An overnight attack by an unmanned aircraft killed Ilyas Kashmiri, an Al Qaeda-linked operative blamed for several high-profile attacks in Pakistan and India, local news reports and a statement by his banned militant organization said Saturday.
If borne out, this would be the second major U.S. anti-terrorism coup in quick succession, coming just a month after the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs. Analysts had identified Kashmiri as a possible Bin Laden successor.
"This is very good news, especially on the heels of the Bin Laden" killing, said Talat Masood, a security analyst and former Pakistani lieutenant general. "He's a very important leader who played havoc with the region."
Shoaib Khan, an assistant political agent in South Waziristan, confirmed the killing at a compound in Ghwa Khwa village, adding that Kashmiri and eight other militants were buried in a local graveyard. A senior tribal area official said separately that multiple sources had confirmed Kashmiri was dead.
That said, it's notoriously difficult to corroborate deaths caused by drone attacks, reportedly one of the reasons President Obama decided to launch a manned assault on Bin Laden's compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad despite the added risk.
This is particularly true when the strikes occur in isolated border areas, including South Waziristan, site of the late Friday attack. Many senior militants have been "killed" repeatedly — including Kashmiri, whose death was reported in September 2009 — only to turn up alive a few weeks or months later.
"We confirm that our emir [leader] and commander in chief, Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, along with other companions, was martyred in an American drone strike on June 3, 2011, at 11:15 p.m.," Abu Hanzla Kashir, who identified himself as a spokesman for Kashmiri's Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami group, said in a statement faxed to a Pakistani television station.
"God willing … America will very soon see our full revenge," it added. "Our only target is America."
The statement's authenticity could not be immediately verified.
Separately, Pakistani security forces reported killing 26 Islamist militants Saturday after they crossed over from Afghanistan in the fourth day of fighting close to the border.
Kashmiri, who had a $5-million U.S. bounty on his head, was considered one of Pakistan's most dangerous, strategic and capable militants, suspected of helping organize last month's assault on the Mehran naval base in the southern port city of Karachi and the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Both operations involved small teams of well trained and committed attackers who held their targets for an extended period, sowing destruction and garnering widespread media attention.
According to Pakistani officials who asked not to be identified, the United States fired three missiles at the Ghwa Khwa compound located about 10 miles from South Waziristan's largest town of Wana, striking two rooms where the men were staying. The compound belongs to a tribesman identified as Mir Ajam Khan with links to local militant groups.
The BBC, which was first to report his death, said Kashmiri had recently returned from elsewhere in the tribal areas.
Analysts warned that Kashmiri's death, if confirmed, could spark reprisals. "This is great news," said Javed Hussain, a security analyst and a former brigadier and special forces commander. "But there are so many vulnerable military locations in Pakistan. I expect more attacks on military targets and American sites. He supposedly had a very long reach, and it's a ruthless organization."
Kashmiri reportedly has led a unit called Brigade 313 with nearly 3,000 members that was involved in attacks as far afield as Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.
The U.S. as a policy doesn't acknowledge specific drone attacks or their intended targets. The drone program is highly controversial here because of civilians killed accidently in the attacks and the widely held view in Pakistan that the unmanned aircraft are a major violation of national sovereignty.
Nevertheless, Kashmiri's reported killing could help ease the tensions that have emerged between the U.S. and Pakistan since the Bin Laden killing, given that he's high on both countries' wanted lists.
The operation also could blunt criticism in intelligence and military circles here that the U.S. selfishly follows its own agenda without much regard for Pakistan's national interest or local political fallout. This would be particularly true if it turns out that Pakistan provided intelligence on his whereabouts, as seems likely.
"I think it's a very good sign," said Masood, the former lieutenant general. "It shows how much can be achieved. It's also good for India-Pakistan relations since he was a sworn enemy of both countries."
However, if Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami militants respond by stepping up attacks in the disputed region of Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan, relations between the two South Asia nations could deteriorate further, other analysts pointed out.
Kashmiri started his militant career working for the Pakistani army training Afghan mujahedin fighters, then fought against the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s, losing an eye.
"Once the war was over, he became jobless," said Hussain, the analyst. "He only knew one thing, how to fight."
Turning his attentions elsewhere, Kashmiri became something of a local hero after escaping from an Indian jail for helping Kashmir-based militants attack India.
Kashmiri broke with the Pakistani government, however, after Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami was banned by then-President Pervez Musharraf after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2005, he was arrested on suspicion of involvement in a 2003 assassination attempt against Musharraf but was subsequently released for lack of evidence.
Special correspondents Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Nasir Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.