In an interview published on the Taliban’s official English-language website, the organization’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, admits that Mullah Omar’s death was covered up. And a careful reading of the interview indicates that Omar either died in 2013, as was first claimed by Afghan intelligence, or was otherwise incapacitated at that time.
The Taliban interviewer asks Mujahid: “Exactly whose decision was it to hide the passing away of Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid? [A]nd what were its advantages to the Taliban?”
“The family of Amir ul Mumineen [Emir of the Faithful]…the responsible personnel of [the] Islamic Emirate’s Judiciary and some members of the leadership council including the leader decided on this matter together,” Mujahid responds. “Its positive effect was that there were some critical matters and conditions of that time which could have been exacerbated with the announcement but all praise is due to Allah, we have now come out of that phase.”
The “leader” of the Taliban’s “leadership council” is Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who has been described as the “acting head” of the council in official statements.
The follow-up question includes an implicit admission that Omar was no longer in command of the Taliban as of sometime in 2013. Afghan intelligence and other sources said he passed away in April of that year.
The interviewer asks how the Taliban can prove that Omar “commanded the war for 12 years,” meaning from 2001 to 2013.
Mujahid replies that Omar “was physically undertaking military activities along with several of his commanders for one year following the American invasion,” or until 2002. “He then began issuing audio statements to the Shura due to security reasons which are still present with the concerned members of the Emirate and some have even been published online.” In addition, “written letters were sent to the leadership and messengers also made rounds.”
The admission that Omar no longer led the insurgency as of 2013 is supported by other Taliban propaganda. On Aug. 24, the Taliban released audio statements in Pashto from Mawlawi Mohammad Sharif, its sharia court chief, and “renown scholars” Khalifa Din Mohammad and Mawlawi Ismail, who discussed the “passing away of Mullah Omar Mujahid.” The three Taliban officials said that Omar died in April 2013. They said that Mullah Omar’s family members, including his brother, Mullah Manan, were made aware and that Omar’s family supported the decision to keep his death a secret. Omar’s family also pledged allegiance to Mullah Mansour, these Taliban officials claimed. (There are reports of a disagreement between Omar’s kin and the new Taliban leadership.)
Despite Mujahid’s claim that there is enough evidence of Omar’s leadership role for twelve years after 9/11, doubts are sure to linger.
The Taliban’s story is also sure to fuel additional questions about the role of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, which is suspected of harboring the dead Taliban emir and his comrades for years.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was formerly allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, officially pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi after Omar’s death was confirmed. The IMU repeatedly questioned Omar’s status beforehand.
Mujahid denies that the IMU is “based in Afghanistan,” saying “this is a false presumption.”
“Those who are waging Jihad in Afghanistan are doing so under the flag and policy of the Islamic Emirate,” Mujahid claims. He adds that the “people” operating under the Islamic State’s name (referred to as “Daesh,” a derogatory shorthand) in Afghanistan are in only “one or two districts of Nangarhar” and “are mostly Pakistani nationals with a very small number of young locals.”
“They cross over the border from Pakistan and there is no one else operating anywhere under this name in Afghanistan,” Mujahid says.
The IMU has long had a significant presence throughout Afghanistan. Despite Mujahid’s claims otherwise, the IMU’s defection to Baghdadi could potentially give the Islamic State a bigger foothold in the region than it has had in the past. It is not clear, however, if the entire IMU has now broken with the Taliban, or if parts of the group remain in the Taliban’s camp. Another Uzbek-led jihadist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), is still part of the Taliban-al Qaeda axis.
Shortly after the Taliban conceded that Omar had passed away, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri recorded an audio message in which he pledged allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Two weeks later, al Qaeda released Zawahiri’s oath online and Mansour publicly accepted the oath.
The Taliban’s decision to cover up Omar’s death raises a potential problem for al Qaeda, at least with respect to its effort to counter the Islamic State’s narrative. Zawahiri’s organization repeatedly proclaimed Mullah Omar to be the “Emir of the Believers,” portraying him as the rightful leader of jihadists everywhere. In July 2014, al Qaeda released a video of Osama bin Laden explaining his pledge of allegiance to Omar in mid-2001. Al Qaeda then publicly reaffirmed its allegiance to Omar shortly thereafter. This was part of al Qaeda’s attempt to rebut Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed status as the “caliph,” or “Emir of the Believers.”
Mujahid’s admission that the Taliban hid Omar’s death raises a host of questions. Did Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s other senior leaders participate in the disinformation operation as well? It increasingly seems possible, if not likely, that they did. Both the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s actions in recent weeks indicate that the two longtime allies remain closely knit. Mansour has been brazenly pro-al Qaeda in his statements. And Siraj Haqqani, the de facto leader of the Haqqani Network, has been appointed to serve as one of Mansour’s two top deputies. Siraj’s tight working relationship with al Qaeda has been amply documented.
Therefore, while the circumstances surrounding Omar’s mysterious death cause a narrative problem for al Qaeda, Zawahiri and his men still have an indispensable ally in the Taliban.
Mujahid is asked about the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda. “The international community has always emphasized that the Taliban renounce all ties with terrorist outfits (international armed groups),” Mujahid’s interviewer states. “The Taliban have also over the past years declared in their statements that there are no foreign armed groups present in Afghanistan and neither do the Taliban have any ties with them. Now that the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri pledged his allegiance and was accepted by Mullah Mansur, does this not mean that a gulf has once again appeared between the Taliban and the international community?”
Mujahid offers a muddled response, saying the Taliban has always “had a policy of non-interference since the rule of the Emirate,” but maintains relations with those countries that recognize its legitimacy. The Taliban “cannot forget the oppressed Muslims and individuals worldwide,” Mujahid says, because it “is our religious and ethical responsibility to sympathize with the oppressed Muslims.”
“People can label them whatever they want but they are still our brothers in religion,” Mujahid says, implying that al Qaeda represents the downtrodden.
“We have not asked anyone from outside of our country to pledge their allegiance to us, but if they do so due to their own affection then we have no religious grounds to reject their pledge rather we must respond reciprocally to their affection,” Mujahid continues. “But this does not mean that our soil can be used against anyone else without our knowledge. It is a need and necessity of our time to not make the world our enemy and foolishly increase the allies of America with our policies. It is wisdom and necessity that the outside world does not feel threatened by us.”
Mujahid’s interview touches on other issues as well, including the resignation of Tayyab Agha, who previously headed the Taliban’s political office in Qatar. There was a time when the US pinned its hopes for a peace deal on Agha, seeing him as direct line to Mullah Omar. The US State Department even negotiated directly with Agha. It was during those talks that the Taliban demanded the release of five senior commanders in US custody at Guantanamo. The “Taliban Five” were exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May 2014.
Mujahid says that Agha has indeed resigned his post, but claims that he will continued to serve in an “individual capacity with the Taliban.”