Lashkar-e-Zil: Al-Qaeda’s ‘Shock and Awe’ Force

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 23

Ilyas Kashmiri, the former head of Lashkar-e-Zil who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011 (Source: Wikimedia user Mark Schierbecker)

One effect of the rise of the Islamic State organization is that its rival al-Qaeda has had to try harder to attract global attention, funding, and recruits. The establishment of a new al-Qaeda branch, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, is one major step taken by the group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to retake the initiative from the Islamic State organization. This is likely to involve reinvigorating al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, also with slightly more focus on operations in India. As part of this, al-Qaeda’s elite unit, Lashkar-e-Zil (Shadow Army, LeZ), is likely to play a key role.

Background

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda had trained its own version of a special forces unit, known as Brigade-055, at a specialized facility at Rishikor near Kabul. This comprised hard core jihadists from many places around the world, including Chechnya, Uzbekistan, China, Pakistan, Europe, North America and Algeria. After the U.S. invasion and relocating to the relative sanctuary of Pakistan’s tribal areas, a top priority for al-Qaeda was to revive Brigade-055 with fresh blood. Al-Qaeda was at the same time recruiting thousands of Pakistanis from radical Islamist groups based in Pakistan and the hundreds of them immediately moved to the tribal areas. Many of these individuals often already had some fighting experience alongside Kashmiri Islamist organizations and militant sectarian groups based in Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul Mujahideen, Harkat-ul Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI) and Jaysh-e-Muhammad in particular provided new recruits for al-Qaeda. In this promising environment, al-Qaeda leadership’s decided to establish LeZ in 2002 as a mainly-Pakistani “shock and awe” force to replace Brigade 055. [1]

Despite the fact that most of the volunteers hailed from Pakistani Islamist groups, Lashkar-e-Zil was initially led by Khalid Habib, an Egyptian, until his death in 2008 in a CIA drone strike near his base in North Waziristan. Abdullah Saeed al-Libi then assumed charge of the group until his death, once again in a U.S. drone strike, in December 2009. The leadership then went to Ilyas Kashmiri, leader of Harkat-ul Jihad-e-Islami and its sub-group Brigade 313, both originally active in the Indian Kashmir Islamist insurgency. Kashmiri, who was to prove LeZ’s most active and dynamic commander, died in a U.S. drone strike in June 2011 (The News [Islamabad], December 3, 2012). The last known commander of LeZ was Mustafa Abu Yazid who was killed in July in a drone strike in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan (The News [Islamabad], July 22). Because of the repeated killings of LeZ commanders by U.S. drone strikes, the identity of new commander has not yet been disclosed by al-Qaeda.

Merger with Brigade 313

One of Kashmiri’s key moves as LeZ leader was to merge the group with Brigade 313, a wing of the Islamist Kashmiri militant organization HuJI, which Kashmiri had himself been military commander of. The merger was partly made possible because Kashmiri and HuJI amir Qari Saifullah Akhter were close to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan; HuJI recruits had received training at al-Qaeda-run camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. [2] Benefits of the merger between LeZ and Brigade 313 included sharing expertise and training facilities and allowing both greater access to funds provided by al-Qaeda sympathizers in Middle Eastern countries and from Islamist charities based in the Middle East, North America and Western Europe. The merger contributed substantially to the increase in LeZ’s operations under Kashmiri.

Operational Capabilities

While remaining part of al-Qaeda, LeZ has acted largely as an auxiliary unit providing support to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and associated extremist groups. After getting readied for action, the LeZ began conducting terrorist attacks against both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border from 2007 onward. In Afghanistan, its operations were largely conducted in collusion with Afghan Taliban forces against U.S. and Afghan security forces. In Pakistan, its primary targets have included military installations, such as air force and naval bases, and it has assassinated Pakistani military officers involved in targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. For instance, Pakistani journalist Amir Mir has claimed that both TTP and al-Qaeda used LeZ forces for several important attacks, including storming a Pakistani military base in Sudhnoti district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir in January 2010, a December 2009 suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman near Khost in Afghanistan and carrying out dozens of guerrilla attacks against ISAF in the Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunar, Nuristan, Paktika and Wardak. In Pakistan, Mir claimed, the LeZ is active in North and South Waziristan, in the Bajuar, Peshawar, Khyber and Swat districts. He also speculated that LeZ had been involved in the planning and assassination of former two-time Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007 (The News [Islamabad], January 11, 2010). Many of the operations in Afghanistan were apparently launched from bases in tribal areas of Pakistan. It is believed that the LeZ directly takes orders from al-Qaeda high command, namely from the group’s military shura in consultation with al-Zawahiri.

The LeZ’s other major successes included the assassination of Major General Amir Faisal Alvi, the former commander of Special Services Group of the Pakistan Army, in November 2008, in Islamabad. Alvi was shot dead by Major (retired) Haroon Ashiq of Pakistan Army, a committed Islamist, on the directions of Ilyas Kashmir. Haroon’s younger brother, Captain Khurrum Ashiq, of the Pakistani army, was killed in Helmand, Afghanistan in 2008, while fighting for the Afghan Taliban against the U.S. Army (The News [Islamabad], March 22, 2012). LeZ is also said to have been involved in the planning and execution of the 2008 Mumbai attacks; according to slain Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Mumbai attack had the blessings of Ilyas Kashmiri and Major Ashiq. Shahzad speculated that the operation was meant to bring Pakistan and India to the brink of nuclear war in order to divert the direction of Pakistani military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban in tribal areas of Pakistan. [3]

Conclusion

Since the demise of the LeZ’s most ambitious and effective leader, Ilyas Kashmiri, in June 2011, the number of attacks on military bases by LeZ has significantly fallen. The group’s capability has also been impacted by military operations launched by Pakistani forces in that country’s tribal areas and by operations by Afghanistan’s security forces in border districts. Nonetheless, the group remains a force to be reckoned with and likely will remain a significant player among regional militant groups, particularly if al-Qaeda makes good on its stated intentions of increasing its operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in South Asia.

Farhan Zahid writes on counter-terrorism, al-Qaeda, Pakistani al-Qaeda-linked groups, Islamist violent non-state actors in Pakistan, militant landscapes in Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.

Notes

1. “Lashkar-e-Zil,” Mapping Militant Organizations, FSI Stanford University, available at: http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/425.

2. Fazal ur Rehman Khalil cofounded HuJI and signed Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa which declared war against the United States and allies.

3. Syed Saleem Shahzad, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, Penguin, London, 2011, p. 217.