Page 1 of 2 AN ATol EXCLUSIVE Al-Qaeda's guerrilla chief lays out strategy
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ANGORADA, South Waziristan, at the crossroads with Afghanistan - A high-level
meeting on October 9 at the presidential palace between Pakistan's civil and
military leaders endorsed a military operation against the Pakistani Taliban
and al-Qaeda in the South Waziristan tribal area - termed by analysts as the
mother of all regional conflicts.
At the same time, al-Qaeda is implementing its game plan in the South Asian war
theater as a part of its broader campaign against American global hegemony that
began with the attacks in the United States of September 11, 2001.
Al-Qaeda's target remains the United States and its allies, such as Europe,
Israel and India, and it does not envisage diluting this
strategy by embracing Muslim resistances on narrow parameters. In this context,
militant activity in Pakistan is seen as a complexity rather than as a part of
Militants have been particularly active over the past few days. Last Thursday,
a car loaded with explosives rammed into the compound wall of the Indian
Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, killing at least 17 people. Then on
Saturday, militants staged an audacious attack on the the Pakistani military
headquarters in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the capital, Islamabad. On Monday,
a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in market town in the Swat Valley region,
killing 41 people and injuring 45 others.
Pakistan is at critical juncture, with the armed forces gathered in their
largest-ever numbers (almost a corps, as many as 60,000 troops) around South
Waziristan to flush out the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban (PTT), al-Qaeda and their
allies from the Pakistani tribal areas.
In these tense times, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda leader who,
according to American intelligence is al-Qaeda's head of military operations
and whose death they wrongly confirmed in a recent US Predator drone attack in
North Waziristan, spoke to Asia Times Online.
He invited this correspondent to a secret hideout in the South
Waziristan-Afghanistan border area, where drones regularly fly overhead.
This is Ilyas' first-ever media interaction since he joined al-Qaeda in 2005.
He is a veteran commander from the struggle with India over divided Kashmir.
In the past few months, the militants have appeared to be on the back foot. A
number of leading figures have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan,
including Osama al-Kini, a Kenyan national and al-Qaeda's external operations
chief; Khalid Habib, the commander of the Lashkar al-Zil or the Shadow Army,
al-Qaeda's fighting force; Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the al-Qaeda-linked
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; PTT leader Baitullah Mehsud, and several
The Pakistani Taliban have also been given a bloody nose by the military in
tribal and urban areas. Negotiations were also underway to strike peace deals
with some Taliban commanders in various Afghan provinces.
Then last week at least nine US troops along with several dozen Afghan National
Army (ANA) personnel were killed in a raid on an outpost in Nuristan province,
besides the abduction of over 30 ANA officers and soldiers by the Taliban.
This attack was complemented by a series of other attacks on North Atlantic
Treaty Organization bases across the southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia
and Paktika, forcing top US General Stanley McChrystal to pull out all troops
from isolated posts in remote areas in these provinces to relocate them in
This created immense space for the Taliban to operate freely, meaning that if
Pakistan conducted operations in South Waziristan, the militants could easily
move across the border to find sanctuary.
The attacks over the past few days have also shown that the militants are still
capable of striking important targets almost at will. They also mean a redesign
of the war theater in which Pakistan will have to relocate its troops from the
eastern front (India) to the western front (Afghanistan), as the Taliban are
now the number one enemy.
Washington plans to send at least another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan while
India will complement these efforts with its intelligence and military
expertise against the common enemy - Muslim militant groups.
The upcoming battle
Ilyas Kashmiri gave his views on what the upcoming battle will look like, what
its targets will be, and how it will impact the West in relation to the
destabilization of a Muslim state such as Pakistan.
The contact with Asia Times Online began with a call from the militants on
October 6, inviting this correspondent to the town of Mir Ali in North
Waziristan. No reason was given. The next day, I traveled to Mir Ali, a town
that has been heavily attacked by drones over the past year. After over seven
hours of continuous traveling, I was received by a group of armed men who
transferred me to a house belonging to a local tribesman.
"The commander [Ilyas Kashmiri] is alive. 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," a person
whom I knew as the key person in Ilyas' famous 313 Brigade told me as soon as I
reached the safe house. The brigade, a collection of jihadi groups, fought for
many years against India in India-administered Kashmir.
