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The Taliban finally announced the death of its founder and spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, this week, ending years of speculation inside and outside the movement over his whereabouts.
However, the announcement will not end speculation about whether the Taliban's senior leadership covered up his death for years, potentially conning its membership as well as a vast network of Islamist militant groups who swore allegiance to him, including al-Qaeda. If Omar has been dead for two years and the Taliban's top leadership covered it up, there could be enormous implications for Afghanistan, the future of the Taliban and the global power shift from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State militant group.
Omar was always a shadowy figurehead. As the leader of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, he rarely left his regional power base on Kandahar. There is only one known photo of him, captured after he lost an eye battling Soviet forces in the country. His government banned all photography of living subjects.
Omar was last seen in public in 2001, fleeing his mountain hideout on a motorcycle after the U.S.-led invasion. During his decade underground, his directives came in the form of written statements, without images, videos or audio messages to his global followers. The Taliban said he stayed out of sight in order to evade capture. Now that his death has come to light, his long years hidden from view may become a liability.
Despite persistent doubts over his health over the past two years, the Taliban leadership continued to maintain that Omar was alive and distributed statements in his name up until a few weeks ago.
The Afghan government on Wednesday said it had been able to confirm that Omar died in a Pakistani hospital more than two years ago. While Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid initially denied that Omar was dead, an official Taliban statement on Thursday finally confirmed his death, although it disputed Omar had died in 2013 and claimed instead that the leader had recently succumbed to an unspecified illness that "intensified in the last two weeks." The statement also insisted that Omar never set foot inside Pakistan.
The same day, the Taliban's political office in Qatar appeared to contradict the official statement, indicating that Omar had in fact died in 2013 but they had been kept in the dark by other leaders who were concerned about the unity of the movement.
The Taliban is currently divided over the scheduled peace talks between the movement and the Afghan government. Afghanistan has lost tens of thousands of civilians to the Taliban insurgency waged in Omar's name since his government was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. In recent years, the group has been exploring the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The talks, however, have exacerbated a power struggle between different factions with the movement, in particular between the Taliban's leadership in Afghanistan and its political office in Doha.
Earlier this month, the Taliban leadership issued a statement in Omar's name in support of the talks. But if Omar was already dead and the statement was a fraud, outraged Taliban officials may call off the peace process. A Friday summit has already been postponed.
The Taliban has announced Omar's deputy, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, as the new leader, but he may have trouble holding the movement together. His many rivals include Omar's son, who is backed by factions disillusioned with Akhtar and the peace process. If other Taliban leaders spy a conspiracy over Omar's death, they could see Akhtar as the one behind it, since he's the only leader to have remained "in contact" with Omar after 2013. Some analysts argue that it may be easier for Kabul to broker peace with fragments of a disintegrated Taliban, but others warn that a power struggle and more splinter groups could bring more bloodshed to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban is already bleeding support to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The news of Omar's death could bolster ISIS recruitment efforts worldwide. The Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims to be the sole legitimate leader of the Muslim community worldwide, and denounces the Taliban and al-Qaeda as frauds. Al-Qaeda in turn claims al-Baghdadi is an imposter, and had usurped Omar as the leader of the Islamic community. With Omar, the loyalty of many local franchises of the militant network are theoretically up for grabs. If Omar has been dead for two years -- before al-Baghdadi claimed to be the "caliph" of all Muslims -- and Taliban officials knew this, their claim to legitimacy among Islamist militants could be in trouble.
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