Taliban's Enigmatic Spiritual Leader Still At Large

Purported photo of Mullah Omar

A purported photo of Mullah Mohammed Omar from a U.S. government Web site offering a $10 million reward for his capture. The authenticity of this photo is in dispute. Rewards for Justice/U.S. Dept. of State hide caption

itoggle caption Rewards for Justice/U.S. Dept. of State

Related NPR Story

NPR's Jackie Northam reports on Pakistan's Baluchistan province, where Taliban leaders from Afghanistan such as Mullah Omar are believed to be living, and the possibility that the U.S. may expand missile attacks to the area.

Map Of Baluchistan i i
Lindsay Powell/NPR
Map Of Baluchistan
Lindsay Powell/NPR
TV grab taken secretly by BBC Newsnight shows Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader Mullah Omar i i

A TV screen grab of footage taken secretly by the BBC shows the Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader during a rally of his troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before their victorious assault on Kabul in 1996. BBC News/Newsnight/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption BBC News/Newsnight/AFP/Getty Images
TV grab taken secretly by BBC Newsnight shows Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader Mullah Omar

A TV screen grab of footage taken secretly by the BBC shows the Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader during a rally of his troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before their victorious assault on Kabul in 1996.

BBC News/Newsnight/AFP/Getty Images
Billboard of Taliban leaders in Kabul park i i

In a photo taken in March 2009, a billboard in a park in Kabul, Afghanistan, shows images of (left to right) bin Laden, Adam Gadhan, an American-born radical in charge of al-Qaida propaganda, and Mullah Omar and calls for information regarding the three leaders. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Billboard of Taliban leaders in Kabul park

In a photo taken in March 2009, a billboard in a park in Kabul, Afghanistan, shows images of (left to right) bin Laden, Adam Gadhan, an American-born radical in charge of al-Qaida propaganda, and Mullah Omar and calls for information regarding the three leaders.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

As the Obama administration reviews U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, there are reports that officials are considering opening talks with so-called moderate Taliban leaders but also expanding attacks on Taliban strongholds in neighboring Pakistan.

In either case, the U.S. calculation will have to factor in the man who has led the Taliban since its creation in the 1990s, the Afghan cleric Mullah Omar.

One of the curious things about Mohammed Omar is how little is known about him. The Sunni Muslim cleric was the most powerful man in Afghanistan for five years, but he avoided the limelight of the capital, Kabul. He ruled instead from the seclusion of his home in the southern city of Kandahar, leaving the public face of the government to officials such as the Taliban foreign minister.

A $10 Million U.S. Bounty

Ever since Mullah Omar evaded U.S. forces in Kandahar in December 2001, the U.S. government has offered a standing reward of up to $10 million for information leading to his capture. He was so rarely seen during the years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan that it's not even certain that the purported photographs of him on a U.S. government Web site are authentic.

By most accounts, he is a striking man of about 50, with a bush of a beard and a puckered scar over the socket of one eye, lost in battle when he was a guerrilla fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

Mullah Omar rose to prominence after the ouster of the Soviets, when victorious Afghan rebels fought among themselves over the wreckage of the country. According to one story, he was spurred to action after learning that a rebel warlord had kidnapped and raped two teenage girls from a local village. Omar is said to have gathered a posse of about 30 Muslim seminary students, known as "taliban," to attack the warlord's base, release the girls and capture the kidnappers' weapons and ammunition.

Another version of the Taliban origin story says that it was financed by a Pakistani shipping cartel to clear bandits from the trucking routes through Afghanistan to central Asia. In any case, the movement spread rapidly, and by late 1994, Mullah Omar's fighters had captured Kandahar and were moving to gain control of most of Afghanistan's southern provinces. In September 1996, they captured Kabul.

Stoking Religious Fervor

Many provinces fell to the Taliban with little resistance, in part because of the movement's reputation for religious purity and reform. Some stories about Mullah Omar may be part of a systematic effort to give his leadership an aura of religious power. One story has it that the mullah retrieved the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad from the royal mausoleum at Kandahar. The holy relic was hidden in a series of locked chests, and it was believed that the locks could only be opened by a true prince of the Muslims. Mullah Omar was said to wear the relic during an appearance in Kandahar in April 1996, when he was acclaimed by Taliban fighters as the "Commander of the Faithful."

During Mullah Omar's rule, the Taliban imposed a ruthless form of Muslim religious law, or Shariah, on the areas under its control. Women accused of adultery were stoned to death. Thieves had their hands cut off, and murderers were executed by relatives of their victims before crowds of onlookers.

The Taliban closed schools for girls, barred women from most jobs and forced them to cover themselves completely in a sacklike garment called a burqa.

In 2001, Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of two monumental statues of Buddha, carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan valley of central Afghanistan. Although the 1,500-year-old statues were recognized worldwide as cultural treasures, Omar condemned them as "idolatrous" and "offensive to Islam." They were destroyed by Taliban fighters, using rocket launchers and dynamite.

Incurring American Wrath

In the eyes of the United States, Mullah Omar's main offense was harboring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network during the years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Omar and bin Laden met while fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, a fight that was funded in part by the American CIA.

The two leaders remained close, and Mullah Omar allowed bin Laden to build al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. After al-Qaida was linked to the bombings of two American embassies in Africa in 1998, the U.S. fired cruise missiles at the Afghan training camps, but with little effect. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration gave Mullah Omar's refusal to hand over bin Laden as a primary reason for invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban.

U.S. intelligence officials and members of the Karzai government in Kabul have long said that Mullah Omar and other fugitive Taliban leaders are living in or near Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. That's a claim denied by Baluchi provincial officials, who reacted angrily to a March 17 New York Times report that the U.S. is considering expanding the covert missile attacks that until now have been confined to suspected Taliban targets in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.