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How a former Pakistani commando became a terrorist

September 20, 2009 20:45 IST
Hamid Mir reveals how former Pakistani army commando Illyas Kashmiri, once the darling of the Pakistani military establishment, became a dreaded terrorist.

He was once General Pervez Musharraf's blue eyed boy, receiving a cash award of Rs 100,000 in 2000 from Pakistan's then president for killing an Indian Army officer. Eighteen months later, after 9/11, Musharraf declared him a terrorist.

Ilyas Kashmiri was reportedly killed in a US drone attack in North Waziristan last week. US officials claimed that Kashmiri was a senior Al Qaeda commander and his death was a huge loss for the militants fighting foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Very few people know that Kashmiri was a former Pakistan army commando. He hailed from the Kotli area in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and was deputed by the Pakistan army to train the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Army in the mid 1980s, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

He was an expert in planting mines supplied to the mujahideen by the United States, which then sponsored the rebellion against the Soviet army.

Kashmiri lost an eye during the jihad against the Soviet army. He later joined the Harkat-ul Jihad-i-Islami led by Nabi Muhammadi.

Kashmiri was then based in the Miramsha area in North Waziristan where he worked as an instructor in a training camp. After the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, he was asked by the Pakistani establishment to work with Kashmiri militants. He joined HUJI's Kashmir chapter in 1991, but soon developed differences with Harkat's head, Qari Saifullah Akhtar.

He then created his own unit -- the 313 Brigade -- in HuJI. The Indian Army arrested him in Poonch along with Nasrullah Mansoor Langrial. He was imprisoned in different jails for two years before he escaped. Langrial remains in prison.

Kashmiri's reputation grew after his escape. In 1998 he was assigned to attack Indian Army positions along the Line of Control.

On February 25, 2000, Indian Army troops allegedly crossed the Line of Control and killed 14 people in Nakial in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

On the morning of February 26, Kashmiri conducted a guerrilla operation against the Indian Army in the Nakial sector. He crossed the LoC with 25 fighters from his 313 brigade, surrounded an Indian Army bunker and threw grenades inside. He also kidnapped an injured Indian Army officer who he later killed brutally.

He returned to Pakistan with the Indian Army officer's head in his bag and presented it to senior Pakistan army officers. President Musharraf, who was also then the army chief, awarded his Rs 100,000 for this action.

Photographs of Kashmiri with the Indian Army officer's head were published in some Pakistani newspapers and he became very important among Kashmiri militants. Zahoor Ahmad Alvi of the Jamia Muhammadia Islamabad issued a fatwa supporting such murders of Indian Army officers. Lieutenant General Mehmood Ahmad, then the corps commander in Rawalpindi, visited Kashmiri's terrorist training camp in Kotli and appreciated his frequent guerrilla actions against the Indian Army.

His honeymoon with Pakistan's generals ended after the Jaish-e-Mohammad was created. Mehmood wanted Kashmiri to join the Jaish and accept Masood Azhar -- who was released along with two other terrorists in exchange for the crew and passengers on the hijacked Indian Airlines Airbus, IC-814, on December 31, 1999 -- as his leader. But the one-eyed Kashmiri refused to do so.

The Jaish attacked his training camp in Kotli, but Kashmiri survived that assault. After 9/11, Musharraf banned Kashmiri's outfit.

He was arrested after an attempt on Musharraf's life in December 2003 and tortured during the interrogation.

The United Jihad Council led by Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin strongly protested Kashmiri's arrest. In February 2004, Kashmiri was released, but was a shattered man. He disassociated himself from Kashmiri militants and remained silent for at least three years.

The Pakistan military's operation against the Lal Masjid in July 2007 totally changed Ilyas Kashmiri. He moved to North Waziristan where he had spent many years as an instructor in jihad against the Soviet army. This area was full of his friends and sympathisers. He reorganised his 313 brigade and joined hands with the Taliban, but was never close to the Al Qaeda leadership.

Many former Pakistan army officers joined him. His 313 Brigade in North Waziristan numbered more than 3,000 fighters; most of them hailed from Punjab, Sindh and Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

It is alleged that he organised many terrorist attacks in different parts of Pakistan including the assassination of Major General Faisal Alvi (retired) in Rawalpindi. Alvi, a Pakistan army commando, had led the first army operation in North Waziristan in 2004. Kashmiri is said to have killed Alvi after it was demanded by the Taliban in North Wazirstan.

Sources close to his family have not confirmed Kashmiri's death. There is no doubt that Ilyas Kashmiri was a creation of the Pakistani establishment like Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhwi of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba is.

The Pakistani establishment has abandoned and arrested most of these militant leaders without realising that they have followers all over Pakistan who can create problems for the country at any time.

Hamid Mir in Islamabad