IS MOHAMMAD Ilyas Kashmiri, born in Mirpur, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, now al Qaeda’s head of military ops? This is what US intelligence agencies believe. In that case, our security officials have plenty to worry about because India is one of his favourite targets.
In a report prepared by the interrogators of David Coleman Headley and quoted by CNN recently, the double agent admitted doing a recce for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and meeting Kashmiri twice. Headley also confessed to his and Kashmiri’s involvement in the 26/11 plot.
On 15 June this year, al Qaeda’s media wing released a posthumous audio tape of its top commander Mustafa Abu al Yazid, who was killed in a US drone attack in May. In the message, Yazid had urged listeners to carry out attacks inside the US. The message referred to Kashmiri as an official part of al Qaeda, saying that he heads “Qaedat al Jihad in Kashmir”.
Al Yazid also claimed that al Qaeda’s Kashmir faction carried out the 13 February bombing of German Bakery in Pune, which killed 17 people, including two foreigners. Although there is no evidence that the bombing was al Qaeda’s handiwork, the bakery was reportedly one of the sites visited by Headley.
Kashmiri was declared dead following a drone attack in September 2009. However, later reports suggested he escaped unhurt. In fact, he appeared in an interview with Asia Times Online in which he threatened to conduct more Mumbai-type attacks. “That was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future,” warned Kashmiri. He has been described as one-eyed, minus an index finger, wearing dark glasses, sporting a long, hennaed beard, walking with the help of a stick.
The Indian Army believes he was the man who planned the attack on its camp in Akhnoor sector in Jammu on 22 July 2003. Seven men, including Brigadier VK Govil, were killed. Lt Gen Hari Prasad, GOC-in-C, Northern Command, and Lt Gen TPS Brar, Commander of the Nagrota-based 16th Corps, were injured.
Kashmiri, 46, is one of the militants who turned his attention to Kashmir after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, and was active under the banner of Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI).
WHILE HUJI’s primary focus was fighting troops in Kashmir, it widened its activity in 1994. In Operation al Hadid, Kashmiri’s group, including his deputy Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, abducted three Britons and an American in New Delhi. They demanded the release of their men in Indian jails. By a stroke of luck, the police stumbled upon the house in Saharanpur where the hostages were kept. The pre-dawn shootout left a militant and two policemen dead. No hostage was hurt. Sheikh was arrested after sustaining bullet injuries, while Kashmiri escaped.
‘The 26/11 attack was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future,’ warns Kashmiri
In the 1990s, differences with HuJI leader Qari Saifullah Akhtar led Kashmiri to set up his own group: the 313 Brigade. Kashmiri shot to fame when he conducted a daredevil operation against the Indian Army. On 25 February 2000, Pakistan claimed that the Indian Army had killed 14 civilians in Lonjot village in POK after commandos had crossed the Line of Control. They allegedly returned with abducted girls and reportedly threw the severed heads of three of them at Pakistani soldiers. The next day, the 313 Brigade conducted a guerrilla operation in Nakyal. They seized an army officer and beheaded him. Kashmiri paraded the head in the market of Kotli — an act that fetched him a reward of Rs. 1 lakh from army chief General Pervez Musharraf. After turning rogue in 2004, the decks were cleared for Kashmiri to join al Qaeda.
Testing times lie ahead for the global intelligence network. Along with the US and Israel, India is on top of his hit list.