Mullah Muhammad Omar’s survival record would be the envy of any alley cat. Despite living a life of danger, usually in hiding and fighting two of the world’s greatest empires, he has repeatedly slipped out of sticky situations with his life.
Now it’s possible that Omar’s luck has run out: New reports say the top Taliban leader is dead. There’s been no official confirmation from either the Afghan government or the Taliban, but for what is apparently the first time, there are multiple high-level sources within both groups confirming that Omar is dead to The Wall Street Journal and BBC. There’s no information on how or when he may have died, and Voice of America has also reported a denial from Taliban sources.
For the time being, though, it may be wise to withhold judgment. Omar, who lost an eye fighting against the Soviets in the 1980s, has been the subject of death rumors repeatedly over the years. Here’s a quick rundown:
- On several occasions during the first months of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, American forces apparently came very close to killing Omar, according to Steve Coll. In one case, they struck his home and killed his son, but the mullah escaped harm.
- In October 2008, bloggers leaped on a BBC report that Omar had been killed in a drone strike in northwest Pakistan. The only problem: It was a different, much lower-level Taliban official sharing the same name.
- In May 2011, reports surfaced Omar was dead. The primary source of the rumors seemed to be the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, according to the Los Angeles Times. But Pakistani intelligence said it had no such information, and Western diplomats in Kabul were skeptical. The Taliban “vehemently” denied the report. (My colleague Uri Friedman carefully traced the path of the rumor at the time.)
- In June 2011, Canada’s National Post reported Taliban commanders were doubtful Omar was alive. The Taliban’s central leadership again denied the rumor.
- Then, the following month, there were more reports Omar was dead, this time starting with text messages believed to have been sent by high-ranking Taliban spokesmen. Reached by Reuters, the Taliban denied that Omar was dead and denied they even sent the texts, calling them the work of hackers, possibly American. (The U.S. didn’t comment.)
- In November 2014, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security was once again cited as the source for a claim Omar was dead. A month later, a New York Times report noted Omar's invisibility had caused frustration among Taliban leaders, but the story didn’t suggest he was dead, and in fact reported Afghan intelligence thought he was alive.
- In April 2015, the Taliban published a strange biography of Omar. The short leaflet was interpreted by Taliban-watchers as an attempt to show Omar was still alive and in charge.