A high-level meeting on October 9 at the presidential palace between Pakistan's civil and military leaders endorsed a military operation against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the South Waziristan tribal area - termed by analysts as the mother of all regional conflicts.
At the same time, al-Qaeda is implementing its game plan in the South Asian war theater as a part of its broader campaign against American global hegemony that began with the attacks in the United States of September 11, 2001.
Al-Qaeda's target remains the United States and its allies, such as Europe, Israel and India, and it does not envisage diluting this strategy by embracing Muslim resistances on narrow parameters. In this context, militant activity in Pakistan is seen as a complexity rather than as a part of al-Qaeda's strategy.
Militants have been particularly active over the past few days. Last Thursday, a car loaded with explosives rammed into the compound wall of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, killing at least 17 people. Then on Saturday, militants staged an audacious attack on the the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the capital, Islamabad. On Monday, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in market town in the Swat Valley region, killing 41 people and injuring 45 others.
Pakistan is at critical juncture, with the armed forces gathered in their largest-ever numbers (almost a corps, as many as 60,000 troops) around South Waziristan to flush out the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban (PTT), al-Qaeda and their allies from the Pakistani tribal areas.
In these tense times, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda leader who, according to American intelligence is al-Qaeda's head of military operations and whose death they wrongly confirmed in a recent US Predator drone attack in North Waziristan, spoke to Asia Times Online.
He invited this correspondent to a secret hideout in the South Waziristan-Afghanistan border area, where drones regularly fly overhead.
This is Ilyas' first-ever media interaction since he joined al-Qaeda in 2005. He is a veteran commander from the struggle with India over divided Kashmir.
In the past few months, the militants have appeared to be on the back foot. A number of leading figures have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan, including Osama al-Kini, a Kenyan national and al-Qaeda's external operations chief; Khalid Habib, the commander of the Lashkar al-Zil or the Shadow Army, al-Qaeda's fighting force; Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; PTT leader Baitullah Mehsud, and several others.
The Pakistani Taliban have also been given a bloody nose by the military in tribal and urban areas. Negotiations were also underway to strike peace deals with some Taliban commanders in various Afghan provinces.
Then last week at least nine US troops along with several dozen Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel were killed in a raid on an outpost in Nuristan province, besides the abduction of over 30 ANA officers and soldiers by the Taliban.
This attack was complemented by a series of other attacks on North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases across the southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika, forcing top US General Stanley McChrystal to pull out all troops from isolated posts in remote areas in these provinces to relocate them in population centers.
This created immense space for the Taliban to operate freely, meaning that if Pakistan conducted operations in South Waziristan, the militants could easily move across the border to find sanctuary.
The attacks over the past few days have also shown that the militants are still capable of striking important targets almost at will. They also mean a redesign of the war theater in which Pakistan will have to relocate its troops from the eastern front (India) to the western front (Afghanistan), as the Taliban are now the number one enemy.
Washington plans to send at least another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan while India will complement these efforts with its intelligence and military expertise against the common enemy - Muslim militant groups.
The Upcoming Battle
Ilyas Kashmiri gave his views on what the upcoming battle will look like, what its targets will be, and how it will impact the West in relation to the destabilization of a Muslim state such as Pakistan.
The contact began with a call from the militants on October 6, inviting this correspondent to the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. No reason was given. The next day, I traveled to Mir Ali, a town that has been heavily attacked by drones over the past year. After over seven hours of continuous traveling, I was received by a group of armed men who transferred me to a house belonging to a local tribesman.
"The commander [Ilyas Kashmiri] is alive. You know that the commander has never spoken to the media before, but since everybody is sure of his death as a result of a drone attack [in September], al-Qaeda's shura [council] decided to make a denial of this news through an interview by him to an independent newspaper, and therefore the shura agreed on you," a person whom I knew as the key person in Ilyas' famous 313 Brigade told me as soon as I reached the safe house. The brigade, a collection of jihadi groups, fought for many years against India in India-administered Kashmir.
"You will have to stay in this room until we inform you of the next plan. You can hear the voices of drones above your head, therefore you will not leave the room. The area is full of Taliban, but also of informers whose information on the presence of strangers in a house could lead to a drone attack," the man said.
