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Death of Mullar Omar

August 2, 2015

Summary: Reports of Mullah Omar’s death have been exaggerated before. But recent claims of his demise, including from Taliban sources, together with the announcement that second in command, Mullah Mansoor, has taken over seem more convincing this time. The Taliban seem to be struggling with the news. Confusion and factional fighting look likely.

It seems that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is dead. Reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated before, over years. This has been due to combination of his need to remain in hiding, a general lack of information about him and malicious or misinformed rumour-mongering from a variety of sources. I wrote about the implications of his death here and here.

This time, multiple sources, including announcements from the Taliban website broadly considered to be the official voice of the Taliban, make it more plausible that Omar is dead. The details of his death (where, how, when and who broke the news first) remain largely – and tantalisingly – unanswered.

But a flurry of Taliban statements in the context of Omar’s death point strongly to surprise, confusion, uncertainty and inter-factional rivalry within the Taliban.

Within the space of a few days, the Taliban’s website has announced:

  • Omar’s death due to illness (with minimal detail)
  • the appointment of Mullah Mansoor as leader of the Taliban
  • the “clarification” of the loyalty of Mullah Zakir – the former leader of the military commission of the Taliban and generally seen as a rival to Mansoor for the leadership
  • the announcement that “hundreds of jihadi” commanders are endorsing Mansoor
  • that rumours that senior insurgent figurehead, Jalaluddin Haqqani, has died of illness are unfounded (although he was ill for a time)

and, just to definitively prove this latter statement,

  • a note from Jallaluddin Haqqani himself, urging unity and support for Mullah Mansoor

We should also note that the most recent Mullah Omar Eid statement, which was significant for its endorsement of talks and its multiple appeals for unity, has been taken down, suggesting embarrassment and questions over the date of Omar’s death. Afghan intelligence sources, amongst others, claim that Omar may have died in early 2013.

The Taliban are clearly struggling with their media line and their leadership succession. They have put peace talks on hold. The apparent need to denounce rumours of Haqqani death suggests over-sensitivity and over-reaction: they are clearly not learning many lessons about media management. I get the sense that many Taliban have been taken by surprise by the announcement and the speed with which Mansoor has become the leader. Small wonder there are so many pleas for unity flying around. Reports suggest that a faction that includes Mullah Omar’s son are unhappy with Mansoor’s appointment. A Pakistani paper reports that pressure is being put on Mansoor to step down and a new leader elected.

Mullah Omar more or less vanished in late 2001 or early 2002. He was an important spiritual figurehead for the Taliban – a rallying point amongst many factions – much more than he was an active battlefield commander. I suspect he may well have died months or years ago but it suited the Taliban to preserve the legend (and issue commands) in his name for as long as they could.

The indications of dis-unity and fragmentation are being demonstrated even across the Taliban’s own website. As ever, when confronted with difficult or fast-moving news, they fumble with their responses, even after many years of media experience. Denial, denouncement and deflection remain their preferred approach.

We need the dust to settle. I expect more confused announcements and rumour to swirl around for some weeks. An understanding of when Omar died and who chose to broadcast this information at this particular point in time might add to our understanding of what the Taliban are becoming. Did the Pakistanis put this out as a means of forcing the Taliban’s hand and pushing them further into the Pakistani-led talks?

But before Omar’s death is heralded as cause for hope, fragmentation and in-fighting amongst factions looks a real possibility. Some Taliban factions want to continue the fight. This, along with the growing rise of Islamic State factions within and around the region, points to ongoing (and more complex) fighting in Afghanistan.

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