July 30, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Death of Mullah Omar

• For the first time, the Afghan government has confirmed the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though this is at least the sixth time he is reported to have died.

• The news of Omar’s death will make peace in Afghanistan even more elusive and cause divisions within the Taliban; no new leader will emerge soon, and even if one does he will find it hard to gain control of the movement

• The death of Mullah Omar will also have far-reaching consequences for the larger extremist movement—especially in al-Qaeda, as many members had sworn allegiance to him as ‘Leader of the Faithful’

• The Islamic State will be the main beneficiary of the news of Omar’s death.


In a statement from the Presidency yesterday, the Afghan government announced that Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, was dead. Other Afghan officials added that he had died from tuberculosis in a hospital in Karachi as long ago as April 2013.

Mullah Omar has not been seen in public since late December 2001 when he disappeared from a village north of Kandahar on the back of a motorcycle driven by his brother-in-law and deputy, Mullah Baradar, who was captured in Pakistan in early 2010. He has been reported dead at least five times since then, but this is the first time that the Afghan government has issued a formal confirmation.

The timing of this announcement—especially if Mullah Omar died over two years ago—suggests that it is an attempt by some parts of the Afghan government to sabotage peace talks with the Taliban that were scheduled to resume in Pakistan on Friday. With the Taliban leadership now in doubt—unless Mullah Omar makes a dramatic reappearance—the negotiators will have a hard time claiming to speak on his behalf or persuading the Afghan government that they can deliver on any agreement. An assurance by the Taliban that ‘Mullah Omar is well and is leading the movement’—which has been the standard response to previous rumors of his death—will not suffice this time.

President Ghani has bravely said that Mullah Omar’s death will ‘pave the road to peace’, but this is unlikely. The Taliban movement is split, and although the peace camp has been dominant—especially since forcing the resignation in April last year of Abdul Qayum Zakir, an ex-Guantanamo prisoner who became the Taliban’s senior military commander on Baradar’s arrest in 2010—suspicion that it has been ventriloquizing Mullah Omar’s corpse for over two years will destroy its credibility.  Earlier this month a message purporting to come from Mullah Omar to celebrate the end of Ramadan argued that peace talks and fighting could continue at the same time. It also said that the Taliban respected differences of opinion within Afghanistan, favored education, and sought good relations with neighbors, while remaining independent of their influence. This message of conciliation is in stark contrast to the heavy fighting currently underway in the north of the country, which has seen the Taliban make significant gains.

The Taliban is ruled by a shura council that will now decide to either continue its bluff or select a successor. The fact that it appears not to have been able to do so over the last two years, however, suggests that there is no consensus within the movement. The Taliban is therefore likely to split, with a peace camp and a war camp, as well as many commanders going at it alone in pursuit of their own local objectives. This is not a good result for Afghanistan, nor Pakistan, which will have the added challenge of explaining how it did not know that Mullah Omar had died, let alone that he had done so in Karachi.

Even if the Taliban shura council were able to agree on a successor, he would have a hard time asserting his authority. Mullah Omar had a certain mythic quality that appealed to the naïve foot soldiers recruited from madrassas, and was palatable to the more sophisticated leadership that spoke in his name. But he derived much of his authority from his self-appointed position as ‘Leader of the Faithful’—a title usually reserved for a caliph. As such, Mullah Omar received oaths of allegiance from both his own followers and from the many foreigners—including Usama bin Ladin—who came to Afghanistan before and during Taliban rule. Indeed, one of the arguments used by al-Qaeda against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State, is that he cannot assume the position of Caliph because it is already occupied. Those who had already sworn allegiance to Mullah Omar were thus barred from revoking their oath and pledging allegiance to Baghdadi. If Mullah Omar is dead, these arguments clearly fall away.

The situation is particularly difficult for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, because he reaffirmed his loyalty to Mullah Omar as recently as last year, when he announced the formation of the new al-Qaeda branch in the Indian sub-continent. If Mullah Omar was already dead, it suggests that Zawahiri was either ignorant or duplicitous, neither of which will endear him to his followers. Al-Qaeda branches like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria may now declare that they are released from their oath to Zawahiri as he no longer derives authority from Mullah Omar. There will certainly be considerable debate within extremist circles, where these matters are taken very seriously.

The big winner, therefore, may be the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has argued since the inception of his ‘Caliphate’ that Mullah Omar did not have the pedigree or the necessary credentials to challenge him. If he is dead, this will certainly be true.


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