The next day, I was transferred to another house at an unknown location, about three hours away. During this time I was accompanied at all times by an armed escort. I was not allowed to speak to them, and they could not communicate with me. This is al-Qaeda's internal world. Finally, in the early morning of October 9, a few armed men arrived in a white car.
"Please leave all your electronic gadgets here. No cell phone, no camera, nothing. We will provide you pen and paper to write the interview," I was instructed. After several hours of a very uncomfortable journey, passing down muddy tracks and through mountain passes, we reached a room where Ilyas was supposed to meet us.
After a couple of hours, suddenly the sound of a powerful vehicle broke the silence. My escort and the men already present in the room rapidly took up positions. They all wore bullet pouches and carried AK-47s.
Ilyas made his entrance. He cut a striking figure, about six feet tall (1.83 meters), wearing a cream-colored turban and white qameez shalwar (traditional shirt and pants), carrying an AK-47 on his shoulder and a wooden stick in one hand, and flanked by commandos of his famous diehard 313 Brigade.
Ilyas now sports a long white beard dyed with reddish henna. At the age of 45 he remains strongly built, although he carries the scars of war - he has lost an eye and an index figure. When we shook hands, his grip was powerful.
The host immediately served lunch, and we sat on the floor to eat. "So, you have survived a third drone strike ... why is the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] sniffing around you so much? I asked.
The question was somewhat rhetorical. He is one of the most high-profile al-Qaeda commanders, with a Pakistani bounty of 50 million rupees (US$600,000) on his head. His position is defined differently by various intelligence and media organizations. Some say he is commander-in-chief of al-Qaeda's global operations, while others say he is chief of al-Qaeda's military wing.
If today al-Qaeda is divided into three spheres, Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly the symbol of the movement and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri defines al-Qaeda's ideology and broader strategic vision. Ilyas, with his unmatched guerrilla expertise, turns the strategic vision into reality, provides the resources and gets targets achieved, but he chooses to remain in the background and very low key.
His bases and activities have always remained shrouded in secrecy. However, the arrest of five of his men in Pakistan earlier this year and their subsequent grilling helped lift the veil. Their information resulted in CIA drone strikes against him, the first in May and then again on September 7, when he was pronounced dead by Pakistani intelligence, and finally on September 14, after which the CIA said he was dead and called it a great success in the "war on terror".
"They are right in their pursuit. They know their enemy well. They know what I am really up to," Ilyas proudly replied.
Born in Bimbur (old Mirpur) in the Samhani Valley of Pakistan-administered Kashmir on February 10, 1964, Ilyas passed the first year of a mass communication degree at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. He did not continue due to his heavy involvement in jihadi activities.
The Kashmir Freedom Movement was his first exposure in the field of militancy, then the Harkat-ul Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI) and ultimately his legendary 313 Brigade. This grew into the most powerful group in South Asia and its network is strongly knitted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. According to some CIA dispatches, the footprints of 313 Brigade are now in Europe and capable of the type of attack that saw a handful of militants terrorize the Indian city of Mumbai last November.
Little is documented of Ilyas' life, and what has been reported is often contradictory. However, he is invariably described, certainly by world intelligence agencies, as the most effective, dangerous and successful guerrilla leader in the world.
He left the Kashmir region in 2005 after his second release from detention by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and headed for North Waziristan. He had previously been arrested by Indian forces, but he broke out of jail and escaped. He was then detained by the ISI as the suspected mastermind of an attack on then-president Pervez Musharraf, in 2003, but was cleared and released. The ISI then picked Ilyas up again in 2005 after he refused to close down his operations in Kashmir.
His relocation to the troubled border areas sent a chill down spines in Washington as they realized that with his vast experience, he could turn unsophisticated battle patterns in Afghanistan into audacious modern guerrilla warfare.
Ilyas' track record spoke for itself. In 1994, he launched the al-Hadid operation in the Indian capital, New Delhi, to get some of his jihadi comrades released. His group of 25 people included Sheikh Omar Saeed (the abductor of US reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002) as his deputy. The group abducted several foreigners, including American, Israeli and British tourists and took them to Ghaziabad near Delhi. They then demanded that the Indian authorities release their colleagues, but instead they attacked the hideout. Sheikh Omar was injured and arrested. (He was later released in a swap for the passengers of a hijacked Indian aircraft). Ilyas escaped unhurt.
