'This Mullah Omar Show'

Article excerpt

Byline: Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau

No one's heard from the Taliban leader in almost nine years. Now his absence is exposing dangerous fault lines within the insurgency.

A thrill coursed through the Taliban's ranks a few weeks ago--someone was said to have seen a new video that showed Mullah Mohammed Omar in the distance, firing a Kalashnikov. The insurgents rejoiced: they hadn't heard from their reclusive leader since late 2001, when he rode east into the Kandahar mountains on the back of his brother-in-law's motorcycle, fleeing a storm of U.S. bombs.

The excitement, however, quickly evaporated. No one recalls how many times Mullah Omar has supposedly reappeared over the past nine years, but it always ends the same way: the rumored new video, signed communique, or audiotape turns out to have been a fantasy spawned by careless talk and fervently wishful thinking. Then the nagging questions start again: Where is Mullah Omar? Is he alive? Is he in charge? And if not, then who is?

A clear answer to those questions would very likely decide whether the Afghan insurgency stands or falls. Everyone agrees that absolute loyalty to Mullah Omar is what holds the Taliban together. Practically to a man, the group's commanders and fighters say they're fighting for the village cleric they call the Amir-ul-Momineen--the "commander of the faithful"--and for the restoration of his Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. "Every Taliban knows that the morale and unity of the insurgency depend on Mullah Omar," says a senior Taliban intelligence officer, asking not to be named for security reasons. "We are all fighting for him." Without their faith in Mullah Omar's divinely inspired leadership, the Taliban would almost surely collapse into a welter of rival clans and factions.

Those splits are more visible now, as the doubts and divides grow with every false report. Nearly a dozen Taliban commanders who were interviewed by NEWSWEEK for this story say Omar's silence has become an urgent topic among the Taliban leadership. Most of their rank-and-file fighters remain convinced that Omar is alive, in charge, and guiding the insurgency, they say. But that's partly because the commanders themselves keep the legend alive and partly because any suggestion in the ranks that Omar is dead, or not in control, might brand the speaker as a nonbeliever, perhaps even a spy. "Asking about Mullah Omar's whereabouts raises suspicions and is prohibited," says the senior Taliban intelligence officer. In private conversations, however, that's just what top commanders are doing.

It's hard to fathom just how this inarticulate village mullah has inspired such devotion. Aside from being an expert prayer leader and reciter of Quranic verses, there's nothing particularly impressive about him, says Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai. According to Yusufzai, who met and interviewed Mullah Omar 10 times before his ouster, the Taliban leader is devoid of charisma and displays no intellectual subtlety, viewing every issue in black and white. Even when he was in power, he rarely made public appearances and ventured to Kabul only once from his home in Kandahar.

Yet his followers speak of him in worshipful, almost needy terms. "As Muslims we believe in almighty Allah, but we don't think about what he looks like or where he is," says a senior guerrilla commander in Paktia province. "Similarly we believe Mullah Omar is with us even if we can't see or hear him." Some Taliban suggest his absence might even be a blessing. "We may not know where our amir is, but that means our enemies don't either," the intelligence officer says.

Nevertheless, the insurgency is suffering without him. Former aides to Mullah Omar are presenting themselves as would-be leaders, and no one is in a position to challenge them. …