A critical question has surfaced this morning about one of the most-wanted men in the world: Where is Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar? A spokesman for Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), Lutfullah Mashal, says he "hopes" Omar is dead but can't confirm it, though his sources and senior Taliban members are telling him that they haven't been able to contact their leader, who he says has been living in Quetta, Pakistan for ten years, for the past five days. Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, meanwhile, claims Omar "is alive and well and is leading the Mujahideen" in Afghanistan. Pakistan's interior minister has also denied the rumor, while a NATO official tells CNN that the coalition has no evidence to suggest that Omar is dead.
How did all this speculation get started in the first place? The original report (pictured above) appears to have come from Afghanistan's TOLOnews, which cited an anonymous NDS official as saying that Omar was shot dead a couple days ago in Pakistan as former Pakistani intelligence chief, Gen. Hamid Gul, was moving the Taliban leader from Quetta to North Waziristan. (The New Yorker's Lawrence Wright recently wrote that Gul "helped oversee the creation of the Taliban" and that Pakistan's ISI intelligency agency "openly supported the Taliban" until 9/11. The Pakistani government, Wright added, may still be providing "Taliban leaders with safe harbor in Quetta.") Mashal, the NDS spokesman, confirmed to TOLO that Omar was moved to Waziristan while Gul denied any involvement with Omar or any knowledge of the Taliban leader's whereabouts. Other Afghan news outlets and Pakistan's GEO TV are running with news of Omar's death, and China's Xinhua news agency is also quoting an anonymous Afghan security official as saying Omar has been killed.
Besides the conflicting reports, there's another reason to be skeptical of the news: It's not as if Omar was keeping a high profile before this week. CNN explains that the reclusive Omar, who vanished when a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, rarely gives interviews or travels, issues intermittent written messages, and refuses to be photographed or filmed, which has helped Omar evade capture (we had a hard time finding a picture of Omar). "How would you arrest someone that you don't know how he looks?" Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked in 2003. CNN adds that those who have met Omar say he is an "imposing figure-- bearded with a black turban and one eye stitched shut; the result of a wound sustained during a gunfight with Soviet troops during their occupation of Afghanistan." As journalists scramble to get to the bottom of the Omar rumor, Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell has taken a novel approach: asking the Taliban itself on Twitter. "@alemarahweb Hey where is Mullah Omar?" Hounshell wrote. No response from the Taliban's Twitter feed so far, though we'll keep you updated.