A former Pakistani special forces officer has emerged as al Qaeda’s most dangerous field commander in charge of a network of deep-cover agents in Europe who has had contact with an American terror suspect, Western intelligence officials say.
Meet Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, the jihadist network’s new chief of operations who is thought to have masterminded the 2008 paramilitary raid on Mumbai.
Last month, the U.S. government added him to its list of designated terrorists that includes top al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, still thought to be the No. 1 and No. 2 al Qaeda leaders. Kashmiri is a top target for the U.S. military and CIA field operatives around the world.
“Ilyas Kashmiri is clearly in the tradition of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, he is the heir to the position of global operational commander for al Qaeda,” said Frances Townsend, White House director of homeland security during President George W. Bush’s administration.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA officer, said: “He certainly has to be regarded today as one of the top operational commanders of al Qaeda. Because of his connections in Pakistan, he brings capabilities that probably no one else has. Paramilitary experience, connections to the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence service, he knows where the bodies are.”
Kashmiri has been on the radar of the United States for the past few years. In 2009, the CIA thought it had killed Kashmiri in a drone strike in northwestern Pakistan. But the al Qaeda commander granted an interview to the Asia Times in October of that year in which he boasted that the rumors of his demise were false.
More recently, Kashmiri has emerged as a top threat to the West because of his connection to David Coleman Headley, an American arrested on terrorism charges in October for his role in helping to plot the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and conspiring to attack Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published in 2005 cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
The indictment says Mr. Headley, an American citizen, met with Kashmiri in the Pakistani province of Waziristan in 2009. It also says that Kashmiri recommended contacts in Western Europe that could provide Mr. Headley “with money, weapons and manpower for the attack on the newspaper.”
Those terrorist contacts in Western Europe have been the focus of major concern among U.S. intelligence agencies, according to two current intelligence officers and one former senior intelligence official interviewed for this article.
Mr. Riedel, author of the book “The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future,” also said of those contacts: “As far as we know, that [clandestine] team is still somewhere in Western Europe.”
Kashmiri also has threatened Mumbai-style attacks in the West. In the interview from 2009 with the Asia Times, Kashmiri said in response to the question of whether the world should expect more Mumbai-like attacks: “That was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future.”
When asked if attacks are planned for Israel and the United States, Kashmiri said, “Saleem, 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.”
Kashmiri’s signature commando-style attack is also different from the wave of recent threats inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who is credited with inspiring the attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army officer who killed 13 people at Fort Hood during a shooting rampage in November.
While the English-language speakers that Mr. al-Awlaki inspires have attempted less complicated and cruder attacks, Kashmiri’s signature is that of highly trained gunman taking over discrete areas. He is credited with planning the 2009 attack on Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon known as the General Headquarters, as well as the 2007 shooting assassination of former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said: “Awlaki has his trademark type of thing, he is trying to inspire maybe lone attackers these types of things. But what happened in Mumbai was from al Qaeda’s standpoint a successful model. These people do not necessarily go in believing they will be suicide bombers, but they realize they will not come out alive. This is another model that al Qaeda can consider.”
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, said, “What makes [Kashmiri] so dangerous is that he did not come to terrorism directly; he served in the Pakistani military as a commander of their special operations units. He is a warrior who knows how to impart the skills he has learned to train and motivate people.”
Kashmiri, who lost an eye fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, was a member of Pakistan’s elite Special Services Group. He sealed his reputation when he allegedly escaped from an Indian jail in 1998. The Indian press has accused him of beheading Indian soldiers in Kargil in 2000.
In interviews with the South Asian press, he has said he studies closely the strategy of Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese general who led the Vietnamese insurgency against the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In some ways, Kashmiri is the perfect match in this case for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander NATO forces in the Afghanistan war. Gen. Petraeus studied the Vietnam War at Princeton University and wrote his thesis there on military influence in the wake of that war.
Mary Habeck, who was a special adviser for strategic planning for White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley in the Bush administration, said Kashmiri considers himself mainly as a military strategist.
“He sees himself as the military strategist and that is all he wants to be. He does not concern himself with matters of policy or ideology. He leaves that to bin Laden, Zawahri and others. They set policy and he makes it happen.”