Taliban’s Mullah Omar died in 2013, Afghan government says

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Afghanistan's government is investigating fresh reports that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is dead. (CNN)

KABUL — Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar died in April 2013 in Pakistan, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Wednesday in a news release, citing “credible information.”

Under Omar’s leadership, the Taliban offered safe haven to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, precipitating the U.S. military action in Afghanistan after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Also, Haseeb Sediqi, spokesman for Afghanistan’s intelligence service, told CNN that Omar died in in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, in April 2013.

Sediqi said that intelligence service — the National Directorate of Security — was aware of Omar’s death long ago and had conveyed that to Afghanistan’s parliament. He also said he mentioned it at least three times in his past press conferences.

Omar Samad, senior adviser to Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, told CNN, “All odds and indications point to the fact that he has been dead for at least two years,”

A former senior United States government official who worked on Afghanistan issues for many years weighed in on the significance of Omar’s death.

“I’ve tended to believe the rumors that he was dead since the serious splits started in the Taliban,” the official said. “If he were alive, he wouldn’t allow these rumors to continue to threaten the movement’s unity to this degree. He would risk some small exposure to invalidate the rumors, and he has not done that despite incredible internal demands that he do so.”

Samad said the reports of Omar’s death will complicate the Afghan government’s negotiations with the Taliban.

“There is a serious ongoing power struggle that will now become more apparent between his hardline followers and those who are more amenable to current reconciliation initiatives facilitated by Pakistan,” he said, referring to peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that were hosted in Pakistan this month.

In announcing Omar’s death, the spokesman for Ghani said the government is optimistic about the talks, “and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

Omar’s death will likely work to the advantage of ISIS, which is seeking to make inroads among the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban.

“Some dissatisfied elements (of the Taliban) have already pledged allegiance to (ISIS),” said Samad. “With Omar out of the equation, more are likely to join (ISIS).”

“The bad news is that the hardline faction would then become relatively independent, perhaps even aligning with ISIS, which is a nightmare scenario for us,” the senior U.S. official said.

The BBC and the Wall Street Journal reported earlier Wednesday that unnamed sources in Afghanistan were saying Omar was dead. His death had long been rumored, yet always dismissed by the Taliban. Twice in 2011, the Taliban denied speculation that he had been killed.

Earlier this year, the Taliban published a “biography” of the reclusive Afghan leader, saying he was still in charge. The piece appeared on a Taliban website. The goal of the biography, experts said, was to dispel rumors that he died, possibly years ago.

And just two weeks ago, the Taliban released a statement attributed to Omar, saying he backed peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Omar, once a rural Islamic cleric, created the Taliban — the plural of the Pashto word for “student” — in the 1990s in the wake of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the country, aiming to impose Islamic law on Afghanistan and remove foreign influence from the country. The Taliban eventually swept across the nation.

With most of the country under Taliban control, he set himself the goal of transforming Afghanistan into the purest Islamic state in the world, declaring himself Amir-ul-Momineen, or head of the Muslims.

He was Afghanistan’s de facto leader from 1996 until late 2001, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded and booted the Taliban from power for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terror attacks.

That led to a Taliban insurgency that continues to this day, even as U.S. and other NATO troops are drawing down their numbers in Afghanistan.

The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ended last year, leaving the Afghan military to lead the fight against the Taliban. The thousands of NATO troops that remain in Afghanistan are there in a training and support role.

The U.S. government offered a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to Omar’s capture.

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