Mullah Omar biography: Taliban trying to counter IS

Mullah Omar, undated Image copyright AP
Image caption Very few images of Mullah Omar have ever been released

The Taliban have issued the first biography of their reclusive leader Mullah Omar. Believed to be in hiding in Pakistan, he has not been seen in public for many years.

There is no explanation for the decision to release the biography, but perhaps it is to counter rumours that he is dead.

The text claims he is still in daily control of activities of the Taliban, the movement he founded with a group of other mujahideen fighters in 1994.

It comes 19 years to the day since he displayed Afghanistan's most precious object, a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad, and was declared Amir ul-Mumineen, which translates as Leader of the Faithful.

The decision to issue the biography is a reminder of Omar's role to members of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (IS).

Their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was last year declared to be re-founding the Caliphate, with himself as Caliph, a claim that contradicts Omar's leadership of Muslims, which transcends national borders.

Islamic State has been actively attempting to recruit fighters in Afghanistan disaffected by Omar's Taliban.

Warrior tales

The biography, at some 5,000 words, has no surprises and has the tone of hagiography.

It tells of a virtuous childhood. The man who would become Mullah Omar was taught in a madrassa by pious uncles after his father died when he was five years old.

He joined the mujahideen aged 20, soon after the Russian invasion in 1980, becoming a commander in 1983.

He was wounded four times, including the loss of his right eye.

Image caption The 5,000-word biography clarifies disputed facts about his birth and upbringing
Image copyright AP
Image caption Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State group have been trying to recruit members of the Afghan Taliban

In the only reference to the biography's sources, the author quotes stories from two colleagues - one of them Mullah Barader - about Omar's prowess using the RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher, particularly against tanks.

This is one of the more intriguing references. Barader was released from Pakistani captivity in 2013 because US and Afghan negotiators believed he might be a conduit for peace talks.

He remains under effective house arrest, and his inclusion in this biography implies that the Pakistani intelligence service ISI may have had some hand in its production, or at least knew that it was being written.

The account given of the formation of the Taliban follows a now well-trodden story.

Omar was among a group of ex-mujahideen commanders angered by the violence and disorder that followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government in 1992.

There is colourful description of the problems traders had because of illegal roadblocks.

'Sense of humour'

In a meeting in 1994, when the decision was made to stand up against the warlords, Mullah Omar was the natural leader "to stand and resist against this anarchy as he would be supported by all of them".

There is little description of the battles to take nearly all of the rest of Afghanistan, which culminated in 1997.

In this account, it concluded in a state "based on the pure rules and principles of Sharia Law, after a long interval, the world witnessed a practical model of Islamic government once again".

There is no mention of al-Qaeda. Instead of 9/11, in this account, the US attacked Afghanistan because the world "could not tolerate this Sharia system".

In fact, there is no mention of the world beyond Afghanistan other than rather routine support for the Palestinian desire to retake Jerusalem.

The image confirms the characterisation of the Taliban as an Islamic conservative Afghan nationalist organisation with a narrow world view.

The account attempts to portray the Taliban leader as "charismatic" with a "special sense of humour".

But it concedes that there is nothing out of the ordinary about him. As one of the very few Westerners who has ever laid eyes on him (in 1996), I can confirm that among other Taliban he did not stand out.

And the account makes a virtue of this, claiming he has never owned his own home.

"He has adopted a simple and plain style in all aspects of his life. Simple dress, simple food, simple talk, frankness and informality are his natural habits."

It might be no surprise to hear that "in most of his meetings, he usually speaks about jihad".

The Taliban-issued English translation of the biography has some curious colloquialisms. But its intended audience is clearly Afghanistan.

There may be no ulterior motive in releasing it except to remind Afghans that he is still a force.

It contains a ritual claim that the "American superpower and other allied forces are on the verge of destruction and defeat".

There is no mention of reconciliation with the government. Instead, it claims that Mullah Omar's shadow administration controls most of the country already.

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