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Top Al-Qaida Operative Killed In Pakistan


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

An extremist group in Pakistan says that its leader has been killed. Ilyas Kashmiri was one of the most prominent militant operators still operating after Osama bin Laden's death. In fact, there was even speculation last month he might replace bin Laden. Instead, Ilyas Kashmiri has become the target of an American drone strike.

NPR's Steve Inskeep has been reporting for Pakistan this week. He's on the line from Islamabad. Steve, thanks for being with us.

STEVE INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Scott.

SIMON: And Ilyas Kashmiri was well known by terrorism specialists, but not so well known to Americans generally. What's his record?

INSKEEP: This was a man who is dangerous enough and accomplished enough that the United States posted a $5 million reward for him, a huge reward - one of the largest that was out there, other than the one for bin Laden himself.

Like so many militants, some of his life is shrouded in mystery, but we know that he'd a former ally of the United States. He is believed to have been involved in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Later he moved on to fighting against Indian control of Kashmir.

And in 2007, according to American prosecutors, he moved his operations to Waziristan, that's one of the tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan - major area of militancy. He was the head of an organization called the 313 Brigade, in turn part of a larger organization with ties to al-Qaida, linked to a wide range of attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, and conspiracies. He had links to David Headley, the American accused of a role in the terrible Mumbai attacks of 2008. He's got a very long record.

SIMON: You mentioned that he'd once fought on the American side, decades ago. Wasn't he also linked to Pakistan?

INSKEEP: Yes. He's a figure who points to Pakistan's awkward involvement for many years with militant groups. He was a former Pakistani commando. He was seen as a hero at one time. A Pakistani newspaper a couple of years ago rather colorfully called him the blue-eyed boy of President Pervez Musharraf; the former blue-eyed boy, we should say.

But a caution here: that same article, which is in 2009, Scott, actually said Kashmiri had been killed then. So, on this day when we're reporting his death, we have to tell you he's been reportedly dead before.

SIMON: And of course that's good to keep in mind as we try and chase down this story. This was a drone strike, not a commando raid. So how certain can we be that he was killed?

INSKEEP: It may take a while, but evidence has come in all day. Local sources in South Waziristan say he's dead. News agencies are receiving a fax from his group, as you mentioned, calling him a martyr, acknowledging his death. Intelligence sources in Pakistan saying the same thing. The attack came in South Waziristan, so it may take a while for anyone to see a body, or verify a body - about 20 kilometers outside of Wana, which is the capital of that area. South Waziristan, you'll recall, is a very violent area, where Pakistani troops moved in in large numbers last year working to clear militant groups. And I suppose by the evidence of Kashmiri's existence and reported death there, they have not completely succeeded, although this death would be seen as a major victory in that effort.

SIMON: Many of our listeners have heard your fine reporting over the past week out of Pakistan. They've heard a lot of Pakistanis talk about how upset they are with U.S. policy and many give the drone strikes as a reason. They believe they kill innocent people.

INSKEEP: Yeah. There's huge criticism of this on the street. The drone strikes are hugely unpopular. Politicians raise a lot of rhetoric against them. The drone are often described as causing many civilian deaths and a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. This is the United States striking on another country's soil, even if they are striking militants. But as with many things in Pakistan, even though there's fierce criticism here, the picture is a little more complicated than it seems at first.

SIMON: And complicated how?

INSKEEP: Well, a Pakistani army general earlier this year gave a news conference, at which he said the drone strikes were successful and helpful, and that mostly killed terrorists rather than civilians. So, now and again you get a suggestion that the Pakistani government is more satisfied with these strikes than they let on.

SIMON: NPR's Steve Inskeep in Islamabad. Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.