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Will Ilyas Kashmiri slip into Osama's shoes?
While the US continues to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida is already planning to replace its founder and spiritual leader, the man who has been the face of global terrorism for nearly 20 years. Filling bin Laden's shoes will be no easy task;he has served as an inspiration for jihadists across the globe;and with deep connections in the Gulf, he has been able to keep the money flowing into al-Qaida's coffers.
The most obvious choice to replace bin Laden is Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian terror leader who has been at bin Laden's side from the beginning, and whose followers make up the backbone of al-Qaida's core leadership. Other possible successors include Saif al Adel, al-Qaida's chief strategist and operational planner;Abu Yahya al Libi, a top ideologue who escaped from Bagram prison in Afghanistan in 2005 and has taunted the US ever since;and Sa'ad bin Laden, one of Osama's sons who has been groomed to replace his father.
But one name is absent in the discussion of potential heirs to bin Laden's throne: Ilyas Kashmiri, the notorious Pakistani terrorist who cut his teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then waged terror attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir as a commander in the Harkat-ul Jihad Islami (HUJI), where he formed Brigade 313. He has since risen to the top tier of al-Qaida's leadership cadre as an experienced and dangerous military commander who directs attacks in South Asia while also aiding terror attacks against the West.
Kashmiri is considered by US intelligence to be one of al-Qaida's most effective commanders. He serves as the operational chief of HUJI, an al-Qaidalinked terror group that operates in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. HUJI was designated as a terrorist entity by the US in 2010, and Kashmiri was added to the list of global terrorists for his role in leading the group as well as for his links to al-Qaida.
Kashmiri has also been linked to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, which has viewed him as an asset due to his prowess in fighting Indians in Jammu and Kashmir. He is said to have been a member of Pakistan's Special Services Group, although he denied it in an interview with the Asia Times in 2010. One legend attributed to Kashmiri is that he beheaded a sepoy and presented the head to General Pervez Musharraf.
In late 2003, Kashmiri was detained by Pakistani police for his alleged role in the assassination of Musharraf, but he was inexplicably released in February 2004. Kashmiri resurfaced in 2007 after the Pakistani military assault on Lal Masjid in Islamabad and assumed command of Brigade 313. Kashmiri expanded Brigade 313's leadership cadre and rank and file, bringing in members of terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and a host of other terror groups as well as members of Pakistan's military and intelligence services.
As the leader of Brigade 313, Kashmiri took little time in turning on select targets in Pakistan. Brigade 313 has been behind many of the high-profile attacks and bombings inside Pakistan, including multiple assassination attempts against Musharraf and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Kashmiri was involved in the assassination of Major-General Faisal Alvi, the retired commander of the Special Services Group, in Rawalpindi in late 2008. Alvi was killed just months after sending a letter to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in which he threatened to expose two Pakistani generals' involvement with the Taliban. Also, Kashmiri reportedly drafted a plan to assassinate Kayani, Pakistan's top military officer, but the plan was cancelled by al-Qaida's senior leadership.
But Kashmiri's sights were not limited to Pakistan. He is thought to have played a major role in the multi-pronged suicide attack against government and security installations in the eastern Afghan province of Khost in May 2009.
Al-Qaida recognised Kashmiri's success, and he was picked to lead the Lashkar al Zil, al-Qaida's paramilitary shadow army, which operates along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Kashmiri took control of al-Qaida's military forces after its prior leader, Abdullah Sa'ad al Libi, was killed in a US Predator airstrike in late 2008.
Kashmiri was well-suited for the role, as he has long had experience in running camps in the region. "Since 2001, Kashmiri has led HUJI training camps that specialised in terrorist operations, military tactics, and cross-border operations, including a militant training centre in Miramshah, North Waziristan, " according to the US Treasury report that added him to the list of specially designated global terrorists.
In 2009, al-Qaida gave Kashmiri another top role in the terror network: he was appointed to serve as a member of al-Qaida's external operations network, which is assigned to strike at targets in the West. Kashmiri has been directly linked to one plot in the West. In January 2010, a US federal grand jury indicted Kashmiri for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark for publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.
Kashmiri may be a dark horse to become the next leader of al-Qaida as he has operated largely in the shadows and is not plugged into the Gulf donors. But if al-Qaida is looking to replace bin Laden with an able, ruthless and dangerous commander who has spent decades waging jihad in south and central Asia, Kashmiri would be the ideal choice.
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