Monday October 8, 04:37 PM
The mysterious Mullah behind the Taliban
By Jane Macartney
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - He is the most secretive leader in the world. Not even a photograph of Afghanistan's Mullah Mohammad Omar exists.
Omar is the spiritual leader of the Taliban movement that rules most of the rugged and inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan and provides sanctuary to the man shaping up as the world's most wanted -- Osama bin Laden.
He is believed to have been seen by only two non-Muslims -- and indeed by few of his own 20 million people.
He chose not to appear on Wednesday at a crucial meeting of hundreds of Islamic clerics in the presidential palace in Kabul, instead having a representative read out a speech to the assembly.
"Our Islamic state is the true Islamic system in the world and for this reason ... the enemies of our country look on us as a thorn in their eye and seek different excuses to finish it off," Omar was quoted as saying in the speech.
"Osama bin Laden is one of these (excuses)," he said of the man whom U.S. President George W. Bush wants "dead or alive".
But his passion for hiding in the shadows has not hampered his swift and dramatic accumulation of power over a land so ravaged by war that its people have returned to a life more akin to the Middle Ages than the 21st century.
His rigid devotion to Islam is the force that governs his existence, and it is this faith that now rules the lives of Afghans.
Women are barred from education and must be covered from head to foot in public, all men must grow beards and photographs, pictures, music, television and other "entertainments" are banned.
"We took up arms to achieve the aims of the Afghan jihad (holy war) and save our people from further suffering at the hands of the so-called mujahideen," he told one Pakistani reporter in a rare interview.
"We had complete faith in God Almighty. We never forgot that. He can bless us with victory or plunge us into defeat."
Omar's leadership and the purist Taliban movement that grew up under that leadership were born together amid frustration and despair after years of internecine war among the factions of the mujahideen that had effectively defeated the Soviet Union and then turned on one another in 1992.
For two years, rival mujahideen commanders bombarded each other's men with rockets, reducing their patchwork of commands throughout the capital, Kabul, to little more than rubble. Residents fled to neighbouring Pakistan, the government broke down and Afghanistan crumbled into battling fiefdoms.
One story goes that in early 1994, Omar enlisted about 30 talibs -- the word means student of Islam -- after hearing that two teenage girls had been snatched from their village by a mujahideen commander and raped.
With 16 rifles among them, the group attacked the base, freed the girls and captured quantities of arms and ammunition."
FIGHTING MUSLIMS WHO HAD "GONE WRONG"
"We were fighting against Muslims who had gone wrong. How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor," Omar told Pakistani reporter Rahimullah Yusufzai -- one of the few to interview the recluse.
As the momentum for his movement gathered, Omar found eager recruits in the madrassas, or Islamic schools, run in Afghanistan and inside the border of neighbouring Pakistan.
"He started out as a simple Pashtun mullah with no world view or vision of a future Afghan state," said Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid.
"He started not wanting state power but only wanting to rid Afghanistan of warlords," he said. "He has developed his world view with the help of Osama bin Laden."
In November 1994, his movement was strong enough to capture the southern city of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, and it became clear that his drive had won the backing of Pakistan, itself eager to see peace returned to the state that borders its porous western border.
By early 1995, Mullah Omar's young and fanatical fighters were sweeping north through Afghanistan and Kabul was captured in 1996 after several setbacks.
To achieve that, Mullah Omar resorted to a dramatic gesture.
WRAPPED IN PROPHET MOHAMMED'S SACRED CLOAK
He retrieved the sacred cloak of the Prophet Mohammad from its Kandahar shrine where it had lain in darkness for 60 years, emerged onto the roof of a building wrapped in the garment and was cheered by delighted mullahs assembled below him.
The result of the meeting was an agreement to declare jihad, or a Muslim holy war against President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was increasingly beleaguered in Kabul.
Kabul fell to the Taliban on September 26, 1996.
Omar stayed behind in Kandahar along with the Taliban elite, while a government of his loyal followers was set up in Kabul.
Born in 1959 in the small village of Nodeh near Kandahar to a family of poor peasants, he lost his father when he was young and the job of fending for his family fell to him.
A large man with a long, dark beard, he became a village mullah and opened his own madrassa before joining the mujahideen and fighting against the Soviet-established government from 1989 to 1992.
Wounded four times, he lost his right eye.
One of the rare people to see him described a scene reminiscent of the early Christian ascetics, who would live in caves and subject themselves to extreme privations in the belief they were getting closer to God.
The Taliban leader appeared barefoot and was dressed in worn robes that hung down below his knees. There was an empty socket where his right eye had once been.
The only non-Muslims he has met are the United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan in October 1998, and Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin late last year just before U.N. sanctions were imposed on the Taliban to try to force them to hand over the millionaire bin Laden.
"Now he (Omar) is more dependent on bin Laden than bin Laden is dependent on him," said Ahmed Rashid. "Bin Laden has provided fighters, funds, international contacts with broader Islamic movements worldwide, so he has become part of the inner circle of bin Laden in the last year."
End of Reuters
BBC says man standing on left is only known photo of Mullah Omar.
It did not say whether the robe he is wearing in this photo is the sacred cloak of the Prophet Mohammad retrieved from its Kandahar shrine resting place he used to rally the faithful.