Mohammad Omar, the cloaked, one-eyed zealot who led the Taliban, died more than two years ago, the Afghan government said Wednesday, confirming rumors of his demise that had intensified in recent months. The place and cause of his death remained a mystery, as did its impact on the resilient movement he had led since the 1990s and on the nascent peace talks to end the country’s long war.
The White House said that reports of Omar’s death were “credible” but said nothing about what evidence it had to make that judgment or how long the administration has known that this elusive American foe had died.
Omar led the Taliban from its beginnings as a band of student insurrectionists through a fateful alliance with Osama bin Laden, to military defeat following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the movement’s reemergence as an insurgency that threatened the American occupation in Afghanistan.
Much about the Taliban chief’s biography, including his exact date of birth, is uncertain or clouded by the mythmaking of his propagandists. Yet Omar clearly proved to be a capable and resilient enemy of the United States, one who fled advancing American troops on a motorcycle in late 2001, but survived that humiliation to revive the Taliban and elude a CIA-led manhunt and the $10 million bounty on his head.
Omar’s death raises questions about who will become the next leader of the Taliban and whether that person can maintain the loyalty of various factions within the group, particularly if he continues to pursue talks with the Afghan government.
Omar’s stature held together a dispersed insurgency, and earlier this month, a statement was issued under his name endorsing the peace process. However, there was no video or audio accompanying the statement, which further fueled speculation about whether he was dead.
The talks, which have consisted of one meeting in Pakistan, have led to some internal jostling in the Taliban, which could lead to an open power struggle. When the talks were announced, members based at the Taliban’s political office in Qatar said Pakistan took over the initiative, while Afghan officials said the man who was believed to be Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad, had sanctioned the sit-down.
Omar, a member of the majority Pashtun tribe, was born into deep poverty in a village in southern Afghanistan. Various authors have placed his date of birth between the late 1950s and early 1960s. A 5,000-word Taliban biography published earlier this year said he was born in 1960 in the village of Chah-i-Himmat in the south of the country. His father died young, and he was forced to support his mother and family.
Despite some of the vaunted titles later bestowed on him, such as “Commander of the Faithful,” he had no scholarly grounding in Islam. Before his rise to national leadership, he obtained a rudimentary religious education that allowed him to serve as a village cleric. He had three wives and numerous children. One son, Yacub, who is in his 20s, is said to be favored by some Taliban members to succeed his father.
As with many in his generation, Omar fought with the mujahideen against Soviet forces, which occupied Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, and served bravely, according to his contemporaries. The Taliban biography said that his favorite weapon was the RPG-7 and that he destroyed many Soviet tanks. His right eye was surgically removed after he was struck in the face by shrapnel, though Taliban legend said he cut it out himself with a knife.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan descended into years of civil war and lawlessness fueled by warlords, the drug trade and spiraling criminality. Omar worked in a village about 20 miles from Kandahar, where he scratched out a living, in part by trading religious instruction for food.
A tall and taciturn man who spoke in whispers when he spoke at all, Omar often said he was guided by dreams, including a visitation in which Allah told him to lead his people.
The Taliban biography said he was “used to facing hardships, sufferings and ups and downs of life. Whatever the magnitude and intensity of the tragedy or trouble might be, he remains tranquil and does not lose either temper or courage. During varying conditions of jubilation and jeopardy, triumph and failure, he remains serene and self-controlled.”
Omar’s reported first step toward power, if true, proved to be a telling indicator of his willingness to rule through violence: In 1994, villagers told Omar of two young girls who were being held as sex slaves by a local militia leader. Omar assembled a group of former mujahideen, rescued the girls and hanged the local commander from the gun turret of a destroyed Soviet tank. The facts of this incident were never quite established, but the story’s appeal as a galvanizing force was undeniable.
“The Taliban established their story so that Pashtuns could recognize it as a revival of old glory,” wrote journalist Steve Coll in his book “Ghost Wars.” “The Taliban connected popular rural Islamic values with a grass-roots Durrani Pashtun tribal rising. They emerged at a moment when important wealthy Pashtun tribal leaders around Kandahar hungered for a unifying cause.”
Small militia groups, infused with deep anger over the country’s post-Soviet bloodletting, began to coalesce. Omar somewhat reluctantly became commander of this new movement, his deceptively low-key style making him acceptable to the diverse interests that began to support the Taliban, including major Pashtun tribal leaders.
“He would listen to everybody with focus and respect for as long as they needed to talk, and he would never seek to cut them off,” wrote Abdul Salam Zaeef, who fought with Omar, in his memoir, “My Life With the Taliban.” “After he had listened he would answer with ordered, coherent thoughts.”
Soon backed by Pakistan, the growing movement of fighters captured Kandahar and surged across southern Afghanistan in the back of pickup trucks, drawing highly motivated young men from religious schools and earning support from a public exhausted by war and corruption. Wearing black turbans, the fighters were called the Taliban, or “seekers of the truth.”
