The man who wouldn’t hand over bin Laden to the U.S.

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the co-editor of “Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion.”

Story highlights

Bergen: The Taliban leader lost control of his country when he refused to turn over Osama bin Laden to the U.S.

Mullah Omar had a narrow world view but grandiose pretensions to be a world leader of Muslims, Bergen says

CNN  — 

He is as mysterious in his reported death as he was mysterious in life. Mullah Omar, one of the world’s most wanted men, died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, more than two years ago, according to Afghan government officials. U.S. officials say they believe this to be a “credible” account. On Thursday, the Taliban officially conceded their leader was dead.

Peter Bergen

This is of a piece with Mullah Omar’s life. He rose from being an obscure village mullah to run the country of Afghanistan in the years before the 9/11 attacks, yet he rarely appeared in public and he was almost never photographed. (Indeed, CNN obtained one of the few photographs of Mullah Omar that exist, which was given to me by an Afghan contact shortly after 9/11).

Mullah Omar will likely be most remembered to history as the man who refused to hand over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. Shortly after the attacks the Bush administration demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden.

Ten days after 9/11, the Voice of America radio service interviewed Mullah Omar, asking him: “So you won’t give Osama bin Laden up?” Omar replied, “No. We cannot do that. If we did, it means we are not Muslims, that Islam is finished. If we were afraid of attack, we could have surrendered him the last time we were threatened.”

Mullah Omar explained to Taliban insiders: “Islam says that when a Muslim asks for shelter, give the shelter and never hand him over to enemy. And our Afghan tradition says that, even if your enemy asks for shelter, forgive him and give him shelter. Osama has helped the jihad in Afghanistan, he was with us in bad days and I am not going to give him to anyone.”

Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of Pakistan’s leading journalists, is one of the few to have interviewed Mullah Omar. Both before and after 9/11 the Taliban leader was adamant on the issue of handing bin Laden over to the Americans, telling Yusufzai, “I don’t want to go down in history as someone who betrayed his guest. I am willing to give my life, my regime. Since we have given him refuge I cannot throw him out now.”

Omar was also convinced that the threats coming from Washington that there would be serious consequences if bin Laden wasn’t handed over were mostly bluster. Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, said Mullah Omar naively believed the United States would not launch a military operation in Afghanistan. “In Mullah Omar’s mind there was a less than 10% chance that America would resort to anything beyond threats, and so an attack was unlikely.” Zaeef assured Mullah Omar “that America would definitely attack Afghanistan.”

Grandiose claims, limited world view

Mullah Omar’s lack of understanding about the likely American response to 9/11 can be partly explained by the fact that he seldom met with those outside his inner circle. His contacts with journalists before 9/11 were rare and shortly thereafter were nonexistent. He also rarely met with those he believed to be “infidels,” which consisted of pretty much any non-Muslim.

Despite his humble origins, Mullah Omar allowed himself to be declared in 1996 the Amīr al-Mu’minīn, “The Commander of the Faithful,” a rarely invoked religious title from the seventh century that suggested that he was not only the leader of the Taliban, but also of all Muslims everywhere.

To cement his status as a world historic Muslim leader, Mullah Omar wrapped himself literally and metaphorically in the “Cloak of the Prophet,” a religious relic purported to have been worn by the Prophet Mohammed that had been kept in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar for centuries and had almost never been displayed in public. Mullah Omar took the garment out of storage and, ascending on to the roof of a building, draped the cloak on himself before a crowd of hundreds of cheering Taliban.

Mullah Omar, who led the Taliban, is believed to have died in April 2013 in Pakistan.

Despite his grandiose claims to be the Commander of the Faithful, the Taliban leader was also determinedly provincial; in the five years that he controlled Afghanistan he rarely visited Kabul, his own capital, considering it to be a Sodom and Gomorrah.

Mullah Omar’s understanding of the outside world was virtually nonexistent and he was also a captive of religious orthodoxy. On a rare occasion when he met with a group of Chinese diplomats, they presented him with a small figurine of an animal as a gift. The Taliban leader reacted as if they had handed him a live hand grenade, so stern was his aversion to images of living beings.