On February 25, 2000, the Indian army killed 14 civilians in Lonjot village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir after commandos had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the two Kashmirs. They returned to the Indian side with abducted Pakistani girls, and threw the severed heads of three of them at Pakistani soldiers.
The very next day, Ilyas conducted a guerilla operation against the Indian army in Nakyal sector after crossing the LoC with 25 fighters of 313 Brigade. They kidnapped an Indian army officer who was later beheaded - his head was paraded in the bazaars of Kotli back in Pakistani territory.
However, the most significant operation of Ilyas was in Aknor cantonment in Indian-administered Kashmir against the Indian armed forces following the massacre of Muslims in the Indian city of Gujarat in 2002. In cleverly planned attacks involving 313 Brigade divided into two groups, Indian generals, brigadiers and other senior officials were lured to the scene of the first attack. Two generals were injured (the Pakistan army could not injure a single Indian general in three wars) and several brigadiers and colonels were killed. This was one of the most telling setbacks for India in the long-running Kashmiri insurgency.
Despite what some reports claim, Ilyas was never a part of Pakistan's special forces, nor even of the army. Nearly 30 years ago when he joined the Afghan jihad against the Soviets from the platform of the HUJI, he developed expertise in guerrilla warfare and explosives.
Within just months of arriving in the Afghan war theater in 2005, Kashmiri redefined the Taliban-led insurgency based on legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap's three-pronged guerrilla warfare strategy. For the Taliban, the main emphasis was to be placed on cutting NATO's supply lines from all four sides of Afghanistan, and carrying out special operations similar to the Mumbai attack in Afghanistan.
Over the years, Ilyas has deliberately adopted a low key presence in the militants' hierarchy. His attacks are just the opposite, although he never issues statements or claims responsibility for any operation.
His 313 Brigade is believed to be the main catalyst of high-profile operations such as the one in Mumbai and others in Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda's operations in Somalia and to some extent in Iraq.
"Do you believe that the upcoming South Waziristan operation will be the 'mother of all operations' in the region, as some analysts say," I asked after we had finished lunch and I was alone with Ilyas and his trusted confidant.
"I don't know how to play with words during an interview," Ilyas responded. "I have always been a field commander and I know the language of battlefields. I will try to answer your questions in the language I am familiar with. (Ilyas spoke mostly in Urdu, mixed with some Punjabi.)
"Saleem! I will draw your attention to the basics of the present war theater and use that to explain the whole strategy of the upcoming battles. Those who planned this battle actually aimed to bring the world's biggest Satan [US] and its allies into this trap and swamp [Afghanistan]. Afghanistan is a unique place in the world where the hunter has all sorts of traps to choose from.
"It might be deserts, rivers, mountains and the urban centers as well. This was the thinking of the planners of this war who were sick and tired of the great Satan's global intrigues and they aim for its demise to make this world a place of peace and justice. However, the great Satan was full of arrogance of its superiority and thought of Afghans as helpless statues who would be hit from all four sides by its war machines, and they would not have the power and capacity to retaliate.
"This was the illusion on which a great alliance of world powers came to Afghanistan, but due to their misplaced conceptions they gradually became trapped in Afghanistan. Today, NATO does not have any significance or relevance. They have lost the war in Afghanistan. Now, when they realized their defeat, they developed an emphasis that this entire battle is being fought from outside of Afghanistan, that is, the two Waziristans. To me, this military thesis is a mirage which has created a complex situation in the region and created reactions and counter-reactions. I would not like to go into the details, to me that was nothing but deviation. As a military commander, the reality is that the trap of Afghanistan is successful and the basic military targets on the ground have been achieved," Ilyas said.
I responded that the relocation of 313 Brigade from Kashmir was itself proof that foreign hands were involved in Afghanistan.
