So is Mullah Omar dead, or isn’t he?
Sky News quoted the longtime Taliban leader’s son, Mullah Yacoub, said the reclusive figure died a few years ago from tuberculosis, while an Afghan Taliban commander told a Reuters reporter, “We are at a crossroads, and it will take some time to resolve this (leadership) issue.”
However, a Taliban spokesperson quickly dismissed this claim. “According to my information,” said Taliban spokesman Qariy Yousef Ahmadi, “Mullah Omar is still alive and leading the movement.” The way this is phrased suggests the spox doesn’t have any contact with his leader — this wasn’t akin to him saying, “I played bocce ball with him last Thursday.”
So is Mullah Omar still among the living or is the Taliban pulling a Weekend at Bernie’s maneuver?* He’s reportedly been killed several times already—so much so that author and terrorism researcher JM Berger merrily ranked the other times he was reported dead.
But the larger question really is: does Mullah Omar’s death matter? The answer is probably no.
Despite being the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar hasn’t been seen or heard from publicly since October 2001. And yet “he” has been guiding this organization pretty well, as the group has reestablished itself quite nicely in Afghanistan and Pakistan since being ejected following 9/11. Earlier this year, the ODNI’s 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment noted:
The Taliban will probably remain largely cohesive under the leadership of Mullah Omar and sustain its countrywide campaign to take territory in outlying areas and steadily reassert influence over significant portions of the Pashtun countryside, positioning itself for greater territorial gains in 2015.
In this month alone, the group has made significant gains in Afghanistan, including parts in the nominally anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun north. So this is a group that is lamentably on the march, and doing so without its leader actually doing anything. This is remarkable—even the much-hunted leaders of al Qaeda, Hizbollah & ISIS occasionally make public speeches showing proof-of-life.
And it certainly profits the Taliban to keep Mullah Omar “alive” as it gives the group a mysterious leader that can keep issuing orders and keep his organization as a coherent political entity. Leadership transitions in insurgent groups can be an ugly, violent affair. Yet that won’t answer the basic question about Mullah Omar’s corporeal existence. Basically, unless we find a body and there is DNA match, or he decides to make a video, we won’t ever know if Mullah Omar is actually dead.
But as we’ve seen in the last 14 years, perhaps his non-existence to the broader war doesn’t actually matter.
*This 1989 comedy dealt with two guys who pretend their dead boss is actually alive, confounding the hit man who is trying to kill them. Hijinks ensue.