The Mysterious Mullah Omar; Tracing the Elusive Footsteps of the Taliban's Supreme Leader-And Bracing for What May Be Their Bloodiest Drive Yet

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Byline: Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau

There's no mistaking the thrill in Ghul Agha Akhund's voice. The Taliban field commander, speaking by mobile phone from his redoubt in Afghanistan's Helmand province, says the militants' covert network of couriers has brought him a vital message. It's a dark photocopy of a handwritten note, just seven lines to congratulate the group's fighting forces on "getting even with the infidel invaders" last year and to urge them to launch "a more intensive jihad" this year. But Ghul Agha views the scrap of paper as an almost sacred artifact: it bears the signature of the Taliban's Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. "This message from our leader is like tonic medicine," the chieftain says. "It makes us stronger."

In fact, he's doubly excited. This is the second communication he's gotten from Mullah Omar this year--after not one word since the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. (Although not all the information in this report can be independently verified, it came from sources who have proved reliable in the past, and the details are consistent with the established facts.) This January, Ghul Agha received an audiocassette of Mullah Omar praising the virtue of self-sacrifice. "Carry out your Islamic responsibilities as I carry out mine," the officer quotes the tape as saying. "Don't look for promotions or benefits. Just serve the jihad." The message electrified Ghul Agha. "For the last few years, we heard only rumors about Mullah Omar," he says. "Now we hear from him directly!" The commander and his men are energetically preparing to launch an offensive as soon as the snow melts; he hopes this year they will cut off the provincial capital.

Mullah Omar has emerged from the shadows, his field officers say, and with his inspiration they're planning a military push against U.S.-led forces like never before. NEWSWEEK has viewed a new recruiting video in which the Taliban's most notoriously cruel commander, the one-legged Mullah Dadullah Akhund, addresses an audience of some 400 men who are described as trained suicide bombers, ready to die on his order. "Our suicide bombers are countless," he says in a videotaped response to questions from NEWSWEEK. "Hundreds have already registered their names, and hundreds more are on the waiting list." Those claims, while impossible to verify, can't be discounted, either. In an interview that aired on Al-Jazeera last week, Dadullah claimed to have more than 6,000 armed guerrillas in underground hideouts and other staging areas, awaiting the moment to strike. "The attack is imminent," he told the Arabic TV channel.

Western forces are certainly bracing for one. Thousands of reinforcements have deployed to Afghanistan, bringing the Coalition's total armed strength to nearly 50,000, including 15,500 Americans in NATO's ranks and 11,000 others under direct U.S. command. NATO's chief spokes-man in Kabul, Col. Tom Collins, says his force intends to head off the militants' assault with pre-emptive attacks against Taliban strongholds and sanctuaries in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces. The Coalition, with its enormous superiority in firepower, sees no way the Taliban can capture and hold any significant target. "They may hold a small place for days," Collins allows, "but they'll get run out at a high cost." An estimated 3,000 Taliban fighters died in last year's engagements alone. But replacing those losses has been easy--thanks largely to the 47-year-old Mullah Omar.

To Westerners his appeal all but defies explanation. He was always an unprepossessing figure, even during the late 1990s, when he and his followers ruled most of Afghanistan. He seldom gave speeches on the radio, let alone in public, and he traveled out of his home province, Kandahar, to visit Kabul only once. Those who have met him describe him as a seemingly humble--though intelligent--village preacher, shy, inarticulate and utterly lacking in charisma. His manner is awkward, even childlike at times. …