Omar, Mullah Mohammed (1961–)

views updated

Omar, Mullah Mohammed

A leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammed Omar is currently in hiding.


Described as reclusive, Mullah (a religious title) Mohammed Omar was born in 1961 in the village of Nauda in southern Afghanistan, the son of a Sunni Muslim religious cleric, Mohammed Serwar, who died when his son was just one year old. Omar's father was from the one of the largest of Afghanistan's ethnic Pash-tun tribes, the Ghilzai Durrani tribe, and his mother was from the Hottaq Pashtun tribe.

Omar's ambitions were hardly grand. He grew up in Nauda attending a religious school that provided only the basics of education. His study of the Qur'an was without elaboration or depth. Those who knew Omar said he only read the Qur'an, he did not engage in philosophical discussions or understand the intricacies of the Arabic language, the language in which the Qur'an is written.

Omar was teaching at a dilapidated madrasa (religious academy) made of sunbaked mud and straw in Sanghesar in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province when he launched the Taliban movement in 1994. He is married to two wives, and has seven children. One of his wives was married to an uncle of Omar's. When the uncle died, Omar married his widow.

Mullah Mohammad Khaksar, fellow founder of the Taliban movement, and a close friend of Omar's until the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, said of the hunted Taliban leader: "You could never doubt Mullah Omar's love of the Qur'an, of Islam. He didn't know deep meanings, but he loves Islam, he loves the Qur'an."


Omar's beginnings were humble, but his kingdom, a small mud mosque in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, would later become the headquarters of the Taliban movement, which Omar and fifty-nine other clerics would found. Omar would become its head and rule with an iron fist, accepting no challenges to his authority but receiving anyone who professed a belief in Islam.

A devout cleric who adheres to a strict literal interpretation of the Qur'an, Omar joined the fight against the Soviet Union following its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. His first battles against the invading soldiers were in Darawood in Uruzgan province, also in southern Afghanistan. He joined Hizb-e-Islami, one of the mujahideen (resistance fighters) movements led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But he soon became disillusioned with Hekmatyar's organization, arguing against the forced collection of money from ordinary Afghans by Hizb-e-Islami.

Omar then joined briefly with Jami'at-e Islami commander Mullah Naqeebullah, fighting alongside him in Argandaub, outside Kandahar city, before joining Harakat-e Islami, led by Maulvi Nabi Mohammed Mohammedi. It was with Harakat-e Islami—considered in the early stages of the war against the Soviet Union to be the strongest of the mujahideen groups, funded by several governments, including the United States—that he remained until the end of the war. The strength of Harakat-e Islami later deteriorated, but its backbone was always the village mullahs (clerics).

Legends have grown up around Omar, among them the tale that the fighting mullah removed his own eye after being hurt in a particularly bitter battle against a military convoy in his native province of Kandahar. According to the legend, a convoy of Soviet and Afghan soldiers was heading south to Kandahar. Omar was among the attacking mujahideen who ambushed the convoy with hand grenades, rocket launchers, and Kalashnikov rifles. Omar's band of mujahideen was hopelessly overpowered and outgunned by the Soviet commandos, who struck back with tank fire and sophisticated heavy weapons. Omar dived for cover as a rocket slammed into the ground nearby, but a piece of shrapnel pierced his eye. According to the legend Omar used the bayonet attached to the barrel of his Kalashnikov rifle to remove the piece of shrapnel, and with it his eye. In reality, Omar did lose his eye in battle, but he was treated at a hospital in Quetta, Pakistan.

The story told about Omar's founding of the Taliban is also a mix of legend, misreporting, and misinformation. Those who began the Taliban with him said the movement was born out of frustration and anger at the lawlessness created by thieving men aligned with the Afghan government, those mujahideen leaders who had taken power when Afghanistan's communist president Mohammed Najibullah was overthrown in 1992.

When the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, and Najibullah vacated power in 1992, Omar, like many mujahideen commanders, returned home. Omar resumed his teaching in Sanghesar but said he received his instructions to rise up against the warring mujahideen factions in dreams where Islam's prophet Muhammad came to him and urged him to challenge their lawlessness.


