The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihulla Mujahid, released a statement via Twitter earlier today confirming that Mullah Omar, the group’s first emir, is dead. The statement is attributed to Omar’s family and the Taliban’s shura council. A screen shot of one of his tweets concerning Omar’s death can be seen above.
Reports of Omar’s demise rocketed through the worldwide media over the past two days, with the Afghan government saying that Omar has been dead since April 2013. The Taliban’s political office apparently admitted this was true on its own official Twitter feed, but other accounts imply he passed away more recently.
The statement released by Mujahid says that Omar suffered from a long-term illness and only succumbed in the past two weeks. The message also says, however, that Omar “never left Afghanistan for one day” during the 14 years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This is obviously not true, as it is widely known that Omar sheltered in Quetta and then Karachi for years. The Taliban’s elite council of advisers and leaders was even called the Quetta Shura, an obvious reference to its geographic home.
There has been much uncertainty concerning Omar’s precise role and operational importance. Ever since he reportedly relocated to Karachi several years ago, jihadists have complained that Omar was either difficult to contact for one reason or another, or incapacitated. Adding to the confusion, the Taliban emir hadn’t released any audio or video messages proving he was alive in years.
The Taliban acted as if Omar were in charge until just recently, issuing a statement in his name to commemorate the end of Ramadan in mid-July. The jihadist group also released a biography for Omar in April, stating he is “still the leader in the present hierarchy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
If Omar was dead at the time, as some accounts now claim, then this was all a ruse. And if it is true that Taliban leaders covered up his death, then their actions may cause additional dissent or confusion in the jihadists’ ranks, as some will undoubtedly feel they weren’t told the truth. Omar’s impeccable jihadist credentials have long been used as a uniting force for the jihadists in South Asia.
Al Qaeda has also acted as if Mullah Omar is alive. Al Qaeda’s leaders have repeatedly pointed him as the “Emir of the Believers,” arguing that he is the jihadists’ rightful chieftain. This argument became an especially important part of al Qaeda’s attempt to fight off the Islamic State’s challenge to its authority. The Islamic State says that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is true “Caliph” and the “Emir of the Believers.” Therefore, Baghdadi and his followers believe that all other jihadists, and indeed all Muslims, owe Baghdadi their loyalty. Al Qaeda’s efforts to rebut the Islamic State’s narrative will be greatly complicated by Omar’s death.
According to multiple reports, the Taliban has already named a new leader. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Omar’s deputy, has been selected to serve as the jihadist group’s new emir, according to Reuters.
Taliban sources have told the press that Siraj Haqqani has been appointed as one of Mansour’s deputies. Siraj is the youngest son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran commander who fought against the Soviets during the 1980s. Their Haqqani Network is one of the most powerful insurgency organizations in the region. It is also closely allied with al Qaeda.
Mullah Omar is best known for sheltering Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Although Omar may have disagreed with some of bin Laden’s tactics, Omar never disowned his guest. The 9/11 attacks were planned from the sanctuary Omar gave bin Laden and his men and al Qaeda’s jihadists fought alongside the Taliban before 9/11. They continued to do so through the collapse of Omar’s Islamic Emirate in late 2001, the resurgence of the Taliban’s paramilitary army several years later, and until this day.