Anti-terrorism officials around the world last year chalked up some stellar success stories, capturing or killing a number of high-profile Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. Chief among them was obviously Osama bin Laden. But others included Omar Patek, the last of Jemaah Islamiyah’s senior leaders, who was arrested in Pakistan last January in the same town that bin Laden was captured in.
But one man has eluded everyone for more than a decade.
Since the September 11, 2001, strikes on New York and Washington, Mullah Mohammad Omar – the self-styled Imam and Taliban chief – has ranked among the world’s most wanted, alongside bin Laden who Omar for years helped harbor.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
He’s often seen as a major obstacle to peace not only in Afghanistan, but in wrapping up the War on Terror, which has ended up stretching across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, where the jihad movement is struggling following the loss of a number of senior leaders.
Amid U.S. plans to finally exit Afghanistan in 2014, some in Washington believe a negotiated peace is plausible if the Taliban can be brought into the political process.Such an idea gained erroneous additional credibility last week amid media claims that Omar, a native of Uruzgan Province, had been removed from the FBI’s most wanted list.
The truth was, though, that the one-eyed cleric wasn’t actually on that list. The FBI restricts its concerns to attacks inside the United States and Omar remains on a separate database – the Rewards for Justice List – held by the U.S. State Department, where he has a $10 million bounty on his head.
The report was an unfortunate mistake, but some in Pakistan took it further, suggesting his name was removed to promote dialogue with the largely Pashtu militia that’s establishing an office in Qatar as a base for future peace talks.
“I don't think the U.S. has any choice other than to negotiate with whatever they choose to identify as the Taliban leadership,” says Gavin Greenwood of Hong Kong-based security firm Allan & Associates.
“The Afghan government is already doing so, so Washington's task, in an election year, is to find a suitable formula that emphasizes the positive nature of U.S. involvement in such negotiations. This will be far more difficult than any actual talks – which I would assume are already underway in one form or another – given the high political stakes.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he supports the Qatar office, and there are hopes that moderates within the movement will use it as an outlet for talks. Omar, though, still advocates the extinction of the United States, and this isn’t the first time negotiations with the Taliban have been attempted.
In 1999, after four years at the helm and amid almost total isolation, Omar attempted to ease the militia back into international diplomatic circles in his bid to win the Taliban its cherished dream of U.N. recognition as the legitimate head of state in Afghanistan.
The United Nations and all but three countries, including Pakistan, instead recognized another faction led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood as the country’s true rulers – an extreme point of agitation for Omar, bin Laden and their cohorts.