Name: Mullah Mohammed Omar

Birth: 1961, Nauda, Afghanistan

Family: Two wives; seven children

Nationality: Afghan

Education: No formal education


  • 1980s: Fights with Mujahideen resistance fighters against Soviet troops
  • 1994: Forms Taliban movement
  • 1995: Becomes ruler of Afghanistan when Taliban take over
  • 1996: Granted title of Amir al-Mu'minin (Commander of the faithful)
  • 2001: Orders giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan destroyed; flees into hiding during United States's invasion of Afghanistan

Factional fighting had characterized the rule of the mujahideen government, led by Ahmad Shah Masoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Thieves, many of them affiliated with mujahideen leaders, set up checkposts on most major roads throughout the country. The Red Cross estimated that, in the capital of Kabul, fifty thousand people, most of them civilians, died in the four years that Rabbani and Masoud ruled Afghanistan, fighting for power against other leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the ethnic Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari.

The Taliban was formed in 1994, after the mujahideen government had been in power for two years in Kabul. The roads were lawless and anarchy had spread throughout the country. Former mujahideen commanders turned parts of the country into their private fiefdoms. In the capital of Kabul, Masoud and Rabbani battled Hekmatyar's forces, everyone trying to keep or get power. Ordinary Afghans were caught in the cross fire of a bitter and brutal battle. Mullah Mohammed Khaksar recounted the following:

Let me tell you, the foreign countries got it all wrong about the beginning of the Taliban. It wasn't created by Pakistan, or by the Arabs, or by the Americans. From the beginning the world was wrong about the Taliban.

For example, some people said that the Americans brought the Taliban; and some people said Pakistani intelligence brought the Taliban; and some said the Arabs brought them. But all of these things were wrong. The Taliban came because there was so much corruption, and people were killing each other, and mujahidin commanders had become like thousands of little kings. Then everyone was a commander.

Before launching the Taliban Omar rarely left his village mosque and madrasah, but when he did he went through an endless series of checkposts manned by former mujahideen. Eventually he and a number of like-minded mullahs, all of whom had fought against the former Soviet Union, decided enough was enough. They banded together and attacked one of the checkposts. It was an easy victory. They proceeded through several other checkposts that collapsed quickly and eventually took control of Kandahar.

The Taliban movement was soon hijacked by Pakistan's intelligence, and later by usama bin ladin's al-Qa'ida movement. Bin Ladin had come to Afghanistan from Sudan in May 1996, before the Taliban took complete control of the country. He was brought to Afghanistan by mujahideen who were part of the government still ruling Afghanistan and waging bitter power struggles. The Taliban took control of Jalalabad in early September and Kabul by late September. Omar had not met Bin Ladin during the war against the former Soviet Union; he met him only after the Taliban took Kabul in late September, when he ordered Bin Ladin to come to Kandahar.

Omar ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist, issuing edicts that his men enforced. He ordered an end to poppy production in Afghanistan, phased over three years; by the final year, 2001, poppy production in Afghanistan had been wiped out. When he was overthrown in December 2001 farmers literally ripped up their wheat and planted poppies, and in 2007 Afghanistan is again the world's largest producer of opium, the raw material used to make heroin.

Omar's harsh interpretation of Islam denied schooling to girls and women the ability to work. He ordered all women to wear the all-encompassing burka, a garment most women in the deeply conservative and tribal Afghanistan already wore, with the exception of a small number in the cities. Omar issued an edict in 2000 promising to protect the world's tallest Buddha statues in Bamiyan from destruction, but in March 2001 he reversed his edict and ordered them destroyed. It is believed that Bin Ladin and his austere Wahhabi belief—practiced by most Saudi Arabians—was behind the latter edict. By March 2001 the Taliban had been sanctioned twice by the United Nations, and had no source of income other than Bin Ladin's money.

After the attacks on the United States in September 2001, Omar was issued an ultimatum by the United States: Give up Bin Ladin and close the militant training camps, or be attacked. Omar refused to give him up, but offered instead to have Bin Ladin tried in an Islamic country other than Afghanistan, or in Afghanistan. The United States said that was unacceptable and ordered an assault on Afghanistan that led to Omar's being ousted in December 2001. Since then he has been in hiding, protected by his tribesmen in the south and the east of Afghanistan. There is a US$10 million reward offered by the United States for his capture.


Relatively little is known about Mullah Mohammed Omar. But to many throughout the world, he is inextricably linked to the Taliban and its strict policies toward women, religious minorities, and other policies generally reviled in the West and among many in the Islamic world.


Omar will be remembered as the leader of a movement that, though it ended the factional bloodshed that had beset Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, came to rule the country harshly and according to a strict version of Sunni Islam. He will also be remembered as the man who prompted the American invasion of the country in 2001 because he refused to hand over Bin Ladin.


Rashid, Ahmad. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

                                              Kathy Gannon