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Image: Ilyas Kashmiri
Saeed Khan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Ilyas Kashmiri once told a reporter that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were “nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future.”
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/10/2011 6:07:11 AM ET 2011-05-10T10:07:11

A Pakistani former commando who has been linked to multiple terror plots — including a series of planned “Mumbai style” attacks in European cities last summer — has emerged as a possible successor to Osama bin Laden as leader of al-Qaida, according to U.S. officials.

Although Ilyas Kashmiri is barely known to the American public, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have increasingly focused on him in recent years. The CIA has targeted him in drone attacks in northwest Pakistan and federal prosecutors have indicted him in a major terrorism case involving a Chicago businessman who goes on trial next week.

An elusive figure who often wears heavily tinted aviator glasses, Kashmiri remains at large and active in plotting new attacks against the West, U.S. officials say. It was Kashmiri who, according to U.S. officials, was the key figure behind a suspected plot for multiple attacks in European cities, patterned after the 2008 Mumbai terror strike, which led to a  widely publicized State Department travel advisory in October.

While Ayman al-Zawahri remains the “presumed” successor to bin Laden, the longtime al-Qaida deputy is deeply unpopular in some circles and his elevation is by no means guaranteed, a senior U.S. official told reporters this weekend. If al-Zawahri doesn’t make it, Kashmiri may emerge as the dark horse in the ensuing power struggle, the official told NBC on Monday. 

“His star has been on the rise for the last several years,” said the official. “He would have to be on the al-Qaida short list.”

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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 mujahedeen 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 (“Movement of Islamic Holy War”) — that has been closely aligned with al-Qaida.

Slideshow: World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden (on this page)

So far, U.S.  officials have remained tight-lipped on whether they have found evidence in bin Laden’s compound that shows direct contacts between the now deceased al-Qaida leader and Kashmiri. But hints of such links — and of Kashmiri’s interest in mass casualty terror plots — are contained in U.S. court documents.

One of those documents was filed in the U.S. government’s case against Raja Laharib Khan, a Chicago cab driver from Pakistan, who was charged last year with providing material support to al-Qaida.

An FBI affidavit unsealed as part of the court record in the case alleges that Kahn claimed to have known Kashmiri for 15 years and made frequent visits to Pakistan to meet with him from 2008 to 2010. In a March 17, 2010, conversation with an undercover agent in Chicago that was secretly recorded by the FBI, Khan described a 2008 meeting with Kashmiri in the Pakistani city of Miran Shah in which the two men allegedly discussed bin Laden.

Kashmiri told him that bin Laden was “alive” and “healthy” and still very much in charge of the terror organization, Khan told the undercover agent.  “(He is) commanding, he’s giving orders.”

“Does he give orders to Kashmiri?” the undercover agent asked, according to the transcript.

“Just, yeah, to Kashmiri, then Kashmiri give the order to mujahedeen … al-Qaida and Taliban.”

'Blow up buildings'
Later in the conversation, Khan said of Kashmiri, “He’s the main key, after Osama bin Laden,” according to the document. He also allegedly told the undercover agent that Kashmiri planned to use money that Khan was sending him to purchase weapons and train mujahedeen recruits for operations “in Kashmir, Palestine, Bosnia, and Georgia, Russia.”

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in 'The Isikoff Files'

He also wanted to train operatives to “blow up buildings” and bridges in the United States, but needed American citizens to come for training to Pakistan, Khan allegedly told the undercover agent; otherwise it was “very hard” to get non-U.S. citizens into the country. (Khan has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyer, Thomas Durkin, said there “is an awful lot of things in the Khan case that don’t make any sense, including the government’s contention that Kashmiri is part of al-Qaida.”)  

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Kashmiri has been separately indicted in an even bigger terrorism case in Chicago against a local businessman, Tahawwur Hussain Rani, who is charged with providing cover for a Pakistani-born American terrorist, David Coleman Headley, who has confessed to conducting surveillance for the Mumbai terror attacks and plotting with Kashmiri to blow up a Danish newspaper in retaliation for its publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

According to the indictment, Kashmiri has based his terror operations in western Pakistan and starting in 2007 was “in regular contact with al-Qaida.” In February 2009, the indictment charges, 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 Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that had run the cartoons, in order to help plan the 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’s O’Hare airport, preparing to hop a flight to Philadelphia and then to Pakistan, where he planned to meet Kashmiri again when he was arrested by FBI agents on Oct. 3, 2009. He subsequently pleaded guilty and is expected to be the government’s star witness against Rani, whose trial is due to start next week.

Shortly before Headley’s arrest, Kashmiri was reported to have been killed by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan. But weeks later, he surfaced briefly, giving an interview to the Asia Times in which he told a reporter that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were “nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future.”

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Video: Pakistan to release info on bin Laden's wives

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
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    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction
  3. Image:
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    Slideshow (81) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - World reaction
  4. Image:
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    Slideshow (29) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - The compound
  5. Image: Protest against US drone strikes in Pakistan
    Shahzaib Akber / EPA
    Slideshow (154) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2013
  6. Image: PAKISTAN-NEW YEAR
    Arif Ali / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (160) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2012
  1. Image: A man, injured from the site of a bomb explosion, is brought to a hospital for treatment in Quetta
    Naseer Ahmed / Reuters
    Slideshow (193) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2011
  2. Image: Supporters of various religious parties take a part in a rally in support of the Pakistani blasphemy law in Karachi
    Athar Hussain / Reuters
    Slideshow (123) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2010
  3. Image: Activists of Pakistani Islamist organisa
    Tariq Mahmood / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (56) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2009

Timeline: A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

Considered enemy No. 1 by the U.S., the Saudi millionaire is the perpetrator behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Click on key dates to learn more about the founder of al-Qaida, an international terror network.

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