AMERICAN drones are believed to have killed al-Qaeda's chief military commander, a possible successor to Osama bin Laden.
Ilyas Kashmiri, who had become an increasingly central figure while bin Laden remained out of sight, is believed to have died when missiles slammed into a house in South Waziristan on Friday last, according to intelligence officials and residents of Pakistan's tribal belt.
American officials said they were still trying to confirm his death. However, it would be an extraordinary coup to have killed Kashmiri so soon after bin Laden was shot dead by US Navy Seals last month.
Kashmiri had been head of Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islam (HUJI) and was thought to take his orders directly from bin Laden.
"We confirm that our Amir (leader) and commander in chief, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, along with other companions, was martyred in an American drone strike on June 3, 2011, at 11:15 pm," said Abu Hanzla Kashir, a HUJI spokesman, in a statement.
A security source said that Kashmiri had travelled with a small band of fighters to the region from his base in North Waziristan a few days before the strike.
Shortly before midnight on Friday last, a predator drone fired three missiles at targets in the village of Shwkainary, killing nine militants.
Kashmiri, 47, was one of the most feared commanders of bin Laden's terrorist network and has been blamed for a string of high-profile attacks on Western targets, as well as in India and Pakistan.
The United States placed a $5m bounty on his head and Kashmiri was described as al-Qaeda's "military brain".
Analysts said it would take time for al-Qaeda to recover from this latest set-back so soon after bin Laden's death and would serve as a reminder that nowhere was safe. "Kashmiri was the lynchpin of al-Qaeda's operation in Pakistan and he was also co-ordinating the movement of militants into Europe," said Rana Jawad, an intelligence analyst in Islamabad.
A US official said: "Osama bin Laden was the strategic head and Kashmiri was one of the important operational heads so, if true, it would be a significant blow to al-Qaeda."
Trained by Pakistan as a member of the elite Special Services Group, Kashmiri began his militant career during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In later years he took to wearing Aviator-style sunglasses, to hide the fact he lost an eye during the fighting.
After Afghanistan he fought in his homeland Kashmir, as a member of HUJI, before forming his own unit, the 313 brigade.
While bin Laden hid at a family home in Abbottabad, Kashmiri took on greater prominence as the field commander in Pakistan.
In a rare interview in 2010, he described the liberation of Kashmir from India as motivation for his terror campaign, and was justification for attacking US targets.
"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 theatre," he said.