Mullah Omar Should Be Next to Go

Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda's No. 2, may be many analysts' pick as the top terrorist target in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, but Allan Dodds Frank says the Navy Seals should hunt down a far more important spiritual leader: Mullah Omar.

05.03.11 10:45 PM ET

Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2, may be many analysts’ pick as the top terrorist target in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, but Allan Dodds Frank says the Navy SEALs should hunt down a far more important spiritual leader: Mullah Omar.

No need for the FBI to bother with another “Most Wanted” poster. Now that the world’s top terrorist is safely out of the way, Navy Seal Team 6 should focus on Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader who nurtured and sheltered Osama bin Laden during his years in Afghanistan. Omar now is the Sunni Muslim world’s most important spiritual leader of terrorism, the man who may still hold the keys to fostering religious extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Omar has been on the lam with bin Laden since the United States invaded Afghanistan after al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Once bin Laden’s great protector and soulmate, Omar had controlled the central government in Afghanistan and provided sanctuary, soldiers, student suicide bombers, and religious legitimacy to al Qaeda.

Bin Laden’s foremost value to the terrorists was as a symbol, even more than as an architect of large-scale attacks. Before he died at 54, his rhetoric for more than 20 years had reignited the global concept of jihad by claiming to align his battles with the defense of Islam.

Allegedly at the urging of bin Laden and over the objections of his patrons in Pakistani intelligence, Mullah Omar’s Taliban forces defaced, then blew up the ancient twin Buddha statutes at Bamiyan in March 2001. It was a foreshadowing of the World Trade Center attack, the destruction of ancient twin symbols of another religion and culture that were regarded as world cultural treasures.

Today U.S. officials say they believe Omar may be hiding in Pakistan and in the care and protection of the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency that also has nurtured terrorist groups as a sub rosa defense squadron against India. Omar is the other giant political untouchable for the Pakistani military, the figure whom only the U.S. can “get,” even inside another mansion obscured by another set of high walls. While the world speculated for years that bin Laden was cowering in a cave, Omar often was said to be operating and conducting tribal councils in Quetta, a Taliban-dominated Pakistani town near the Afghan border.

Little is publicly known about Omar, although U.S. intelligence officers must be hoping they will find links to him in the trove discovered in bin Laden’s compound. No one is expecting the ISI to capture him.

Using Omar’s Taliban model from Afghanistan, Islamic terrorists have spread Taliban-style extremism across Pakistan, fomenting anti-Americanism and anti-women behavior at hundreds of religious schools known as madrassas. He is a kindred soul with the Haqqani network, the Taliban-inspired terrorist-gangster organization that controls much of North Waziristan, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

While the U.S. government has long offered a $10 million reward for Omar’s capture, he is not even on the FBI’s lists of top 10 and top 30 terrorists. Perhaps that is because he has never been charged, at least in unsealed criminal charges, in connection with any of the bombing conspiracies of other al Qaeda operatives.

Official U.S. descriptions of Omar, who is about 50, list the one-time resident of Kandahar as tall, with black hair and a beard, as well as a shrapnel wound that cost him his right eye while fighting with the mujahideen in Jalalabad against the Soviet Union in 1989. After the Russians left, Omar seized on discontent about corruption and led the Taliban, which means “students” in Pashtu, to overthrow the Afghan government.

According to The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s book about the 9/11 attacks, in 1996 the Saudi government was supporting the Taliban, and after bin Laden arrived from Sudan, asked Omar to keep bin Laden under wraps.

As Wright wrote: “Thus bin Laden came under the control of a political hermit named Mullah Mohammed Omar, who had only recently declared himself: ‘The Ruler of All Muslims.’”

Arnaud de Borchgrave, now an editor at large for UPI, met Omar in Afghanistan in June 2001. He wrote Monday, “Pakistan’s ISI was Mullah Omar’s principal foreign support. Taliban was ISI’s creation, designed to give Pakistan ‘defense in depth’ in the event of an Indian invasion… For the past 10 years, bin Laden has enjoyed the protection of ISI’s Section ‘S,’ which officially doesn’t exist.”

Little else is publicly known about Omar, although U.S. intelligence officers must be hoping they will find links to him in the computer hard drives, papers, and other data they vacuumed out of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. No one is expecting the ISI to capture him.

In the first 24 hours after bin Laden’s death, the one visible proponent of putting Mullah Omar up next in the crosshairs was Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. He told Italian radio: “In our opinion, the next object should be Mullah Omar, but the goal of our decisive actions, which we continue to develop as an international coalition against terrorism, is the elimination of all terrorist centers.”

Some commentators, such as Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations, unequivocally are picking bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, as the new top target.

Zawahri is not listed among the FBI’s top 10 most wanted, although he makes the top 10 terrorists list and the top 30 terrorists. The FBI declined to comment Monday on whether he will replace bin Laden on the big list. Zawahri’s recent whereabouts and connections to bin Laden may be easier for U.S. intelligence to detect, thanks to evidence collected in the raid.

“Zawahri at this point is far and away the most important terrorist that the American public cares about, knows about, and would consider a major named prize,” said Rose. “Going after him and following this up, and seeing how much they can roll up on top of this, would be the major next target.”

Yet as White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan pointed out in a briefing Monday, bin Laden’s top operations officer is deep down an unlikable bureaucratic zealot.

“Al-Zawahri is not charismatic,” said Brennan. “He has not been—was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan, and I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization. I think you are going to see them eat themselves more and more from within.” Brennan added that the Egyptian-born Zawahri “will probably have trouble maintaining the loyalty of bin Laden’s largely Gulf Arab followers.”

As more facts become known about how factions of the Pakistani military must have known bin Laden was hiding in the very town that hosts their elite military academy, the U.S. will hope that international embarrassment may force Pakistani intelligence to turn up more al Qaeda leaders. But the one who might be the biggest threat globally is in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who is skilled at recruiting via the Internet but has no experience in warfare.

For the Pakistanis, it may be easier to turn over—or kill—a disputatious Egyptian, Zawahri, than a pious neighbor like Omar from Afghanistan. The death of Mullah Omar, the religious leader whose harsh edicts and philosophy have a spiritual hold over many radicalized Muslims, would likely provoke far more turmoil across Pakistan. Imagine if the Italian police had to choose between turning over the head of the Mafia or the pope. It is the realization of that spiritual power that makes the Italian foreign minister’s choice of target so compelling.

Allan Dodds Frank has been reporting on terrorism for more than three decades, for the Washington Star, Forbes, ABC News, and CNN. He won the Gerald Loeb Award for the Best Financial Reporting on television—and shared a national Emmy in 2002 for his reporting on CNN about the financing of terrorism.