The South Asia Channel

The mysterious death of Ilyas Kashmiri

The mysterious death of Ilyas Kashmiri

Since it was first reported last Friday, the news out of South Asia has been dominated by speculation that Ilyas Kashmiri, the head of Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) and reportedly al-Qaeda’s operational leader in Pakistan, had been killed in a U.S. drone strike. Kashmiri’s reported death, still shrouded in mystery, comes on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unannounced visit to Islamabad and subsequent meetings with the civilian and military leadership, meetings which reportedly led to the reports about an "imminent" military operation into Pakistan’s unruly province of North Waziristan. Yet Kashmiri’s death remains, at this point, more rumor than fact, and its timing and context make the news of his demise at best suspicious for any Pakistan observer.

Almost immediately after the strike, militants and officials alike rushed to proclaim his death. By the next day, the Political Agent (PA) of South Waziristan, announced Kashmiri’s death, but without revealing his source for the rather immediate news, despite the fact that the bodies were reportedly disfigured beyond recognition and quickly buried.

Abu Hanzala, a previously unknown spokesman for the HuJI, which had never before released a public statement, confirmed Kashmiri’s death in a handwritten statement faxed to a number of media outlets on May 5, while a similar statement also came from Lal Wazir, the so-called spokesman of Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir. Nazir, who is considered a pro-Pakistani government militant commander, controls the Wana area of South Waziristan, which is inhabited by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribes (the June 3 strike was carried out in Ghwa Khwa village, located a few kilometers from Wana, the main town of South Waziristan). Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik also rushed to confirm Kashmiri’s death, announcing to Reuters June 6 that, "there is a 98 percent chance [Kashmiri] is dead," later changing the figure to 100 percent.

Yet several days after the announcements of Kashmiri’s death began circulating in the Western press, residents of the nearby villages in South Waziristan said that they were unaware of the killing of such an important militant commander in their area. An anonymous resident of Dabkot village, located four-to-five kilometers from Ghwa Khwa, told me through an intermediary that they had not heard about the killing of Ilyas Kashmiri in the drone strike. And despite Pakistan’s readiness to accept Kashmiri’s death, the United States, as well as some officials such as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, continue to maintain their silence or express doubt about the issue.

Kashmiri was also once pronounced dead in a similar drone strike in North Waziristan in September 2009. His death reports proved to be baseless following his interview with slain Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. It seems to be a coincidence that Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped and found dead only five days before Kashmiri was reported killed.

When viewed alongside other recent milestones in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Kashmiri’s reported death takes on even more significance. Clinton’s visit to Pakistan on May 27, less than a month after the killing of Osama bin Laden in the bustling cantonment of Abbottabad, brought renewed attention to the possibility of a long-awaited military operation in North Waziristan, the tribal area once believed to be the hideout of bin Laden and now believed to be the sanctuary of the dreaded Haqqani Network. Though Pakistani government and security officials hedged on or outright denied any anti-Taliban swoop in the unruly tribal belt, numerous reports appearing in the Pakistani and international media suggested a possible operation, with some reports claiming that UN aid agencies have been asked to prepare plan for the rehabilitation of 50,000 people.

Clinton’s short trip and the subsequent discussion of a North Waziristan sweep was also followed by a sudden increase in drone strikes, referred to as Ababeel (small birds who destroyed the army of an enemy of the Prophet Muhammad) by their supporters in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber-Puktunkhwa. The drone strikes had been at record levels just before the January shooting involving CIA contractor Raymond Davis in Lahore, his release by a Pakistani court and a drone attack in North Waziristan on March 17 that reportedly killed 44 tribal elders. All the three incidents provided an easy excuse to the Pakistani elites to press the US for a halt or at least slow down the missile attacks from air.

However, the May 2 operation that killed bin Laden once again gave the United States the upper hand in its ongoing tussle with Pakistan, embarrassing the latter and leaving it with no option but to give in to the U.S.’ tough stance on militants in order to save face and defuse criticism over its failure to deal with them. Hence, the drone campaign that was halted after March 17 is back in place, with no room for protest from Pakistani government and its security agencies.

A general perception amongst some Pakistan analysts that the talks about operation in North Waziristan was meant to stir the militants out of their hiding places, making them easier to target. Yet this explanation stretches credulity, as at least some of the militants ostensibly targeted in the new wave of strikes (and especially those like the Haqqani Network who are only focused on fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan) have sympathizers in the government and the security agencies, who are providing them with some degree of material support to keep them safe and continue their militancy both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even before the current round of drone strikes began, locals told me that all or most of the key militant cadres had already vacated the area and moved to the neighboring Kurram Agency (assertions backed up by recent news reports) where a Haqqani-brokered peace deal was signed between the warring Sunni and Shi’a sects. In this case, peace between the rival groups in Kurram opened up safe passage and room to operate for escaping Taliban and other fighters.

In such a situation, even if there is a military operation in North Waziristan, which may come after much hemming and hawing on the part of the Pakistani army, the net result will be like the one conducted in South Waziristan in October 2009 where little was achieved except the displacement of thousands of people and capture of ground by the army troops.

If Kashmiri turns out to be dead after all, that combined with the evidently increased intelligence cooperation between Pakistan and the United States would be clear signs that the acrimonious relationship between the two countries may be on its way towards healing. But if it emerges that Kashmiri has once again escaped death, it would further erode the confidence of the United States in its ostensible ally, and put one more nail in the coffin of Pakistani-U.S. friendship and cooperation on vital security and political issues in South Asia.

Daud Khattak is a journalist working with RFE/RL’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio in Prague.