If Osama bin Laden became the enduring face of al-Qaeda and virulent Islamist terror, Mullah Omar remains the face of the Taliban nearly fourteen years after 9/11. Rarely seen since the fall of the Taliban government, the one-eyed undisputed leader of the organization in exile remains the most familiar foe to Americans of the conflict. And, the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable and Brian Murphy report today, he may be dead — possibly for years:
Zafar Hashemi, a deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told reporters in Kabul that an investigation was underway into reports of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar — a secretive figure who first took up arms against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but became known to the world later as the host of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Various Afghan and Pakistani media outlets, citing Afghan government sources, had reported that Omar had died, possibly years ago. The reports surfaced just days before the next round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. …
Although there has been no official confirmation, several sources in Kabul who have had close dealings with the Taliban note possible hints that Omar could no longer be in control. Recent statements attributed to Omar seemed to soften his longtime hard-line stance against peace talks. It also was distributed without any audio, a Taliban practice in past years.
The rumors of Omar’s death have been intensifying for months, with several wildly contradictory versions circulating. One version put out by an insurgent group calling itself the Fedayeen Mahaz alleges that he was murdered by one of his associates. Another version is that he died after a long illness, possibly hepatitis.
The Wall Street Journal has more sources that claim Omar has died:
Mullah Mohammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, is dead, according to Afghan officials and a person close to the group. …
A spokesman for the Taliban couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, and it remains unclear when and how Mullah Omar died. An Afghan official briefed on the matter said the Pakistani government informed Kabul he had died two years ago.
NBC News’ sources also say that Omar died two or three years ago, but they can’t confirm it:
Matt Lauer makes a good point at the end. They haven’t been able to find Omar in fourteen years, despite being one of the most sought-after terrorist leaders in the world. Confirmation of his death may be a wee bit difficult, no? At this point, we’d either have to grab the remains, or the Taliban would have to confirm it themselves.
Would Omar’s death change anything? The Taliban and the current Afghan government have been in talks to end the civil war for quite a while, so if Omar died a while ago, that hasn’t been a problem so far. If the two sides reach an agreement, though, Omar’s absence might make it difficult to keep the Taliban from fracturing and making peace impossible. That might be why it’s been kept relatively quiet until now. If his demise is an open secret among Taliban factions, then maybe that won’t be as much of a problem. It would certainly be more palatable for the West to bless a peace that doesn’t include its most notorious bête noire.
Or it may just be that this is another in a long line of wishful-thinking rumors about the demise of terror leaders. We’ve seen this play out often enough that skepticism becomes instinctual.