"You will have to stay in this room until we inform you of the next plan. You
can hear the voices of drones above your head, therefore you will not leave the
room. The area is full of Taliban, but also of informers whose information on
the presence of strangers in a house could lead to a drone attack," the man
The next day, I was transferred to another house at an unknown location, about
three hours away. During this time I was accompanied at all times by an armed
escort. I was not allowed to speak to them, and they could not communicate with
me. This is al-Qaeda's internal world. Finally, in the early morning of October
9, a few armed men arrived in a white car.
"Please leave all your electronic gadgets here. No cell phone, no camera,
nothing. We will provide you pen and paper to write the interview," I was
instructed. After several hours of a very uncomfortable journey, passing down
muddy tracks and through mountain passes, we reached a room where Ilyas was
supposed to meet us.
After a couple of hours, suddenly the sound of a powerful vehicle broke the
silence. My escort and the men already present in the room rapidly took up
positions. They all wore bullet pouches and carried AK-47s.
Ilyas made his entrance. He cut a striking figure, about six feet tall (1.83
meters), wearing a cream-colored turban and white qameez shalwar (traditional
shirt and pants), carrying an AK-47 on his shoulder and a wooden stick in one
hand, and flanked by commandos of his famous diehard 313 Brigade.
Ilyas now sports a long white beard dyed with reddish henna. At the age of 45
he remains strongly built, although he carries the scars of war - he has lost
an eye and an index figure. When we shook hands, his grip was powerful.
The host immediately served lunch, and we sat on the floor to eat.
"So, you have survived a third drone strike ... why is the Central Intelligence
Agency [CIA] sniffing around you so much? I asked.
The question was somewhat rhetorical. He is one of the most high-profile
al-Qaeda commanders, with a Pakistani bounty of 50 million rupees (US$600,000)
on his head. His position is defined differently by various intelligence and
media organizations. Some say he is commander-in-chief of al-Qaeda's global
operations, while others say he is chief of al-Qaeda's military wing.
If today al-Qaeda is divided into three spheres, Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly
the symbol of the movement and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri defines al-Qaeda's
ideology and broader strategic vision. Ilyas, with his unmatched guerrilla
expertise, turns the strategic vision into reality, provides the resources and
gets targets achieved, but he chooses to remain in the background and very low
His bases and activities have always remained shrouded in secrecy. However, the
arrest of five of his men in Pakistan earlier this year and their subsequent
grilling helped lift the veil. Their information resulted in CIA drone strikes
against him, the first in May and then again on September 7, when he was
pronounced dead by Pakistani intelligence, and finally on September 14, after
which the CIA said he was dead and called it a great success in the "war on
"They are right in their pursuit. They know their enemy well. They know what I
am really up to," Ilyas proudly replied.
Born in Bimbur (old Mirpur) in the Samhani Valley of Pakistan-administered
Kashmir on February 10, 1964, Ilyas passed the first year of a mass
communication degree at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. He did not
continue due to his heavy involvement in jihadi activities.
The Kashmir Freedom Movement was his first exposure in the field of militancy,
then the Harkat-ul Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI) and ultimately his legendary 313
Brigade. This grew into the most powerful group in South Asia and its network
is strongly knitted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal and
Bangladesh. According to some CIA dispatches, the footprints of 313 Brigade are
now in Europe and capable of the type of attack that saw a handful of militants
terrorize the Indian city of Mumbai last November.
Little is documented of Ilyas' life, and what has been reported is often
contradictory. However, he is invariably described, certainly by world
intelligence agencies, as the most effective, dangerous and successful
guerrilla leader in the world.
He left the Kashmir region in 2005 after his second release from detention by
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and headed for North Waziristan.
He had previously been arrested by Indian forces, but he broke out of jail and
escaped. He was then detained by the ISI as the suspected mastermind of an
attack on then-president Pervez Musharraf, in 2003, but was cleared and
released. The ISI then picked Ilyas up again in 2005 after he refused to close
down his operations in Kashmir.
His relocation to the troubled border areas sent a chill down spines in
Washington as they realized that with his vast experience, he could turn
unsophisticated battle patterns in Afghanistan into audacious modern guerrilla
Ilyas' track record spoke for itself. In 1994, he launched the al-Hadid
operation in the Indian capital, New Delhi, to get some of his jihadi comrades
released. His group of 25 people included Sheikh Omar Saeed (the abductor of US
reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002) as his deputy. The group abducted
several foreigners, including American, Israeli and British tourists and took
them to Ghaziabad near Delhi. They then demanded that the Indian authorities
release their colleagues, but instead they attacked the hideout. Sheikh Omar
was injured and arrested. (He was later released in a swap for the passengers
of a hijacked Indian aircraft). Ilyas escaped unhurt.