A spokesman for the Afghan government has confirmed that Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, is dead. He is believed to have died in hospital in Pakistan in April 2013. There has also been no word yet from the Taliban regarding his death. While there have been reports in the past claiming he has died, this is the first time the claims have come from senior officials in the Afghan government. The continued issuing of audio messages supposedly from Mullah Omar have also made it difficult in the past for authorities confirm Mullah Omar's status.
Mullah Omar was shadowy and aloof rather than a charismatic, hands on leader. But nevertheless he was a vital figurehead with huge ideological influence over the Taliban.This is because of the central importance of religious legitimacy to the Taliban's campaign in Afghanistan. Although they commit brutal violence, piety plays an important part in the movement's internal culture and its members, (including its commanders), face pressure to maintain a reputation of moral uprightness and to hide activities that fellow Taliban would consider corrupt.
Following the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the capture of Mullah Omar was high on the US list of priorities, with the State Department issuing a 10 million dollar bounty for his capture. This prompted the Taliban leader to go into hiding, where he is believed to have remained since.
The death of Mullah Omar will make life harder for the Taliban.
In April 2014, the Taliban's Cutural Commission published a biographical account of Mullah Omar's life and his ascension to the role of amir al-momineen, the leader of the faithful. The description of Mullah Omar's life gives an insight into his significance to the Taliban's doctrine and demonstrates its claims to religious legitimacy. The biography details how Omar was first called upon in 1994 to lead the Taliban by a veteran of the group's conflict with the Soviets, eventually being accepted as the outright leader of the group by an assembly of religious elders in 1996, and given the role of 'leader of the faithful,' a title more conventionally used by Muslim caliphs following the demise of the Prophet Mohammad.
This official Taliban narrative of Mullah Omar presents an image of someone who was destined to lead not only the Taliban but also the entirety of Afghanistan's Muslims, strengthened by claims that Omar descended from a prestigious clan and stemmed from the family of notable religious scholars and martyrs.
There will now be speculation about what Mullah Omar's death means for the peace process in Afghanistan. Religious legitimacy has been central to the movement's rhetoric, with opposition to the Taliban portrayed as amounting to defying Islam. Any participation with the Kabul government is not just presented as an abandonment of Islam, but as a betrayal, tantamount to actively conspiring with foreign unbelievers against the Muslim community. As such, Taliban leaders would need to build a case for peace that is consistent with the group's ideological heritage to avoid alienating its supporters. However, the movement's rhetoric creates a variety of problems for the prospects of peace.
ISIS has recently launched attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan as the group claims to be more pious and religiously pure than its competitor. In a recent issue of its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, a defector from al-Qaeda to ISIS criticised Mullah Omar for his "significant Sharia mistakes." Amongst the group's "deviations" is its association with the Deobandi movement, and, indeed, its membership of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. ISIS – together with most Salafi groups – holds itself above such things, regarding them as innovations of the faith that came after the time of the salaf (early generations of Muslims).
Mullah Omar represented a credible threat to ISIS' claims to religious authority.
One of the major disputes between ISIS and the Taliban has been over the title amir al-momineen, or Leader of the Faithful, which was laid claim to by both Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Mullah Omar. Despite claiming this title, which is traditionally associated with leadership of the global ummah, the Taliban's outlook has been predominantly nationalistic, seeking to bring about an 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan', in stark contrast to the caliphate of ISIS which operates beyond official borders. The title was used by the caliphs in Islamic history, still carrying significant weight in the 21st century. It placed Mullah Omar in direct contradiction and competition with the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's own claim to the title.
For both organisations, the title represents a central part of the leaders' claims to religious legitimacy. So long as they hold the title, and meet the criteria to hold it (including being pious and highly educated Muslims, mentally and physically fit, and descended from the same clan as the Prophet Muhammad), they are largely unassailable within their respective movements. The death of Mullah Omar means that there remains now only one claimant to the title of 'leader of the faithful' in Afghanistan, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Mullah Omar represented a credible threat to ISIS' legitimacy and authority – with al-Qaeda leader Aymenn al-Zawahiri having pledged allegiance to him – therefore his demise suggests that the self-proclaimed caliph stands alone in his supposed religious authority amongst jihadis in the country.
Today the Taliban faces a number of challenges, particularly the threat posed by ISIS to the group's authority and legitimacy, and how the Taliban can engage in the establishment of peace in Afghanistan without compromising its fundamental beliefs. The death of Mullah Omar will undoubtedly make life harder for the Taliban, weakening the group structurally, morally, and, most importantly, its position as a religious authority within the jihadi community. Although it is quite possible that in the short term, Mullah Omar's demise will give an impetus to the Taliban's rivals, the extent to which his death will impact the peace process in Afghanistan, which has grown in momentum in recent months, remains to be seen.