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The reclusive ruler who runs the Taliban

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 2001


A Pakistani official arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, this spring, on a mission to save two towering 1,700-year-old mountain carvings of Buddha. He tried to dissuade the Taliban Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, from blowing up the statues.

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Mullah Omar replied by describing a dream he'd had about "a mountain falling down on him." Before it hit him, Allah appeared, asking Omar why he did nothing to get rid of the false idols.

"I closed my attaché case," the Pakistani recalls, shoulders sagging. "There was nothing left to say."

Such private visions are part of the decisionmaking process that has guided the life of the man who rose from village mullah to Taliban leader to partner of Osama bin Laden.

Those who have met Omar, say he's tall (6 foot, 6 inches) bearded, reclusive, and a lover of war stories. A fierce commander, he was wounded four times in the jihad against the Soviets, leaving him with one eye.

His title, "Commander of the Faithful," has not been adopted by any Muslim anywhere for nearly 1000 years. Omar has given few interviews, rarely meets with non-Muslims, and there is only one known photo of him - as a young man. Diplomats describe him as shy and untalkative with foreigners. Omar says he has one son.

"He has never visited Kabul, the capital," says Rahimullah Yousefzai, who has interviewed Omar twice for The News, a Karachi, Pakistan, based newspaper. "He is not a great speaker. To his followers, his strength is his piety, the force of his belief."

In the past year, facing drought, military problems, a lack of international recognition, and sanctions, Omar has become increasingly isolated, and influenced by Arabs such as Ayman Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's No. 2. Omar's rhetoric used to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan, and even on censuring Mr. bin Ladin. During the past year, his public statements have taken on a pan-Islamic tone found more among militant Islamists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Omar used to be seen cross-legged in local mosques talking with his followers. But in recent months (until this week's air raids), he was seen in convoys of Landcruisers with tinted windows, a gift of wealthy Arabs. Omar's house (reportedly hit by bombs yesterday) was was one of 16 large residences built with Arab money along a stretch of Herat St. in Kandahar. Mr. Zawahiri is a neighbor.

Born in 1959 as the son of a peasant farmer, he grew up in mud huts around the village of Singesar, near Kandahar. In short, he's an unlikely leader in a country where pedigree and royalty have always been the path to power.

Omar, in fact, was relatively unknown in Afghanistan until 1994. He came to power reluctantly, says Mr. Yousefzai. Omar told him that he started the Taliban after a dream in which Allah came to him in the shape of a man, asking him to lead the faithful. There were also practical reasons.

Omar, known for a pure devotion to Islam, was a mullah with a village madrassah near Kandahar. But he was "horrified," says Yousefzai, by the behavior of former mujahideen commanders that he had fought alongside from 1989 to 1992. They were kidnapping and raping boys and girls, stealing from Afghans at gunpoint on the road, and driving international aid workers out of Kandahar. So, Omar and 30 ethnic Pashtun followers "picked up the gun" - at first to stop four notorious mujahideen who were raping women near Omar's village - and later to bring law and order to an entire country.

The idea: create a Muslim state that would perfectly practice a strict interpretation of the Koran, one taught in the fundamentalist madrassahs of Pakistan, where Omar went to school.

The Taliban movement, backed by the Pakistani secret service, succeeded beyond anyone's imagination - capturing most of the country by 1998.

In 1996, as Taliban fervor increased, Omar accepted the title of "Amirul Momineen," or "commander of the faithful," in an emotional meeting in Kandahar where he appeared on a balcony above thousands of cheering Taliban, wrapping himself in a cloak said to belong to the Prophet Mohammad. The cloak had not been removed from its Kandahar shrine in 60 years, and had never been worn before. Omar is the first Muslim since the Fourth Caliph, a nephew of Prophet Mohammad, to publicly accept the Amirul title, a ranking in Islam nearly second to the Prophet.

Omar's weighty title, which is not accepted by Muslims outside Afghanistan, represents a long journey for a man who never finished his Islamic education. In fact, Omar laments his interrupted schooling, and still calls himself a "talib," (one who seeks), rather than a "mullah" (one who gives) - even while some of his followers think of him as a god.

Many ordinary ethnic Pashtun followers see him as a repository of piety. "It is our duty to follow Omar, he is our father, the first man to take the cloak of the prophet," says Qoari Ali Khan, the head of a madrassah in Pabbi, Pakistan, who was one of 250 mujahideen commanded by Omar in the anti-Soviet war, where the Taliban chief made a name for himself as a marksman with anti-tank rockets.