Afghan insurgent leaders keep trying not to think about it. “At the moment, questions of Mullah Omar’s health and whereabouts are not so important,” a member of the Taliban’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, tells Newsweek. “The focus should be on jihad and resistance.” But the fighters can’t help wondering and worrying—especially around this time of year. They’re fast approaching yet another anniversary of the day their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, vanished into the mountains outside the city of Kandahar. He was perched on the back of a motorcycle driven by his brother-in-law and right-hand man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, getting away as the U.S.-led invasion force and its Northern Alliance partners closed in. Senior and former Taliban officials say there has not been one confirmed sighting of their Amir-ul-Momineen—“commander of the faithful”—in the 11 years since.
Many past and present Taliban officials privately fear the worst. Omar could be dead or otherwise incapacitated, they suspect, or secretly imprisoned by Pakistan’s all-powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. Something must be preventing him from contacting them. Otherwise he could at least send them a recording of his voice—perhaps offering his condolences for the thousands of Afghans who have died fighting the Americans, suggests a former senior official who has left the Taliban. A former aide to Omar echoes the thought: “If Mullah Omar were in good condition he would send proof that he’s alive.” After all, the former aide argues, there’s a $25 million bounty on al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, and he still issues regular messages. “Why not Mullah Omar?”
It’s true that once or twice a year, written holiday greetings are sent out in Omar’s name. People who knew him just shake their heads over the messages, which they dismiss as blatant forgeries. Mullah Omar never wrote such fancy language, they say—he was a simple country preacher, without the education even to read or recite the words attributed to him, never mind actually compose them. The former senior official recalls the way Omar used to stumble over his native tongue in the interviews he occasionally gave the BBC Pashto service when the Taliban were in power. As the shura member remarks, the Taliban’s propaganda chief liked to have Mullah Omar’s name on every communiqué—“to make it more authentic and reliable.” (No one was willing to be quoted by name for this story.)
Omar’s long silence continues to sow confusion in the Taliban ranks. “I have not met Mullah Omar since 2001, and I would not insist on seeing him,” says the shura member. “But as a human being, I have questions about orders and actions that have been issued in his name.” He says he knows for a fact that the Taliban have been fooled at least once by messages falsely credited to their leader. “For a while a videotape was circulated as coming from Mullah Omar, but we finally realized that it was a fake, using the voice of a local mullah from Baluchistan.”
Some even suggest that Mullah Omar suffered a mental breakdown in the wake of the invasion. People who once were close to him say he had been suffering from severe depression since August 1999, when a massive truck bomb detonated directly outside his home in Kandahar City. At the time of the explosion, Omar was in his bedroom, toward the back of the compound. He emerged physically unscathed. But two of his brothers were not so lucky: they had been in rooms that fronted the street and both of them were killed, together with five bodyguards.
When the brothers’ bodies were dug out of the rubble, the former aide says, Omar cried out: “O Allah! You gave me brothers, and now you have got them back! How many more widows will I keep?” Omar had always suffered from a tendency toward diffidence. “His mates couldn’t believe it when he led the uprising in 1994,” says a former Taliban military commander. “He had always been so lacking in confidence.” In fact, he seemed to have a positive dread of strange places and unfamiliar faces. During his time as leader of Afghanistan he generally avoided meeting with foreign delegations, and despite a personal invitation from Saudi Arabia’s ruler at the time, King Fahd, Omar did not make the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all able-bodied Muslims. The aide recalls hearing Omar’s mother speak of how the attack had affected her son. He became silent and withdrawn, she said. “That blast brought a change in Mullah Omar’s mental state,” says another former Taliban official. “He grew quiet and lost interest in many things.”
For what it’s worth, past associates say there’s a history of mental instability in Omar’s family. One of his half-brothers was said to need psychiatric medication for an undisclosed ailment. And relatives found it necessary to keep Omar’s uncle Noor Mohammed shackled in the years before the old man finally died in 2007. Noor Mohammed had developed a penchant for tearing off his clothes and wandering outside naked into the streets of Quetta. Even more problematic, he wouldn’t stop bragging about Omar to anyone who would listen. The family couldn’t let the old man go out in public for fear he might give away Omar’s location. No one but Noor Mohammed was forgetting the $10 million price the Americans had put on the Taliban leader’s head.
Despite all the gloom and doubt, Omar’s 11-year absence has in some ways made his influence larger than ever. Even before his disappearance he had risen at least halfway to mythic stature. Now the true believers can take his legend the rest of the way there, unencumbered by any inevitable human missteps on his part. From the very beginning, Omar’s biography was essentially the tale of a Pashtun folk hero. Longtime family friends say he was born under the open sky, on a roadside somewhere between Uruzgan province and Kandahar, where his impoverished parents-to-be were migrating in search of better lives.
