The Taliban’s one-eyed leader and co-founder Mullah Omar – who’d had a $10 million bounty on his head – lived out his final days in relative peace and within walking distance of a US base, a Dutch journalist claims.
Omar’s rise to power began when he joined the Afghan Mujahideen to fight the Soviet army in the 1980s. He co-founded the Taliban in 1994 and within two years had captured large swathes of territory, including the capital, Kabul. Accused of harboring Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, Omar became a prized US target during the invasion of Afghanistan, but eluded his pursuers until his death in 2013.
In the twelve years between the invasion and Omar’s death, US officials and the CIA believed him to be hiding out in Pakistan. In reality, Dutch journalist Bette Dam claims in a forthcoming book, all along he was right under their noses.
Omar’s former bodyguard and a host of Afghan officials told Dam that Omar had spent the first four years of the insurgency living in a modest house in Zabul province, an hour’s walk from the US military’s Forward Operating Base (FOB) Lagman, the journalist told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant last month.
US forces occasionally swept the area, at one point searching Omar’s safehouse while the Taliban chief hid behind a secret door. When the US began building another FOB a few hundred feet from his hideout, Omar packed up and moved on.
He relocated to a mud hut in the remote district of Siuray, this time in the shadow of FOB Wolverine, at one point home to more than 1,000 coalition troops. “It was very dangerous for us there,” Omar’s bodyguard told Dam.
Sometimes there was only the width of a table between us and the foreign military.
In his eight years in Siuray, Omar remained a spiritual leader of sorts for the Taliban, but rarely made military plans with the militants. He received care packages of food and clothing from locals angered by the US presence and remained indoors, praying and meditating.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar seen in a 1979 handout photo © AFP / Afghan Taliban
The hunted terrorist chief rarely ventured outside, for fear of being spotted by US planes and drones, and eventually fell ill in 2013. Omar refused medical treatment and died on April 23. His death was not acknowledged by the Taliban until two years later.
Dam’s upcoming book contradicts the US consensus on Omar’s location. Gleaned from almost a decade reporting from Afghanistan, its key findings are being translated into English by the Zomia Center, a New York-based think tank. As for how Omar could have eluded the world’s greatest military power for over a decade, Dam said the issue was one of trust.
They approach their sources with a weapon on their stomach, so they do not necessarily get good information.
“[The Americans] are in big military camps,” she told De Volkskrant. “Very little information comes to them… I also speak to the guys they speak to. But I come in local clothing, as a citizen. I have nothing with me. That makes everything different.”