The reported death last week of Ilyas Kashmiri, the notorious jihadi leader -- if true -- is merely the latest in a long line of decapitations of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Osama bin Laden fell a few weeks before him, and men described as "senior" or "important" leaders, like Baitullah and Abdullah Mehsud, Hamza Rabia, Mohammed Atef, Saeed al-Masri, and others, have fallen before them.
But does cutting the head off the snake really matter? Can't they just be replaced by the next militant waiting in the wings?
Not so easily. Although the consensus among experts is often that the deaths of such tactically and ideologically important leaders do not destroy groups, their loss does have an effect. Kashmiri's death will not herald the end of violence in Pakistan or the threat to the West, but it will reduce al Qaeda's capacity to strike. Long-standing warrior leaders are important figures in the ideological clash against groups believing themselves in a millenarian struggle. Bringing the big men down will help accelerate their groups' demise.
Leaders like Kashmiri, who lost a finger and an eye in the Afghan war against the Soviets, are able to provide inspiration through their biographies. His time as a fighter in Afghanistan and Kashmir gave him connections across groups and networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and gave him a reputation as a fierce warrior leader. He built this personal narrative and connections into a formidable network operating under the name 313 Brigade, in reference to the 313 companions who fought alongside the Prophet Mohammed at the Battle of Badr, and was named by Masri as the leader of al Qaeda in Kashmir. He was also clearly effective in providing direction to terrorist cells, as shown by his suspected involvement in the May 22 attack on Karachi's naval base (his latest attack on the Pakistani state), strikes in India coordinated from his base in Pakistan, and his ambitious plan to attack newspaper offices in Copenhagen.
A similar portrait can be painted of bin Laden. His life story embodied the jihadi ideal of an Islamist warrior giving up everything to fight against the unbelievers. His strong connections to the community of wealthy Gulf Arabs with deep pockets and pro-jihadi sympathies strengthened his inspirational role and made him a prize asset for al Qaeda. Many other longtime leaders and warriors fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan -- their histories and connections stretching back to before the current conflict -- claim the same mythical status.
But Kashmiri and bin Laden will be hard to replace. Their historical roles as front-line warriors not only earned them credibility with other local militants, but also brought them into contact with the community of regional and global warriors, giving them tentacles around the world. Bin Laden's network is well-known while Kashmiri's is currently on display in Chicago, where a key trial witness named David Coleman Headley is highlighting connections between Kashmiri -- seemingly his key al Qaeda contact -- and cells in the United States, Britain, India, and Sweden.