"The entire basis of your argument is wrong, that this war is being fought from outside of Afghanistan. This is just an out-of-context understanding of the whole situation. If you discuss myself and 313 Brigade, I decided to join the Afghan resistance as an individual and I had quite a reason for that. Everybody knows that only a decade ago I was fighting a war of liberation for my homeland Kashmir.
"However, I realized that decades of armed and political struggles could not help to inch forward a resolution of this issue. Nevertheless, East Timor's issue was resolved without losing much time. Why? Because the entire game was in the hands of the great Satan, the USA. Organs like the UN and countries like India and Israel were simply the extension of its resources and that's why there was a failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, the Kashmir issue and the plight of Afghanistan.
"So I and many people all across the world realized that analyzing the situation in any narrow regional political perspective was an incorrect approach. This is a different ball game altogether for which a unified strategy is compulsory. The defeat of American global hegemony is a must if I want the liberation of my homeland Kashmir, and therefore it provided the reasoning for my presence in this war theater.
Ilyas continued, "When I came here I found my step justified; how the world regional powers operate under the umbrella of the great Satan and how they are supportive of its great plans. This can be seen here in Afghanistan." He added that al-Qaeda's regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength.
"The RAW [India's Research and Analysis Wing] has detachment command centers in the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Jalalabad, Khost, Argun, Helmand and Kandahar. The cover operations are road construction companies. For instance, the road construction contract from Khost city to the Tanai tribe area is handled by a contractor who is actually a current Indian army colonel. In Gardez, telecommunication companies are the cover for Indian intelligence operations. Mostly, their men operate with Muslim names, but actually the employees are Hindus."
"So should the world expect more Mumbai-like attacks?" I asked.
"That was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future," Ilyas replied.
"Even against Israel and the USA?" I asked.
"Saleem, I am not a traditional jihadi cleric who is involved in sloganeering. As a military commander, I would say every target has a specific time and reasons, and the responses will be forthcoming accordingly," Ilyas said.
As I noted Kashmiri's answers, I thought of how several years back he was the darling of the Pakistani armed forces, their pride. The highest military officers were proud to meet him at his base in Kashmir, they spent time with him and listened to the legends of his war games. Today, I had a different person in front of me - a man condemned as a terrorist by the Pakistani military establishment and their biggest wish is his death.
"What impressed you to join al-Qaeda?" I asked.
"We were both victims of the same tyrant. Today, the entire Muslim world is sick of Americans and that's why they are agreeing with Sheikh Osama. If all of the Muslim world is asked to elect their leader, their choice would be either [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar or Sheikh Osama," Ilyas said.
"If it is so, why are a section of militants bent on war on Muslim states like Pakistan? Do you think this is correct?"
"Our battle cannot be against Muslims and believers. As I have mentioned earlier, what is happening at the moment in the Muslim world is a complexity due to American power games which have resulted into reactions and counter-reactions. This is a totally different debate and might deviate me from the real topic. The real game is the fight against the great Satan and its adherents," Ilyas said.
"What turned you from the most-beloved friend to the most-hated foe in the eyes of the Pakistani military establishment?" I asked.
"Pakistan is my beloved country and the people who live there are our brothers, sisters and relatives. I cannot even think of going against its interests. It was never the Pakistan army that was against me, but certain elements who branded me as an enemy to cover up their weaknesses and to appease their masters," Ilyas said.
"What is 313 Brigade?" I asked.
"I cannot tell you, except war is all tactics and this is all 313 Brigade is about; reading the enemy's mind and reacting accordingly. The world thought that Prophet Mohammad only left women behind. They forgot there were real men also who did not know what defeat was all about. The world is only familiar with those so-called Muslims who only follow the direction of the air and who don't have their own will. They do not have their own minds or dimensions of their own. The world has yet to see real Muslims. They have so far only seen Osama and Mullah Omar, while there are thousands of others. Wolves only respect a lion's iron slap; lions do not impress with the logic of a sheep," Ilyas said.
As the shadows of darkness emerged, the conversation ended. The next day, a curfew was to be imposed in North Waziristan in preparation for the grand operation in the region, and I had to leave the area. Ilyas also needed to move to a new destination, as he does on a regular basis to hide from the eyes of Predator drones.