Can Ilyas Kashmiri take control of al Qaeda?

At The Times of India, I took a look at the possibility of Ilyas Kashmiri’s taking control of al Qaeda, and profiled the terror leader [free registration is required to read the full article]. We’ve been discussing Kashmiri’s meteoric rise in al Qaeda for years. Whether he takes control of al Qaeda or not, his importance to the organization is clear:


Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and al Qaeda’s Brigade 313.

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 Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-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-Qaida-linked 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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Bill Baar says:

    Ilyas? Sounds like a very Russian name? What’s the point with that kind of nom de guerre?

  • villiger says:

    Perfect specimen of vile Made in Pakistan with the charisma of a field rat.

  • kp says:

    The top bet has got to be Ayman al Zawahiri. Co-founder. It will be interesting (given his combative nature) to see what happens if he gets passed over. But clearly he is now #1 for the US capture/kill effort so he might be a liability.

    In that case I suspect Abu Yahya al Libi might be the best choice. An ideologue is exactly the sort of person in that role. But I have not heard what he’s like personally: this role requires both respect and subtlety to keep all the disparate groups on the same page.

    Sa’ad bin Laden has the name and very little else. He young. And he’s been in Iran out of the fight for a long time (but perhaps elsewhere now in Pakistan?). Unless the Quetta Shura want a cutout or they want to run a “regency” (SBL nominally in charge but the Quetta Shura runs the show).

    I don’t see Ilyas Kashmiri as a good leadership choice. Perhaps the “#3”. The KSM operational leader role given his background especially as “Kashmiri is considered by US intelligence to be one of al-Qaida’s most effective commanders”. But not as Emir that’s a very different role. What ideological comments has he made?

    The other issue (though it shouldn’t matter for the Umma) is their nationality. For getting money from the Golden Chain a Saudi would be best. Or perhaps a Egyptian or a Libyan? But a Pakistani like Kashmiri? Perhaps SBL as a figurehead?

    That said an article on their leadership styles, pronouncements on various topics and any other personal information would make an interesting read. What frictions are there between each of them and MO, Afghanii Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, HIG, the Haqqanis, the Mesuds and TTP, IMU and all the others three-letter-groups?

    @Bill Baar: watched one too many “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” episodes? 🙂

    Ilyas (?????) was a Prophet. It’s a not uncommon Urdu/Pakistani boys name. That’s Elias or Elijah in the Christian tradition where the Russian version of the name probably arose.

  • Tyler says:

    Kashmiri would be the only known potential replacement that would give me serious worry. In terms of his ability to balance aspirations with capabilities and carry out real operations.
    But what of the possibility for real strategic shift for Al Qaeda? If they named Nasir al Wuhayshi, the AQAP chief, as leader…moving their base of operations to brink-of-revolution Yemen? Simultaneously making a desperate move to be relevant amidst the Arab Spring, and suck away remaining American support for the Afghan War?

  • Charu says:

    For al Qaida to thrive as a global terror organization it requires the resources of an organized state. Backwards Somalia or Yemen won’t do, and so that rules out al Awlaki from taking control (beyond his successful web-based outreach). Al Zawahiri is unlikely to find a base in Egypt and will always be suspicious of being sold-out by the Pakistanis in his current location. So it leaves Kashmiri as the obvious choice as the favored native who will be well connected to the military, ISI, and their terrorist affiliates like LeT and JeM (and of course HUJI).
    Kashmiri’s background and appearance will also allow him to operate in Bangladesh, a HUJI stronghold and with many of the same problems as Pakistan – weak civilian government and Islamicized military and inteligence services. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi diaspora youth are also far more sympathetic to global calls of terrorism, which also gives Kashmiri the edge. Let’s not forget that KSM and his family were essentially Pakistanis.

  • naresh c. says:

    I doubt Arabs will accept a Pakistani as a leader.
    Arabs treat Pakistanis as their servants and Pakistanis are quite happy when Arabs treat them with sophisticated contempt. Look at the relationship between Bin Laden and his courier. Its difficult for a rational person to understand why that is but it a form of mental and psychological colonialism. I will be highly surprised to see a Pakistani become anything other menial couriers or arrangers or foot soldiers in AQ. No radical Arab will listen to a video of a radical Pakistani or give any radical Pakistani a rock star status. I will have to politely disagree with LWJ on this and will be highly surprised, should it happen without a split in AQ.

