By Catherine Hirst, an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program.
This month marks the three year anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the infamous, one-eyed cleric who led the Taliban for more than sixteen years.
Captured Taliban Militants, January 2016 (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)
Omar was a fascinating figure on many fronts. Famously reclusive and enigmatic, no Western journalist ever met him and he wasn’t seen in public after 2001. Under his rule, a stringent formulation of Shariah Law was implemented in Afghanistan, including amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. A veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, Omar and Osama bin Laden were close colleagues and this was an important factor in the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, Omar managed to evade capture for twelve years, despite an intensive US-led manhunt and a $US10 million bounty. He died of natural causes in 2013.
Beyond his notorious exploits, influence, and the mysteries that surround him, Omar’s life and death provide fascinating insights into the role of individual leaders in the Jihadi system.
Omar commanded almost mythic status as the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban. He was referred to by his followers as Amir al-Mu’minin (Leader of the faithful), the prestigious title used by Islamic Caliphs throughout history. His authority extended beyond the Taliban; Al-Qaeda and other regional Islamist groups were also loyal.
The legitimacy vested in Omar as leader of the Taliban was such that his death was (rather successfully) concealed for more than two years by a small group of high-ranking Taliban members. When the news of Omar’s death broke in July 2015, some commentators asserted that the Taliban was facing a ‘legitimacy crisis’, that the Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistani Jihadi factions could fracture, and that his death had broken the back of the Taliban.
This has not been the case. Contesting or in control of at least one-fifth of Afghanistan, the Taliban currently holds more territory than at any point since the 2001 invasion. It has even made significant inroads into the opium-rich Helmand province, now controlling seven of the thirteen districts, and threatening the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Last week heralded the deadliest suicide attack since 2011, with the Taliban killing 30 and wounding more than 300 people in the Afghan capital Kabul.
There are many reasons for the recent resurgence of the Taliban, and Omar is not one of them. Although a significant amount of prestige, legitimacy and power were indeed concentrated in the former Taliban leader, the degree of this concentration and its long-term impact on the organisation has been overstated. Recent gains made by the Taliban show that experienced deputies (such as Mullah Mansour), a breadth of strategic expertise (as represented in the 21-man Rabari Shura or leadership council), multiple revenue streams, the support of foreign fighters (largely Uzbeks and Pakistanis), and a local support base are all important reasons why Jihadist groups can remain resilient despite leadership change.
The experience of the Taliban resonates with other Jihadi organisations and their leadership. Al-Qaeda has been making gains in Afghanistan in spite of Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, defying predictions this would be a crippling blow.
Similarly, al-Shabab is faring surprisingly well despite the assassination of its charismatic leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014. Predictions that his death would mark the beginning of the end for the group have not been borne out. Al-Shabab has ramped up its attacks over the last 12 months, and has shown remarkable resilience and adaptability in the face of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), Somali Government and US assaults.
Despite the mythic status of many Jihadi leaders, heads are rarely indispensable to their organisations. Leaders are important, but they can be replaced. Ironically, the fact the Taliban has prospered after Omar’s death is a testament to how formidable a leader he was.