Taliban’s totalitarianism

When the Taliban first emerged in Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omar they enjoyed quite a high degree of popularity and legitimacy in their earlier years as they brought order and a measure of peace to a country that had suffered through a decade and a half of civil war.

Initially, the Taliban were also seen as incorruptible, and little interested in assuming power for themselves. However, the maxim that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an almost perfect description of how the Taliban regime evolved over the years. The Taliban increasingly turned their law and order government into something that aspired to be a truly totalitarian Islamic state.

They banned soccer, kite-flying, music, television and barred females from schools and jobs. Men were not allowed to shave or trim their beards. Women had to wear the all enveloping burqa and stay at home unless accompanied by a male relative. Behavior the Taliban deemed deviant was met with medieval punishments. Taliban religious scholars labored over the question of how to deal with homosexuals. Some said they should be buried alive, others preferred they be thrown from a high building.

The Taliban’s edicts were enforced by the religious police of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who raced around in pickup trucks looking for malefactors to beat with sticks or take to jail.

Vahid Mojdeh, a former Taliban official, said, “the Taliban were ruthless torturers, their most commonly used technique was beating people with electric cables.”

What’s next for Taliban?

A role model for ISIS

One and a half decades later the Taliban would serve as something as a role model for ISIS.

ISIS’ destruction of significant portions of the cultural patrimony of Iraq and Syria over the past several months was prefigured by how Mullah Omar dealt with the issue of the two massive Buddhas that had loomed over the snow-capped central Afghan valley of Bamiyan for more than 1,500 years. In May 2001 the Taliban used explosives and tank fire to destroy Afghanistan’s most famous tourist attraction.

Pretty much every country in the world, including many Muslim states, had pleaded with the Taliban not to engage in this epic act of cultural vandalism. Their pleas seemed to make Mullah Omar all the more determined to blow up the statues. He told a visiting delegation of Pakistani officials that over the centuries rainfall had formed large holes near the base of the statutes, which was God’s way of saying, “this is the place you should plant the dynamite” to destroy the idols.

After 9/11, U.S. officials quickly determined that it was a bin Laden operation and they knew he was in Afghanistan. On October 7, 2001, the day the American aerial bombardment of the Taliban began, Faraj Ismail, an Egyptian journalist, interviewed Mullah Omar in Kandahar. The cleric naively assured him that bin Laden had no role in the attacks, “I have control over Afghanistan. I’m sure he didn’t do it.”

The American invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban in a matter of weeks and on December 7, 2001 Mullah Omar abandoned the city of Kandahar over which he had ruled absolutely for seven years.

The last time Mullah Omar appears to have released an audio recording was a decade ago on July 25, 2005. Since then he has disappeared from public view, issuing written statements every year around the end of Ramadan, including one on July 15. Written statements are not, of course, a “proof of life.”

Who speaks for Taliban’s factions?

So what does the death of Mullah Omar mean? It certainly raises significant doubts about the prospects for ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. After all, without their overall leader, who speaks for the many factions of the Taliban?

According to Barnett Rubin, one of the world leading experts on Afghanistan, “It intensifies doubts as to who, if anyone, can negotiate on behalf of the Taliban fighters on the ground.”

That view is seconded by Hassan Abbas, a leading authority on the Taliban who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, who says “None of the second tier Afghan Taliban have the credibility or status to fill in the shoes of Mullah Omar.”

Also al-Qaeda’s leaders – both bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri – pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar as the spiritual leader of global jihad. With Omar gone, to whom will al-Zawahiri pledge his allegiance? Certainly not to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom Zawahiri has very publicly split with. Baghdadi was once part of al Qaeda but he split off to create ISIS.

Finally, Mullah Omar’s reported death in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi raises some interesting questions for the Pakistani government. Senior U.S. military officials told me in 2010 that it was their view that Mullah Omar was living at least some of the time in Karachi. How was one of the world’s most wanted men living in Pakistan for so many years with seeming impunity? Many people had the same question about Osama bin Laden.

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