A key al Qaeda military planner thought dead by the United States and Pakistan gave an interview this week to a Pakistani reporter, illustrating the uncertainties of a military strategy based on air strikes by unmanned drones.
Major U.S. news media reported that Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri was killed Sept. 7 by a predator drone strike, quoting U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials. But some of those officials are reassessing their judgment after a man identified as Kashmiri gave an interview to the Asia Times.
“While there were preliminary indications that Kashmiri may have been dead, there is now reason to believe that he could be alive,” a senior U.S. official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters. “It’s not always an open-and-shut case.”
The apparent resurrection of the Kashmiri terrorist suggests that the U.S. strategy of drone attacks on al Qaeda leaders can lead to false confidence that targets have been killed. U.S. officials have reported killing more than a dozen of the 20 top militant leaders in the past year.
Analysts say that a counterterrorism policy that relies on unmanned craft has disadvantages compared with a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that requires large numbers of U.S. troops.
“Cases like this highlight why drone strikes have to be part of a larger strategy,” said Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger officer and part of an assessment team that advised Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
“Drone strikes like this can’t stand alone because … they are heavily dependent on real-time intelligence,” said Mr. Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “If we can’t measure the success that we are supposedly having with drone strikes, it calls into question strategies that rely almost exclusively on drone strikes in our war against terrorism.”
Kashmiri, and his organization, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami, are suspected by U.S. intelligence to have played a role in planning the wave of suicide attacks that rocked the Afghan province of Khost in May. Pakistan’s interior ministry placed Kashmiri as its fourth most wanted terrorist on a list released in August.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Kashmiri was “likely involved in every major terrorist attack in Pakistan in the last two years. He is a major player.” The official asked not to be named because of the nature of his work.
The interview with Kashmiri was detailed, suggesting that it was not part of a disinformation campaign by al Qaeda. However, it appeared part of a media strategy to show the ineffectiveness of U.S. strikes.
The reporter, Syed Saleem Shahzad, wrote that he interviewed Kashmiri in Angorada, an al Qaeda stronghold in South Waziristan. The tribal area in northwestern Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan has been a haven for al Qaeda and associated militant groups. Pakistani forces are said to be readying an offensive against South Waziristan.
In his article published Wednesday, Mr. Shahzad describes Kashmiri as being in good shape with red henna highlights in his white beard. He said the militant carried an AK-47 rifle on his shoulder.
Before the interview, one of the al Qaeda commander’s deputies told the reporter, “You know that the commander has never spoken to the media before, but since everybody is sure of his death as a result of a drone attack [in September], al Qaeda’s shura [council] decided to make a denial of this news through an interview by him to an independent newspaper, and therefore the shura agreed on you.”
In the interview, Kashmiri promised more spectacular attacks on U.S. allies.
Asked whether another attack like the one last year on Mumbai - which killed more than 170 people - was in the works, he said, “That was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future.”
Asked whether attacks also were planned for Israel and the United States, Kashmiri said, “I am not a traditional jihadi cleric who is involved in sloganeering. As a military commander, I would say every target has a specific time and reasons, and the responses will be forthcoming accordingly.”
Drone strikes have killed a number of militant commanders, including Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
Fran Townsend, who was a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said the drone strikes have been effective in disrupting al Qaeda’s leadership but required follow-up to verify the intelligence that led to the target.
“Usually you use more than one kind of intelligence,” she said. “You use a combination of intelligence, human intelligence, forensics, signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence. One would suspect this strike was unsuccessful; the question we need to ask the government is why was this strike unsuccessful.”
Daveed Gartenstein Ross, vice president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said, “Both U.S. and Pakistani leaders were certain at the time of the air strike that Kashmiri was dead. This creates a question about what kind of intelligence we are getting back after air strikes.”
The senior U.S. official who said that Kashmiri appears not to have died added that a misfire does not diminish the success of the drone strategy.
“After all, we’re talking about terrorists who have been under intense pressure recently, who spend a lot of time thinking about their safety, and who have an obvious interest in deception,” he said.