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Omar, Mullah

By:
Rizwan Hussain
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Omar, Mullah

Mohammad Omar ( B. C.1959), also known as Mullah Omar, is the spiritual and political leader of the Sunnī fundamentalist Taliban movement of Afghanistan. Omar was Afghanistan's de facto head of state from 1996 to 2001. He is an ethnic Pashtun belonging to the Hotak subtribe of the Ghilzai branch of the Pashtun tribal confederation. He is thought to have been born to a landless peasant family in the village of Nodeh (some reports suggest that his birthplace was Singesar, also near Kandahār) in Kandahār province. Mullah Omar has been wanted by U.S. authorities for harboring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaʿida organization that are believed to be responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Omar is reported to be hiding in the rugged mountainous Pakistan–Afghanistan border regions.

Mullah Omar remains an enigmatic personality. Notwithstanding his role as one of the founders of the Taliban, not much is publicly known about him. There are very few photographs of Mullah Omar, as the Taliban's strict interpretation of Sunnī Islam discourages taking images of human beings. During his tenure as amīr (leader) of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar seldom left Kandahār and almost never met with non-Muslims.

Omar started his career as an Islamic militant by becoming a local subcommander with the Younis Khalis faction of the Ḥizb-i Islāmī party of the anti-Soviet Mujāhidīn in the 1980s. The Ḥizb-i Islāmī was the recipient of a large amount of U.S., Saudi, and Pakistani financial and military assistance during the war against the Soviet-sponsored regime in Kabul. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, Omar continued to fight against the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime between 1989 and 1992. He was wounded in action four times and lost one eye in the anti-Soviet struggle. After he was disabled, Omar is believed to have studied and taught in a Deobandī madrasah (Islamic seminary) in the Pakistani border city of Quetta in the early 1990s.

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992 eroded any semblance of central authority in the country as various mujāhidīn factions vied for power. The anarchical situation in Afghanistan facilitated Mullah Omar's rise to prominence with the emergence of the ethnically Pashtun-dominated Taliban between 1993 and 1994. The Taliban's recruits came from the Wahhābī-influenced Deobandī Qurʿānic schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Mullah Omar claimed to have formed the Taliban in order to rid Afghanistan of the rampant corruption and anarchy that had emerged as a result of the internecine civil war amongst rival Islamist factions. According to the Taliban's version of its origins, Mohammad Omar, then a village mullah in Kandahār, responded to the pleas for assistance in freeing two girls kidnapped and assaulted by a local militia commander. Omar gathered a group of religious students or tālibs of the local madrasah and organized an attack on the commander that resulted in the girls’ freedom and the subsequent execution of the commander. Mullah Omar is perceived to be genuinely firm in his constrained vision of “orthodox” Sunnī Islam influenced by the Wahhābī School. Omar's Pakistani and Afghan sympathizers have created a legend of the Mullah's charisma, piety, and dedication to Islam.

At the regional level, Pakistan backed Mullah Omar and the Taliban movement (known in Pashto as Da Afghanistano da Talibano Islami Tehrik) in the 1990s as the Pakistani military elite visualized Mullah Omar as a loyal client in order to attain its geo-strategic objective in post-Soviet Afghanistan. Moreover, Mullah Omar's strict Deobandī interpretation of Sunnī Islam was also supported by Pakistan's close Arab allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries felt some ideological affinity with his interpretation of Islam, and strategically they regarded the Taliban as a counter to their regional rival, Shīʿī Iran.

Relying on Pakistani military assistance in the areas of weapons supply, tactical direction, and training the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Omar was able to occupy large parts of Afghanistan in the mid 1990s. In April 1996, supporters of Mullah Omar bestowed on him the title Amīr al-Muʿminīn (commander of the faithful) after he took from a chest in a shrine in Kandahār a cloak alleged to be that of Prophet Muhammad and wore it. An Afghan legend decreed that whoever could retrieve the cloak from the chest would be the great leader of the Muslims. Mullah Omar renamed Afghanistan the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in October 1997. However, he continued to reside in Kandahār and did not move to Kabul, which has been the capital of Afghanistan for over 150 years. Under Mullah Omar's rule, lawlessness and crime diminished in the parts of Afghanistan administered by the Taliban, but fighting and the suffering of civilians from the destruction of war continued.

Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist al-Qaʿida network were able to expand without hindrance under the safe sanctuary extended by Mullah Omar in the period between 1996 and 2001. Mullah Omar's association with Bin Laden went back to their time as resistance fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Washington gave Mullah Omar an ultimatum either to hand over Bin Laden or to face a U.S. military assault. Mullah Omar rejected Washington's ultimatum while his erstwhile Pakistani allies abandoned him and allied themselves with the United States. In October 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom removed Mullah Omar's Taliban regime from power. Omar declared that he and his Taliban forces would fight to the death rather than to submit to U.S. demands to turn over Osama bin Laden.

Mullah Omar went into hiding after the toppling of the Taliban regime. He escaped from an oncoming battalion of U.S. Marines by riding off on a motorbike, even though he reportedly has only one functioning leg. The United States government has offered a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to his capture. Although Omar's whereabouts are currently un‑ known, the Taliban continue to operate against the U.S. and NATO forces based in Afghanistan. Some captured Taliban claimed in January 2007 that the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate of the Pakistani military was still protecting Mullah Omar. This matches a similar allegation made by the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, in 2006, although the government of Pakistan vehemently denied it.

Mullah Omar has proclaimed a jihād against the U.S. and NATO “occupying forces” and the U.S.-installed Afghan regime of President Karzai. He continues to have the allegiance of prominent pro-Taliban military commanders in the region, including his former enemy Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Numerous statements reportedly from Omar have been released. In June 2006 a statement regarding the death of Abū Musʿab al-Zarqāwī in Iraq hailed al-Zarqāwī as a martyr and claimed that the resistance movements in Afghanistan and Iraq “will not be weakened.” In August 2007, Omar reportedly issued a statement through an intermediary on the 88th anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain encouraging resistance against the “foreign colonial occupation” of Afghanistan.

[See also AFGHANISTAN; ḤIZB-I ISLāMī AFGHāNISTāN; and Taliban.]

Bibliography

  • Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, New York, 2005. One of the most-well-documented studies of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, partly based on official declassified sources and interviews that are not found in other publications on this subject.
  • Goodson, Larry P.Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. New ed.Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. A balanced account role of the Taliban in the Afghan conflict in the 1990s.
  • Griffin, Michael. Reaping the Whirlwind: Afghanistan, Al Qaʿida and the Holy War. 2d ed.London: Pluto Press, 2003. A general study of post-Soviet Afghan politics and foreign intervention in Afghan affairs.
  • Hussain, Rizwan. Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan, London: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. Provides a detailed analysis of Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan from 1947 to 2001.
  • Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, London: I. B. Taurus, 2000. A well-researched journalistic account of the rise of the Taliban phenomenon in the 1990s.
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