America´s persistent, and increasing, use of drone attacks against suspected terrorists in remote parts of Pakistan remains immensely unpopular in that country. More so than the raid by American special forces, which killed Osama bin Laden last month in Abbottabad, the drone strikes incite fury: Pakistanis see their national sovereignty violated repeatedly and unlucky civilians killed in the process. Pakistan’s government, though acquiescing in the use of drones—reportedly even letting America launch some of them from its own soil—in public rejects them. American diplomats in Pakistan, at least on the record, are supposed to deny that such a programme exists.
Yet it is clear why the Americans use them: they work. Late on June 3rd, a drone strike reportedly killed Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al-Qaeda leader, and several of his men, as they took tea in an orchard in South Waziristan. Officials in America and Pakistan alike are still wary of confirming Mr Kashmiri’s death: after all, he was reported killed by an American drone strike once before, in September 2009, only to reappear Lazarus-like a month later to give a gloating interview to a Pakistani journalist, Saleem Shahzad (who, in a gloomy coincidence, was himself was murdered a few days ago). But the death of Mr Kashmiri, if confirmed, would mean the Americans have notched up another serious blow against al-Qaeda, and one that could be welcomed unreservedly by Pakistanis, too.
The legend of Ilyas Kashmiri had been carefully cultured. The man wore dapper sunglasses and reportedly alternated the dye of his thick beard—from white to red to black—as part of a system of disguise. As with bin Laden, who took enormous care to craft his public image and so to bolster his standing among other militants and supporters around the world, Mr Kashmiri’s reported exploits over the years were mind-boggling. Trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the ISI, he was deployed to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s (where he lost an eye) and then in the 1990s was encouraged to attack India, notably in his native Kashmir. He formed a militant group, 313 Brigade, which became famous in Pakistan for its ability to harass Indian forces. Bruce Riedel, who advises the American government on Pakistan, suggests that Mr Kashmiri was considered “an ISI hero” as late as 2000, especially after he walked into the organisation’s headquarters in Islamabad brandishing the severed head of an Indian soldier.
After 9/11, however, when Pakistan’s government allied with America in its fight against al-Qaeda, Mr Kashmiri and his militants broke away. Over the past decade he is rumoured to have been involved in attacks directed against the heart of the Pakistani establishment. A UN report suggested that he may have masterminded the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, late in 2007. He probably attempted an unsuccessful plot or two a few years earlier against Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military dictator. And he is widely thought to have had some role in the devastating attack late in May on a Pakistani naval base, Mehran, in Karachi which killed ten personnel and almost certainly involved insider support. The effect of that attack—especially given the ongoing drone programme and the unchallenged American assault against bin Laden in a cosy military town—was to further humiliate Pakistan’s armed forces.
Mr Kashmiri’s actual importance at the time of his death, however, may never be known. The Americans ranked him as a very senior leader, along with Ayman al-Zawahari, for example. Both men were touted last month as potential successors to bin Laden, within the central body of al-Qaeda. Mr Kashmiri’s name had been raised recently in the trial of an American citizen who stood accused of supporting the Pakistan-based terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing 170 people. Mr Kashmiri was said to be the al-Qaeda handler of David Headley, a Pakistani-American who helped to plot the Mumbai attacks and who was planning to pull off something similar in Copenhagen, Denmark. Mr Kashmiri was reportedly in charge of recruiting jihadis to carry out al-Qaeda terrorist attacks against Westerners.
Being a South Asian, rather than an Arab, however, it is unclear how much sway Mr Kashmiri would have had over other leaders of al-Qaeda, nor how strong his influence might have grown beyond the region. He clearly feared for his life, especially after the Americans snatched a treasure-trove of intelligence from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. He had only just arrived in South Waziristan from a more northerly part of Pakistan.
Other militant leaders in Pakistan might also be unnerved by this attack, and reasonably so. Mr Kashmiri’s killing could well be a sign that the Americans are making use of a fresh crop of intelligence about their targets, or that the Pakistani army (perhaps infuriated by the Karachi attack, and under American pressure to launch a military assault in North Waziristan) is co-operating with them more closely. Either way, expect the use of drones, as unpopular as it is in Pakistan, to continue.