A longtime family friend recalls hearing the story as told by Noor Mohammed at Omar’s home in Kandahar, when the Taliban were still in power. The day of Omar’s birth was dusty and cold, the old man told his listeners, and Omar’s mother was riding on a donkey when she went into labor. She climbed down, gave birth, and quickly resumed the journey, carrying her newborn son. The child was ill, and no one expected him to survive, especially because his mother had already endured the loss of two newborns. “And today he is the Amir-ul-Momineen!” the old man declared. “This is a miracle of almighty Allah!” Noor Mohammed took immense pride in his nephew, having raised the boy as his own from the age of 3, when Omar’s father died.
The 1979 Soviet invasion was a big step in the creation of Omar’s legend. He was enrolled at a madrassa at the time, but he quickly abandoned his books to join the mujahedin, and he turned out to have far more natural ability as a fighter than he had ever displayed as a student. Nevertheless, some of the most provocative stories from those years took place a long way from the battlefield. Longtime associates tell of a Mullah Omar as splendidly impractical as any folk hero.
The most vivid example of his unworldliness may have been when he lost his right eye in combat and was sent to a hospital in Quetta for treatment. During his stay he met Maulvi Mohammad Yunus Khalis, the commander of one of the seven major mujahedin factions in the war against the Soviets. According to a childhood friend of Omar’s who lives in Kabul now, Khalis was impressed by the young fighter’s courage and asked Omar to name any reward he wanted. Omar was penniless, but he asked only for an AK-47. And then, having received the weapon, he promptly sold it and took the money to the father of a woman he wanted to marry. The couple had waited two years for Omar to come up with the bride price, and they would remain poor. The widely reproduced black-and-white head shot of the one-eyed, bearded fighter was an ID photo to accompany Omar’s application for disability assistance from a relief agency.
The story of how Omar married his second wife is no less odd. It happened in 1996, after the Taliban had driven the warlords out of Kabul. A group of local dignitaries went to pay their respects to Omar at his home in the city of Kandahar. (It was typical of Omar that he visited Kabul only once during his years in power.) Before the delegation left, a district elder delivered a speech, praising Omar for his leadership and offering his own 18-year-old daughter in marriage to the Taliban leader. Omar had never set eyes on the girl, but he didn’t know how to say no. So he married her.
In contrast to Omar, his fighters tend to keep their heads out of the clouds. Midlevel commanders have even been known to question whether orders delivered by the Quetta Shura are truly the word of Omar himself—when they dared. One of the first to demand proof was Mansoor Dadullah, the brother of the notorious Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah. Mansoor tried to take charge of Mullah Dadullah’s fighters after his brother was killed in 2007, but he was soon dismissed by Mullah Baradar, who claimed to have a spoken message from Mullah Omar stripping Mansoor of his command. Mansoor challenged Baradar’s authority: “If you play me a recording of Mullah Omar’s voice or show me his signature, I will obey the order. Otherwise you are using Mullah Omar’s name to enforce your personal whims.” Pakistani troops promptly captured Mansoor as he traveled from Waziristan to Quetta, hoping to clear his issues with Baradar.
The former Taliban official says he currently knows of only one man who might have an open line to the supreme leader: an old war buddy of Omar’s named Mullah Gul Agha Akhund—and not even he can claim to be in direct contact. Any messages between the two old friends must be relayed back and forth. Taliban leaders who previously seemed to be in touch with Omar have since admitted to Newsweek that their only contact was via go-betweens. A Taliban subcommander who was a friend of Mullah Dadullah’s says he’s convinced that the real Mullah Omar no longer exists. “There is only his ghost,” he says.
Meanwhile, theories continue to accumulate among Omar’s followers for why they haven’t heard from him in more than a decade. One of the most creative versions says that Omar regarded the U.S. invasion as divine punishment of the Taliban for persisting in their sinful ways. Infuriated by their repeated failure to heed his warnings, Omar decided to abandon them to the fate they had brought on themselves, and he headed off for parts unknown. It’s a good story, even if it doesn’t explain how he could stay hidden from so many devoted followers.
But no matter. At this point, the shura member says, the insurgents don’t feel particularly threatened by the uncertainty of Omar’s fate. The real danger, he says, is that the uncertainty might somehow be dispelled. “It would be a disaster if we got bad news about him now.” What then would hold the Taliban together?