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Death of a quintessential Jihadi

June 07, 2011

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Supporters of the Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami chant slogans during a rally against drone attacks, in Karachi, Pakistan, Saturday, June 4, 2011. – AP Photo

Within five weeks of the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a CIA drone has cut short the life of Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a top al Qaeda commander and possible successor to its slain founder.

A veteran of all four 'Jihads' waged in South Asia – two in Afghanistan, one in India and one in Pakistan – Kashmiri was a quintessential Jihadi whose life followed a trajectory that encompasses the history of project jihad in Pakistan. Starting his career from the Afghanistan war, he rose to a legendary status in the Kashmir insurgency before returning to the Pak-Afghan border to join al Qaeda and finally turning the gun on his own people and military.

We do not know how he was recruited to fight in Afghanistan but we can guess that he was enlisted by a religio-political party like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) that was actively involved in the process. As a young man in his twenties, Kashmiri showed his promise on the front by becoming a mining expert – a skill that helped him become an instructor to the Mujahideen.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the former head of JI, once explained to me that the real significance of Afghan Jihad against the Soviets lay in the fact that it was Ummul Jihad (Mother of many Jihads). Amongst the numerous children of the Afghan Jihad, the Jihad in Kashmir was the first born.  In 1992, the Mujahideen overran Kabul and the Peshawar Accord was signed for power sharing. Around this time, Kashmir became the most important Jihadi battleground. The JI, once again leading the recruitment drive, came up with an innovative slogan that captured the dominant Jihadi spirit of the time: "Ham Jashn-e-Kabul mana chukay, ab aao chalo Kashmir chalain" (We have celebrated our victory in Kabul, Let’s go to Kashmir now).

Though a number of Afghan veterans like Kashmiri moved to the new warfront, the Kashmir Jihad produced a whole new crop of Jihadis, comprising mostly of school or college drop-outs from lower middle class background. Contrary to the JI slogan, the Jashan (festival) in Kabul did not end the bloodshed. Nor did it end the Jihad in Afghanistan that continued simultaneously. In fact, the Jihad heated up on a third front with sectarian becoming rife in Pakistan. Some Jihadi organisations worked on all the three fronts and Kashmiri was affiliated with one such organisation.

He joined the Kashmir chapter of Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami (HJI), headed by Qari Saifullah in 1991, and later formed his own 313 Brigade within HJI after he fell out with the latter.  These organisations alongside some other jihadi outfits were so close to the Taliban that their fighters were called the Pakistani Taliban or Punjabi Taliban while serving in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, many of them actively indulged in sectarianism.

In Kashmir, the Jihadis were faced with a very large and ruthless army and they were often able to outdo the enemy in ferocity. A Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT) fighter once explained to me smilingly how it was useful to mutilate and disembowel the body of an India solider to “instill fear in the heart of the infidels”.  I also met a young fighter at the annual congregation of LT who was named Abu Haibat (father of terror) because he had brought from Kashmir the ultimate Jihad trophy – the severed head of an India solider.

According to news reports, Ilyas Kashmiri also ambushed an Indian post and brought back the head of an Indian solider after a village on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control was attacked by Indian soldiers. This, according to Hamid Mir, the famous journalist and anchor, turned him into a blue eyed boy of General Pervez Musharraf who also gave him a cash award for bravery.

With 9/11 and subsequent US attack on Afghanistan, the story of Jihad and life of Kashmiri took a decisive and a whole new turn. The tap on Kashmir Jihad was turned off without making any effort to integrate thousands of young men who had been militarily trained, who were ideologically motivated and who lacked any marketable skills to start new lives. Alongside his 313 Brigade and many other fighters, Kashmiri joined hands with al Qaeda, vowing to fight USA and the state of Pakistan. He soon rose to a level of prominence and notoriety that he had never enjoyed before.

The list of attacks in which Kashmiri’s hand is suspected is long. He was accused of trying to murder Musharraf in 2003 and later his name was linked to numerous attacks in Pakistan and abroad including an attack on the US consulate in Karachi and the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Once considered an asset himself, days before his death Kashmiri inflicted the most serious peace time damage to Pakistan’s defence assets by organising an attack on the PNS Mehran in Karachi.  According to US officials, he was al Qaeda’s military operations chief in Pakistan and carried a head money of $5 million.

Though his links with the Special Services Group remain unverified to date, it is ironical that Kashmiri, who joined a CIA-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan in the 80s, was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA drone on June 3, 2011. Leaving behind a path of death and destruction, Kashmiri will go down in the annals of history as the home boy of terrorism.

Zaigham Khan is a journalist and policy analyst. He heads Civic Action Resources, an Islamabad based development consultancy.