Taliban leader Mullah Omar, reclusive in life and death

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the secretive head of the Taliban and an al-Qaida ally who led a bloody insurgency against U.S.-led forces, eluded capture for more than a decade in spite of being one of the most-hunted fugitives on Earth.

On Wednesday, he was reported to have died two years ago in a Pakistani hospital, according to the Afghan intelligence agency. In Washington, the U.S. government said they considered the report credible, though it was not confirmed by the Taliban or Pakistan.

Even in possible death, the one-eyed cleric-warrior was shrouded in mystery.

He led a movement that swept over most of Afghanistan in the 1990s and became notorious for imposing what was perhaps the strictest regime of Islamic law in the world at the time. For his Afghan followers and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida militants, Mullah Omar held the supreme status of “Commander of the Faithful.” And yet only one known photograph of him exists.

In later years, Mullah Omar’s influence waned as extremists gravitated toward the packaged video carnage of the Islamic State group, which now holds a third of Syria and Iraq in its self-declared caliphate. The announcement of his death comes after the U.S. and NATO forces that toppled the Taliban ended their combat mission in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have survived the loss of lower-level commanders and have shown remarkable resilience over time, now challenging Afghan forces across the country.

Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, said Mullah Omar died in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi in April 2013. The Taliban leader’s exact date of birth is unknown, but he is believed to have been in his 50s.

“We confirm officially that he is dead,” Sediqi told The Associated Press. “He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there.”

Sediqi did not elaborate, and it was not immediately clear why news of the death had been delayed until now. But the announcement came just two days before a key second round of peace talks were to be held between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Pakistan.

Mullah Omar’s sheltering of bin Laden and al-Qaida, in an alliance forged in the 1990s, brought the wrath of the United States down upon him after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Less than three months later, American troops backed by northern Afghan allies marched into Kandahar, the southern city that served as Taliban headquarters.

Mullah Omar escaped on a motorcycle and was never seen again.

The Taliban insurgency that ensued wrecked U.S. hopes of quickly establishing the authority of the new government in Kabul, led by Mullah Omar’s fellow Pashtun, Hamid Karzai.

With a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, Mullah Omar is believed to have spent most of his time in hiding in the border regions of Pakistan — nominally a U.S. ally, but also a longtime backer of the Taliban — or in the Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan. He communicated with his followers via audiotapes or on scrawled notes posted in mosques around the Pashtun south.

Bin Laden was killed in a May 2011 raid by U.S. special forces on his hideout in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.

The alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders was unusual. Bin Laden was a cosmopolitan Saudi with visions of global jihad, while Mullah Omar was a village cleric who rarely strayed from Kandahar. He is said to have seldom met a non-Afghan or a non-Muslim and was deeply rooted in the traditional, insular tribal world of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority.

Both men fought against the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but they did not meet until the Taliban had seized control of most of Afghanistan in September 1996. Some of bin Laden’s Arab followers had joined the fight against the Taliban, but when the tide turned and the Taliban took Kabul, bin Laden sought a meeting with Omar to pledge his support.

The Taliban ruled for five years, creating their vision of an Islamic state — a version that surpassed even Saudi Arabia in its extreme puritanism. Women were barred from being educated and forced to cover themselves. Adulterers were stoned to death and men were forbidden to shave. In March 2001, Omar ordered the destruction of 1,500-year-old towering statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan, denouncing them as idols.

Ultimately, the al-Qaida-Taliban alliance was a confluence of interests. Bin Laden’s Arab fighters needed a safe haven to set up their training camps and base their operations, and the Afghanistan of Mullah Omar’s Taliban fit perfectly. The Taliban in turn benefited from bin Laden’s cash and the “force multiplier” of his Arab militants.

Al-Qaida recognized Mullah Omar as “amir al-mumineen” — commander of the faithful — a title he assumed in 1996 when he donned a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed at a gathering of clerics in Kandahar. He later moved into a heavily protected compound financed by bin Laden on the edge of the city, built after a truck bomb exploded outside Mullah Omar’s more modest home, killing 40 people.

But there was friction. Some Taliban resented what they saw as the Arab militants’ high-handed, domineering ways — and bitterly complained that bin Laden, with his campaign against the United States, dragged the Afghans into a fight they did not consider theirs.

Mullah Omar reportedly tried unsuccessfully to persuade the al-Qaida leader to leave Afghanistan after President Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles at his training camps in eastern Khost province in 1998 in retaliation for al-Qaida’s bombings of American embassies in East Africa.

Later that year, a group of journalists were brought in by bin Laden for a news conference in Khost, according to a Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yusufzai. Soon after, Mullah Omar called Yusufzai, furious that the al-Qaida leader held the gathering without his permission. “There is only one ruler. Is it me or Osama?” Yusufzai recalls Omar complaining.

Taliban officials contend Mullah Omar never knew that bin Laden was plotting the Sept. 11 attacks and that he had frequently tried to rein in the al-Qaida leader. Still, after the attacks on Washington and New York, he refused to surrender bin Laden, demanding proof of his involvement in the attacks and offering to hand him over to a Muslim country for trial. He also held that Afghan tradition demanded protection of guests.

Those who met Mullah Omar described him as tall, with a fair complexion and a bushy black beard, a man of few words and faith in an uncompromising interpretation of Islam.

Yusufzai, one of the few people who met Mullah Omar on several occasions before the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, said he was “a very simple man, very low key. He was not very articulate, not very learned in terms of religion.”

Born in the southern province of Uruzgan sometime in 1962, Mullah Omar spent much of his life in the village of Singhesar in neighboring Kandahar province.

There, he started out as a mullah, or preacher, in a local mosque. Like all mullahs in villages around Afghanistan, he relied on the largesse of the community for his basic needs.

In 1979, when the former Soviet Union sent in troops to support a leftist government, Mullah Omar took up arms.

Soviet troops were dispatched to Kandahar to try to subdue the fierce Pashtun tribes there. In lush areas of orchards and trees, Omar fought with one of six mujahedeen groups that were heavily financed by the United States and other Western countries — and who used their Islamic fervor to wage the last Cold War battle against the Soviet Union.

In a battle just outside Kandahar shortly before the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, Omar was among a group of fighters under heavy fire and bombardment. During the fight, he lost his right eye to shrapnel.

When the Soviets left the country, Omar returned to the mosque, where he resumed his religious studies and preaching.

In the rest of the country, a mujahedeen government led by Ahmed Shah Massood and Burhanuddin Rabbani replaced the communist government of Dr. Najibullah. But the mujahedeen government soon fell into factional fighting that degenerated into a civil war that killed thousands of Afghans.

Former commanders in the fight against the Soviets parceled up Kandahar province into fiefdoms and set up extortion rackets.

In 1994, Mullah Omar and a group of 60 clerics took the name Taliban, which means “students,” and banded together to stop the lawlessness. They seized control of Kandahar and within months swept westward to Herat.

After successive victories they besieged the Afghan capital, Kabul, vowing to throw out the warring Islamic factions that ruled there. In September 1996, the Taliban drove President Rabbani and his defense chief, Massood, from the city. Within two years they had taken over most of the major cities, including northern Afghanistan’s Mazar-e-Sharif, leaving Masood and Rabbani to head a northern alliance of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara warlords confined largely to two provinces.

While his movement won control of most of the country, Mullah Omar was rarely seen in public. He apparently traveled to Kabul only three times after 1996, staying only briefly and spending most of his time with his troops.


Gannon is the AP regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Quinn is the former AP news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan and Kabul bureau chief.