Taliban leader Mullah Omar – a pious Afghan enigma

There are no clear photographs in existence of the tall, one-eyed leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents, and only a handful of foreigners have seen him.

Even when his hardline Islamist followers ruled Afghanistan, little was known about him.

The Afghan government said on Wednesday it had enough “credible information” to confirm that Omar had died in April, 2013, in neighboring Pakistan. It did not offer any further evidence.

The Taliban could not immediately be reached for comment.

Omar and his Taliban government were overthrown in late 2001, largely thanks to aerial bombardment by U.S. forces after he refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Followers said he subsequently coordinated Taliban resistance to the government in Kabul and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan.

But rumors of his demise have been circulating among militants and regional intelligence circles in recent years, and even if he was still alive during that time, his direct operational involvement in the Taliban appeared limited.

Today, Taliban fighters are on the offensive, hounding Afghan security forces who are struggling to cope after most NATO troops withdrew last year.

They have captured several district centers and swept across dozens of villages in northern areas, while thousands of civilians, soldiers and police die each year in the violence.

Yet the movement is deeply divided, and faces a new external threat – breakaway factions swearing allegiance to Islamic State in the Middle East and attacking the Taliban itself.


Omar suffered a setback when Taliban No. 2 Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in early 2010 in a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

U.S. officials said Baradar had started producing useful intelligence on the group’s operations in Afghanistan.

Baradar, who was close to Omar, was the main day-to-day commander responsible for leading the campaign against U.S. and NATO troops, plotting suicide bombings and other major attacks.

In periodic statements since 2008 Omar had sought to strike a more conciliatory tone, ordering fighters to stop the practice of beheading those accused of spying for the United States and insisting a Taliban government would not be a global threat.

“We want legitimate relations with countries of the world and we are not a threat to anyone,” one statement attributed to Omar read.

The Taliban’s strategy was aimed at sapping the will of leaders and the public in the West to keep their troops in Afghanistan and suffer a steady stream of casualties.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai pushed for peace with the Taliban while in office, and his successor and incumbent Ashraf Ghani made negotiations with the insurgents a priority.

The opening round of talks took place in Pakistan earlier this month, but Omar’s position on the process was not known.

The announcement of his death could prove a setback to the tentative process, with splits within the Taliban over whether or not to negotiate likely to be exacerbated by a scramble to succeed the late leader.


Born in 1959 or 1960 in a small village near Kandahar to a family of poor peasants, Omar lost his father when he was young, and the job of fending for his family fell to him.

A big man with a long beard, he became a village mullah and opened his own madrassa, or Islamic school, before joining the mujahideen fight against the Soviet-backed government from 1989-92. Wounded four times, he lost his right eye when hit in the face by shrapnel.

Only a few fuzzy photographs exist of Omar – the Taliban banned pictures along with television, music and “entertainments”.

One of the few outsiders to meet him described a scene reminiscent of the early Christian ascetics, who would live in caves and subject themselves to extreme privations in the belief they were getting closer to God.

Omar appeared barefoot and was dressed in worn robes that hung down below his knees.

There was an empty socket where his right eye had once been.

Omar’s rise began with frustration at the internecine wars among the factions of the mujahideen, or holy warriors, who had defeated the Russians and then fought one another from 1992.

A commonly recounted story goes that in 1994, Omar enlisted about 30 Taliban, meaning student of Islam, after hearing that two teenage girls had been raped by a mujahideen commander.

With 16 rifles among them, the group attacked a base, freed the girls and, according to the story, hanged the commander from the barrel of a tank.

“We were fighting against Muslims who had gone wrong. How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor?” Omar told a Pakistani reporter.

As the momentum for his movement gathered, Omar found eager recruits in the madrassas run along the Pakistani border.

“He started out as a simple Pashtun mullah with no world view or vision of a future Afghan state,” said Ahmed Rashid, author of the best-selling book “Taliban”.

“He started not wanting state power but only wanting to rid Afghanistan of warlords … He has developed his world view with the help of Osama bin Laden.”


In November 1994, his movement captured Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, and it became clear his drive had won the backing of Pakistan.

By early 1995, Omar’s young and fanatical fighters were sweeping north and by the end of the year, the western city of Herat was in their hands.

Taking Kabul took another year, and to achieve it, Omar resorted to an astonishing gesture.

He retrieved the sacred cloak of the Prophet Mohammad from its Kandahar shrine where it had lain in darkness for 60 years, emerged onto the roof of a building wrapped in the garment and was cheered by delighted mullahs assembled below him.

The result was an agreement to declare jihad, or a Muslim holy war, against President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Kabul fell to the Taliban on Sept. 26, 1996.

Battered by U.S. bombs, they left Kabul five years later, under cover of darkness in the early hours of Nov. 13, 2001, prompting joy among ordinary men and women freed respectively of obligations to grow beards or hide under all-concealing burqas.

During the dying days of Taliban rule, a brutal interpretation of sharia law that denied women education and work and staged regular public executions and amputations, Omar was exhorting his troops to fight to their last breath.

But his words failed to slow the retreat, as relentless U.S. bombing broke the will of the Taliban to follow the revered Omar, their Amir ul-Momineen, or leader of the faithful.

During his time in power he seldom left his compound on Kandahar’s outskirts. The only non-Muslims he is recorded as ever meeting are the U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan in October 1998 and the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan.