The New Bin Laden

Article excerpt

Byline: Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau, and Christopher Dickey

The terrorist behind recent scares in Europe and America has a grim record--and a knack for staying alive.

Evil geniuses are a rare breed, even in the ranks of Al Qaeda. Those few who planned the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen 10 years ago and the atrocities in America on September 11, 2001, were killed or captured by the spring of 2003, and Osama bin Laden has been hard pressed ever since to recruit anyone able to take their place. But now, at last, he seems to have found his man, and that's a major reason intelligence services from Washington to Paris to Islamabad have been acting so jittery of late.

Ilyas Kashmiri, 46, has the experience, the connections, and a determination to attack the West--including the United States--that make him the most dangerous Qaeda operative to emerge in years. "This guy ties everybody together," says a veteran U.S. intelligence officer who has been watching Kashmiri's rise to prominence closely but is not authorized to speak publicly. Kashmiri fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Indians in Kashmir and in India itself. He also worked with the Pakistani intelligence service, but turned on Islamabad with a vengeance in 2003, trying to murder then-president Pervez Musharraf. Since then Kashmiri has been linked to planned attacks in Denmark, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, most probably Chicago.

Today, Pakistani intelligence assets on the ground and American drones in the air hunt Kashmiri relentlessly in the ungoverned tribal areas near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Pakistani officials fear that if Kashmiri carries out another major attack on India or in the West, their country could suffer massive retaliation. A senior Pakistani military officer who tracks militants, and declines to be named for security reasons, says Kashmiri's "skill, his leadership, and his wide relations with Pakistani and foreign militants make him the most dangerous man for Pakistan, Europe, and the U.S." Kashmiri agrees. After erroneous reports that he'd been killed in September 2009, he gave an interview and gloated that the Americans were right to pursue him. "They know their enemy well," he said. "They know what I am really up to."

Born in the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir in 1964, this veteran terrorist lost an index finger and one of his eyes during the fight against the Soviets in the 1980s. In such photographs as exist, he's often shown wearing aviator sunglasses. He reportedly changes the color of his thick beard frequently, and it may be white or dyed red with henna, or then again dyed black. But his imposing presence and the deference shown him can still make him stand out.

According to Hafiz Hanif, the pseudonym of a 16-year-old Afghan who fought in Al Qaeda's ranks last year, Kashmiri's status as a bin Laden favorite was obvious. Kashmiri rode in a new four-wheel-drive pickup truck flying a white flag. Most of the Qaeda leadership is from the Arab world, not South Asia, but Kashmiri attended nearly all the top-secret terrorist summits held in North Waziristan. Hanif, who often acted as a bodyguard for a high-ranking Libyan Qaeda leader, says Kashmiri was the only non-Arab he saw attending strategy sessions. "He came to the most restricted meetings of the Arab mujahedin," Hanif told Newsweek last week. "He could go to meetings and to areas that were off-limits to some Arab Al Qaeda leaders."

Kashmiri is so active organizing and carrying out guerrilla-style attacks that the jihadis have taken to calling him "the commando commander," says Hanif. The key to such operations is preparation, and Kashmiri is an acknowledged master. "Kashmiri is the most experienced person in planning, choosing targets, and getting men ready," says one Pakistani intelligence officer. His reputation for murder and mayhem in the subcontinent goes back years, but--this is what has set off alarm bells in Europe--his current project is to nurture jihadis from the West. …