Washington: Former Pakistani commando Ilyas Kashmiri, cited as one of the masterminds of a plot for a series of "Mumbai-style" attacks in European cities last summer, could replace Osama bin Laden as the new terrorist head of al Qaeda, according to US officials.
The bearded Kashmiri, who is also named in the terrorism case against Pakistani Canadian accused Tahawwur Hussain Rana, has been described by one senior US official as a rising star in al Qaeda terror group, NBC News reported.
Rana, who is accused of providing material support to Pakistan based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and providing a cover to Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley for scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, is set to go on trial in Chicago May 16.
Although the attacks on European cities never came off, Kashmiri, who frequently sports aviator-styled sunglasses, told a reporter for the Asian Times that the 2008 Mumbai attack was "nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future".
While Ayman al-Zawahri remains the "presumed" successor to Osama, the longtime al Qaeda deputy is deeply unpopular in some circles and his elevation is by no means guaranteed, a senior US official told reporters over the weekend.
If al-Zawahri doesn`t make it, Kashmiri may emerge as the dark horse in the ensuing power struggle, the official told NBC.
"His star has been on the rise for the last several years," said the official. "He would have to be on the al Qaeda short list."
Kashmiri was at one point a member of the Pakistani military, serving as a commando in a Special Services Group that was once tasked with training Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviets.
He was later reassigned to train Kashmiri fighters against the Indians, but broke from the Pakistani Army and joined a terrorist group - called Harakat-ul Jihad-i-Islami, or HuJI that has been closely aligned with al Qaeda.
So far, US officials have remained tight-lipped on whether they have found evidence in Osama`s Pakistan hideout that shows direct contacts between the slain al Qaeda leader and Kashmiri. But hints of such links - and of Kashmiri`s interest in mass casualty terror plots - are contained in US court documents.
According to the Chicago case indictment, Kashmiri has based his terror operations in western Pakistan and starting in 2007 was "in regular contact with al Qaeda".
In February 2009, the indictment states, Headley met with Kashmiri and another co-defendant in the Waziristan region of Pakistan and handed him surveillance videotapes he had taken of the Copenhagen offices of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that had run cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, to help plan a terrorist operation.
"During the meeting, Kashmiri indicated that he had already reviewed the Copenhagen videotapes and suggested that they consider using a truck bomb in the operation," the indictment states. "Kashmiri also indicated he could provide manpower for the operation."
Headley was at Chicago airport, preparing to take a flight to Philadelphia and then to Pakistan, where he planned to meet Kashmiri again when he was arrested by FBI agents Oct 3, 2009.
He subsequently pleaded guilty and is expected to be the star prosecution witness against Rana.