By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD – Pakistani Mohammad Usman was little-known other than for being wanted for the killing of a police officer in 1997 and his connections with prayer leaders at the Taliban-friendly Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in the early 2000s.
His death this week in a United States drone strike in the North Waziristan tribal area along with several other militants therefore made few headlines.
In the al-Qaeda camp, however, Usman has been described as “irreplaceable”, his death on a scale of the killings of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid and Shiekh Fateh al-Misri. Misri in May replaced Yazid, who was also killed in a drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal area, as al-Qaeda’s chief commander in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Misri perished in a drone strike this month.
From foot soldier to spymaster
While US drones are concentrated on Arab-origin al-Qaeda members, Usman, who was in his mid-thirties, is an example of al-Qaeda’s new generation of jihadis born in Pakistan and ideologically shaped in the tribal areas to assume senior positions in al-Qaeda.
Over the years, Usman went under several names. In the Pakistani jihadi camp during Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001), he was known as Chotu. After fighting against the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he settled in North Waziristan, where he was known as Usman Punjabi (not the Usman Punjabi who this year was abducted by Pakistani intelligence) for being a non-Pashtun.
Despite this, and although not an Arab, he steadily climbed up the jihadi ladder, eventually serving on the personal staff of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In Pakistan, he joined forces with Arab ideologue Sheikh Essa and helped him to expand his ideological network among Pakistani jihadis, as well as to orchestrate the struggle against the security forces.
Essa, once a Muslim Brotherhood activist, wanted to turn Pakistan and Afghanistan into a single war theater, arguing that by supporting the American war in Afghanistan, Pakistan had become an enemy country (Darul Harb). That is, jihadis should rebel against Pakistan. Initially, Essa found little support, apart from Masood Janjua from Rawalpindi, who was abducted by the security forces in mid-2000s and is still missing.
Usman, however, joined forces with Essa and revitalized his network. He was the one who brought Lal Masjid prayer leaders and Essa together. As a result, the mosque became a dangerous al-Qaeda sanctuary. This eventually forced the Pakistan security forces to carry out a highly contentious raid in July 2007. This incident had widespread ramifications, including a polarization of militants in the tribal areas and a stiffening of their resistance against the state.
Commander Ilyas Kashmiri was the most prominent field commander of the Kashmiri separatist movement. After his second detention and release by the Pakistanis in 2005, his differences with the establishment reached a level of high hostility. At this point, Bin Laden advised Kashmiri to move to North Waziristan and sign on for al-Qaeda’s battles. Usman was Bin Laden’s messenger.
Kashmiri followed the al-Qaeda leader’s advice, taking with him his famed 313 Brigade, which Usman joined. Al-Qaeda organized Pakistani militants under the command of Kashmiri, who soon took on Usman as his confidant and driver.
Usman’s jihadi zeal had helped him to form a cult under Essa, but he was strategically groomed by the battle-hardened Kashmiri, who trained him in monitoring targets and preparing maps and coordination for strikes by 313 Brigade. In short, he became al-Qaeda’s spymaster.
The strike that killed Usman had apparently targeted high-profile Arabs, Uzbeks and Europeans in North Waziristan – American intelligence was unaware that he was in the area; he was collateral damage.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org