In 1996, Omar literally wrapped himself in the cloak of the prophet Muhammad, which was taken from a shrine, and appeared before hundreds of Pashtun religious leaders who declared him “Commander of the Faithful.” For a man with no “tribal pedigree,” the title “gave him badly needed legitimacy and a new mystique,” according to Ahmed Rashid in his book “Taliban.”
In September 1996, the Taliban rolled into Kabul, and among their first acts was to drag the former communist president Mohammad Najibullah from his home in a United Nations compound. After being beaten, castrated and tortured, he was hanged with wire from a pole in central Kabul.
“We killed him because he was the murderer of our people,” Omar said.
The Taliban quickly set about outlawing many of the small pleasures enjoyed by Afghans — smoking, kite-flying and music. Women, banned from education and employment, were essentially told to vanish into their homes. Men were told to grow long beards. And an austere brand of Islam, backed by floggings, amputations and public executions, including stoning women to death, was imposed on the country.
Bin Laden and his entourage arrived in Afghanistan in May 1996 after being expelled from Sudan. Bin Laden lauded the “invincible land” that offered him shelter, and he quickly sought to ingratiate himself with the Taliban, investing in construction projects and directing Arab fighters to the ongoing campaign against the Taliban’s internal enemy, the Northern Alliance, which controlled part of northern Afghanistan.
Beneath the Islamic solidarity, however, there was tension between Omar and bin Laden. The Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, who met with both men at that time, said Omar was sometimes infuriated by bin Laden’s calls for an international violent jihad and by his thirst for publicity.
Only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — recognized the Taliban regime, but bin Laden was as loud in his denunciations of the Saudi royal family as he was of the United States.
In June 1998, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief, attempted to persuade Omar to break with bin Laden and turn him over to the Saudis. Turki later said that Omar, who greeted him with great warmth, agreed in principle but wanted a group of Islamic scholars to find some mechanism that would allow the Taliban to hand him over without it being seen as a betrayal or an unforgivable breach of the Pashtun culture of hospitality.
Some writers, including Michael Scheuer, a former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, question whether Omar was ever serious about handing over bin Laden.
“Mullah Omar is a Muslim and a Pashtun above all, and so his care for a guest to whom refuge has been granted is absolute,” Scheuer wrote in his book “Osama Bin Laden.” “Mullah Omar is the prototypical Pashtun tribesman in that, as was said about Ulysses S. Grant, ‘he don’t scare worth a damn.’ ”
Al-Qaeda’s first assault against the United States — the August 1998 bombings of embassies in East Africa — intervened to bind irrevocably Omar to his troublesome guest. The Clinton administration responded to the attacks, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, with cruise missile attacks on an al-Qaeda camp complex near Khost in eastern Afghanistan.
Two days after the attacks, in one of his few contacts with Americans, Omar called Michael E. Malinowski, a State Department official, at home, according to a declassified cable about the unusual exchange.
Omar said he had seen no evidence that bin Laden was involved in the embassy bombings, that the U.S. missile strikes would lead to anti-American feelings in the Islamic world, and that Congress should force President Bill Clinton to resign.
When Turki flew back to Afghanistan in September, he said he found Omar highly agitated in the wake of the American attack. “ ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you persecuting and harassing this courageous, valiant Muslim?’ ” Omar said, according to an account Turki later gave to ABC News.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Afghanistan, and the Taliban became increasingly isolated. International abhorrence with the regime before the attacks on New York and Washington peaked in early 2001, when the Taliban announced its plan to destroy all statues in Afghanistan, including two giant sandstone images of the Buddha.
Omar said he had no choice but to ignore international pleas to preserve the icons.
“Allah will ask me, ‘Omar, you have brought a superpower called the Soviet Union to its knees. You could not break two statues. And what would Mullah Omar reply?” Omar said, according to an account in Time magazine.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Omar again refused to surrender bin Laden and swore to resist helping the United States, believing that the administration of George W. Bush would not deploy ground troops and the Taliban could weather an expected bombing campaign, according to Rashid’s “Taliban.”
After Kandahar fell in 2001, Omar hid first in Helmand province in Afghanistan before crossing into Pakistan, where much of the top leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda was safely in place.
For Omar, it was the first time in his life that he had left Afghanistan. After coming to power, he turned down Saudi invitations to participate in the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and he never met with Western diplomats.
As the head of the Taliban shura, or council, based in Quetta, Pakistan, Omar revitalized his fighters, created a shadow government inside Afghanistan and became a principal leader of the factionalized insurgency fighting the United States and its allies.
“At the operational level, the Quetta Shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year,” Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wrote in a 2009 assessment of conditions in Afghanistan in advance of the Obama administration’s decision to support a surge of troops to reverse Taliban gains.
Omar also communicated with his followers by issuing audiotapes on two Muslim holidays each year. There have been repeated reports that Omar and the Quetta Shura were interested in some form of reconciliation with the Afghan government that would allow at least some Taliban to reenter political life. But serious talks never materialized, and the fighting continued.