Arab meant he was unlikely to get the post.
Indian officials have alleged he was involved in the 2008 Mumbai siege that killed more than 160 people. He has also been named a defendant in an American court over a planned attack on a Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.
In an ongoing terror trial in Chicago, testimony from an American-Pakistani militant has alleged that Kashmiri helped plan the Mumbai siege and wanted to attack U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Kashmiri had been angry over U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan and wanted to target the company, David Coleman Headley testified.
Kashmiri has most recently been linked to last month’s 18-hour assault on a naval base in Karachi. He is also accused of masterminding several bloody raids on Pakistan police and intelligence buildings in 2009 and 2010, as well as a failed assassination attempt against then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2003.
The U.S Department of State says he organized a 2006 suicide bombing against the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed four people, including an American diplomat.
American drones began firing missiles at al-Qaida and Taliban targets along the border in 2005, but the attacks picked up pace in 2008 and have risen in frequency ever since. Pakistani army officers and politicians publicly protest them, too weak to admit to working with the ever unpopular America in targeting fellow Pakistanis, but the country’s intelligence agencies have been known to occasionally provide targeting information.
Opposition to the strikes grew this year after a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis in the street, triggering ever more intense anti-American anger. After the bin Laden raid, which was seen by many here as an outrageous violation of the country’s sovereignty, the parliament issued a declaration calling for the attacks to end.
Pakistani leaders were not immediately available for comment on Friday’s attack. Kashmiri was accused of killing many Pakistanis, including police and army officers, so their public reaction may be muted.
The United States does not acknowledge the CIA-run program, though its officials have confirmed the death of high-value targets before, including the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, in 2009 — a strike welcomed by many Pakistan officials because he too was a sworn enemy of the country.
Washington says the strikes are accurately killing militants and are disrupting plots against the West as well as planned attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.