  • anan says:

    Bill Baar:
    Ilyas = Arabic for John the Baptist
    Naresh, think what you are saying is less true now than a generation ago.
    There are reports from Pakistan that what is left of the rump AQ in Pakistan + Ilyas Kashmiri + LeT + JeM + TTP + TNSM + IJU + IMU now partly semi report to Sirajuddin Haqqani.
    Ilyas Kashmiri is now reported to command Osama Bin Laden’s original 055 Bde, 313 Bde of Kashmiri fame, and Lashkar e Jhanvi.
    Bill, is this your understanding as well?
    How influencial is Ilyas in the broader anti Shiite alliance [Sipah e Sahaba + Lashkar e Jhanvi + Jundullah]?
    The most dangerous outcome for the world might be de facto [if not de jure] leadership by Siraj and Ilyas of AQ. If so, then, most of the Pakistani Taliban and most of the Afghan Taliban and the Uzbeks and the Chechens and the Arabs could fuse in the South and central Asian region.
    “Fortunately”, Mullah Omar is still alive. If Ilyas/Siraj, or ANSF/ISAF/ISI kill him, then the above outcome becomes more probable I think.

  • My2Cents says:

    While the top man may formulate strategy, many operational decisions are best make by local commanders. Taking Ilyas Kashmiri out of the field and putting him in management may actually weaken al-Qaeda.
    But the really critical role of the top leader in an organization like al-Qaeda is fund raising, which will make contacts in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, etc. crucial. OBL had these in spades. Ayman al Zawahiri is probably the best of those remaining. Ilyas Kashmiri is at least a distant 3rd.

  • kp says:

    “Ilyas = Arabic for John the Baptist”

    Nope, that would be Yahya.

    Ilyas really is Elias/Elijah.

    The question marks in my original post was the Arabic for Ilyas. I guess this comment system doesn’t do unicode/bidi scripts. 🙂

  • sanman says:

    One reason why Ilyas Kashmiri would be a good pick to lead AlQaeda, is because of his intimate ties to the Kashmir jihad. If AlQaeda hopes to achieve its goal of seizing control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, then they need to suck in enough local support to overthrow the Pakistani state. Since the Pakistani establishment have made Kashmir an issue near and dear to the hearts of every Pakistani, then selecting a leader who is deeply intertwined with the Kashmir jihad, including through his obvious nom de guerre, could be their ticket to ride.

  • anan says:

    kp is right. Ilyas is Elias.

  • Jshak says:

    Zawahiri could not crank out terror with his Egyptian jihad organization, which was his motivation to team up with bin Laden in the first place. It indeed would be interesting to see, if AQ would split would he not be the new no. 1. From a strategic as well as tactical standpoint Ilyas Kashmiri would be the “best” fit. But even as AQ you don’t want him in the leadership position. You need an ideologue, a leader, who keeps the organization together and attracts new recruits. Osama bin Laden was highly charismatic. Neither Kashmiri nor Zawahiri have this attribute.

  • Iqbal says:

    Given the fact that Kashmiri has had close ties – though in the past with Pakistan Army – that could be revived in future too and the influence that Al Qaeda top leader requires to exercise over its global operation; chances of his being at OBL’s slot are negligible.
    Its beyond being a capable or not – the so called Arab pride / superiority – is yet going to be deciding factor.
    Aparantly- though at the run under extreme US led CIA campaign – but Aiman ul Zahwari seems to be a strong contender for the dirty slot.
    A division with in the organisation is already imminent, neverthless, these terrorist organistaions – inthe tha past have over cocome their differnces to sort out these critical issues.The continue pressure – in the shape of renewed US drone strike campaign – that somewhat lost its impetus in the past few months – must continue with fullest strength to deal them – the ultimate aim – from the position of strength.

  • Matt says:

    Even the great Kashmiri is going to have trouble pulling that one off now.

  • moe says:

    lol hes dead


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