In the days after the September 11th attacks on the United States and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban leader known as “Mullah Omar” fled the state he’d helped form after fighting to liberate it from the Soviet Union. The CIA believed he’d fled to Pakistan and the U.S. military issued a reward of $10 million for his capture.
His real hiding place was just three miles from the U.S.’ FOB Wolverine in Siuray. He was never more than 80 miles from Kandahar, the site he fled when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
The governing body of the Taliban operated out of Quetta, Pakistan after being forced out of Afghanistan in 2001. Afghanistan’s Defence Ministry, the Pentagon, and the CIA all agreed that until his death in 2013, Mohammed Omar was there with them all. But what international intelligence agencies didn’t know about Omar could fill a warehouse. Very few photos of the man were ever taken, and he let very few people into his inner circle. Foreign intelligence services didn’t even know that Omar had died for two years following his death from Tuberculosis in 2013.
A new report from the Zomia Center, a think tank dedicated to studying ungoverned spaces, says that Omar died just three miles from FOB Wolverine, a base full of hundreds of American troops.
Omar in 1992.
Bette Dam, a Kabul-based journalist, working in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2014, traveled around the country trying to find a more complete picture of Omar. She spoke with friends, relatives, bodyguards, drivers, and other insurgent leaders, many of whom had fled and lived with Omar in the days following the U.S. invasion. Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan. The man who refused to give up Osama bin Laden renounced his leadership of the Taliban and then disappeared.
He found himself in two remote villages, each house close to an American military forward operating base. The first was in Qalat, near FOB Lagman. He hid there for four years, coming close to capture by U.S. troops only twice. The next village was Siuray, three miles from FOB Wolverine. Mullah Omar lived behind a larger family home in the traditional mud hut that is often found in rural Afghanistan. He lived there until his death in 2013.
Omar spent much of his time alone or with his bodyguard, Jabbar Omari, who provided journalist Bette Dam with much of the information she would later corroborate. The Taliban’s leader ate and prayed alone, and even cooked for himself much of the time. The two men were always afraid of being found out and took great pains to stay indoors and speak very softly, if at all. In the evenings, Omar would listen to BBC Pashto while his bodyguard listened to Voice of America’s Dari service on the radio.
Omar never mentioned Osama bin Laden or why he refused to hand the al-Qaeda leader over to the U.S. Even when bin Laden was killed in 2011, Omar didn’t say anything in response, he only ever criticized al-Qaeda’s view of Islam. When Omar died, his bodyguard buried him in the sand without a coffin, though he would later be dug up and given an Islamic funeral at a nondescript location. He died without appointing a successor to the Taliban movement and without leaving a message to his family or followers. He just died.