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Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is dead, Afghan president says

In this image released by the FBI, Mullah Mohammed Omar is seen in a wanted poster.

In this image released by the FBI, Mullah Mohammed Omar is seen in a wanted poster.

(Associated Press)

As U.S.-backed forces closed in on southern Afghanistan in late 2001, the Taliban leader who lost an eye fighting the Soviet occupation and sheltered Al Qaeda militants as they plotted the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States decided not to stay and fight another invader.

Mullah Mohammed Omar slipped across the border into Pakistan, reportedly on a motorcycle, and was not seen publicly since.

The decade-long mystery over the whereabouts of the reclusive cleric — who retained a powerful spiritual hold over the Taliban insurgency — appeared to end Wednesday when the Afghan government said Omar has been dead for more than two years.

President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement that the government had “credible information” that Omar died in April 2013 in Pakistan, but did not elaborate. A spokesman for Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency told the Associated Press that Omar died in a hospital in the port city of Karachi.

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Omar’s demise has been reported before, and just as in the past, the Taliban denied the claim. A spokesman for the insurgent group, Zabiullah Mujahid, called it propaganda by the Afghan and Pakistani governments before a meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives scheduled for Friday.

But Omar’s followers have not produced proof of life for years. He would have been in his mid-50s at the time of his death.

Although he long ago ceased to lead the Taliban’s day-to-day operations, Omar’s death would deprive the increasingly fractious Taliban of the only figure who commands near-universal respect among the insurgents. His death probably would have been known to only a small number of aides and Pakistani intelligence officials who maintain links to the group’s leadership in Quetta, Pakistan.

Taliban spokesmen continued to post statements under Omar’s name — the most recent was two weeks ago — and said he was managing the organization remotely. He was said to be overseeing a political office the Taliban opened in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the first tentative step toward negotiations to end the 14-year insurgency.

Even Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, declared allegiance to Omar last year — either to perpetuate the story that he was alive or because the Taliban’s militant allies didn’t know that he wasn’t.

After Ghani’s announcement, two Afghan officials said privately that they had known about Omar’s death for more than a year. Pakistani security officials discussed the news with Ghani several months ago, said a source with knowledge of the issue who requested anonymity to disclose private conversations.

It is not clear why Afghan officials chose to announce Omar’s death now.

There had been growing chatter from Pakistan about a rift in the Taliban between those who favor peace negotiations and those who prefer to keep fighting. Two weeks ago, after the first official meeting between Taliban and Afghan negotiators in the Pakistani hill town of Murree, a statement attributed to Omar was published on a Taliban website endorsing dialogue with the Afghan government.

The statement — which was seen as significant because many Taliban members have long opposed negotiating with a government they call a Western stooge — angered the anti-talks faction and renewed questions about Omar’s status.

A Taliban delegation that includes Maulvi Abbas, an Omar aide, was scheduled to hold a second meeting with Afghan officials in Murree on Friday. In his statement, Ghani gamely asserted that without Omar, the “grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and [the government] thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

Afghan officials had been expected to push Friday for the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire, but it seemed unlikely that the insurgents would be able to make any immediate commitments.

“The disappearance of Mullah Omar from the scene can create a serious leadership crisis for the Taliban,” said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a senior journalist in Peshawar, Pakistan, who has extensively covered the Taliban.

It also could prompt more disaffected Taliban commanders to join Islamic State, the Iraq- and Syria-based militant organization that has been trying to establish itself in Afghanistan.

Several Taliban commanders have declared allegiance to Islamic State, whose leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, has dismissed Omar as “uneducated.” The groups have clashed occasionally over territory in recent months, and although the Taliban has a much larger fighting force, analysts say Islamic State’s brand and financial resources are attractive to young, hard-line militants.

“Islamic State and other radical groups who are anti-political will benefit from Mullah Omar’s death,” said Borhan Osman, a Kabul-based researcher with the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network.

“He was the most respected figure among the jihadists, and now the radicals who were not happy with political accommodation can challenge the movement and question its legitimacy more boldly.”

If militant rivalries heat up, it is likely to mean more chaos in a country that is already suffering from the highest levels of casualties among civilians and military personnel in years.

Though there is little danger that insurgents could overrun Kabul or other major cities, Afghan soldiers and police have seen far-flung territory in the north and south slip from their grasp with limited aerial and logistical support from the fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country.

The U.S. had placed a $10-million bounty on Omar’s head, making his whereabouts a constant source of speculation. So little was known about his background that in April, to mark what the Taliban called his 19th year in charge, the group published a 5,000-word biography of Omar that aimed to clear up some facts about his life.

The text said he was born in 1960 in the southern province of Kandahar and quit religious studies to join the Afghan mujahideen fighters battling Soviet forces in the 1980s. He was injured four times in the fighting, losing his right eye to a shrapnel wound, it said.

After Afghanistan’s communist government collapsed in 1992, Omar rose to lead the traditionalist religious movement that became the Taliban and took over the country in 1996. But he gained pariah status internationally when Taliban officials began carrying out horrifying punishments — chopping off the hands of suspected thieves and carrying out executions in stadiums — and hosted Osama bin Laden on Afghan soil.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Omar refused calls to hand over Bin Laden and escaped before U.S. forces could capture him in southern Afghanistan. Yousafzai, the journalist, reports that Omar’s eldest son, Yaqoob, who is in his mid-20s and just graduated from an Islamic seminary in Pakistan, has been put forward by some loyalists as a possible successor.

Special correspondents Ali M. Latifi in Kandahar and Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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