An officially sanctioned biography of Taliban founder Mullah Omar published over the weekend has reignited speculation about whether the group's reclusive, one-eyed leader is still alive, and whether the propaganda is a challenge to the Islamic State.
Next to nothing has been heard from Omar since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan ended six years of Taliban rule, leading many inside the country — including some Taliban members — to question how much power he still wields. The 5,400-word account of Omar's life, published online in several languages, appears to be an effort to allay those concerns.
The authors wrote that the biography is "for the prevention of false propaganda," allegedly spread by "spurious writers, analysts and some biased circles." Their stated goal was to "depict a clear picture" and "draw the life-sketch" of Omar, referred to in the text as "His Excellency."
"He keenly follows and inspects the Jihadi activities against the infidel and brutal foreign invaders," the biography says. "He regularly follows the Jihadi publications and other international media sources… in this way he remains in touch with the day to day happenings of his country as well as the outside world."
Marvin Weinbaum, director of the Center for Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute, told VICE News the document has a clear political goal at a time of flux in the Taliban's leadership.
"It's been many years since there's been any kind of confirmation of his actually leading the organization," Weinbaum said. "They are trying to make a case that he's alive and kicking and that he is in control of the insurgency."
As foreign militaries gradually withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban has capitalized on a power vacuum in rural areas, reasserting control and reinstalling the Sharia law system they introduced in the 1990s.
'They are trying to make a case that he's alive and kicking and that he is in control of the insurgency.'
Weinbaum noted the biography could have been written by anyone in the Taliban, and it doesn't prove that Omar, who has had health problems and lost an eye fighting the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan, is still alive.
A handful of disgruntled Taliban members have reportedly started to defect from the group and pledge allegiance the Islamic State, a rival Sunni extremist group that has seized large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, emboldening calls for Omar to offer some indication he is still around and in command of jihadist elements in Afghanistan.
"They can't produce him now in a way that people believe, even at this critical time," Weinbaum said.
The text says Omar was born in 1960 in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, the son of a "respected erudite and social figure" who hails from the Tomzi clan, part of the Hotak tribe. It describes him as a "prominent and distinguished" commander of the mujahideen that fought the Soviets after their 1979 invasion. He was reportedly wounded four times, including the incident that claimed his right eye.
According to Hassan Abbas, author of The Taliban Revival, Omar was actually a "low level commander" during fighting against the Soviets.
"They are trying to build up that he won some significant battles — that is absolutely false," Abbas told VICE News. "It is even contrary to the most authentic Taliban narratives."
The biography says Omar and the Taliban were eventually empowered to rule over Afghanistan by "1,500 religious scholars," who met in "Kandar city" in April 1996.
"He is severely opposed to all heresy or heterodox opinions," the biography states. "He always recommends and insists on Islamic and ideological unity and cooperation to his followers."
Abbas, a senior advisor at the Asia Society and Professor of International Security Studies at Nation Defense University, said the biographical elements in part serve to "attack those who are drifting away" from the Taliban to the Islamic State.
The true level of Islamic State involvement in Afghanistan remains unclear. In February, militants claiming affiliation with the group reportedly killed a Taliban commander. Mohammad Mohaqiq, an Afghan Shia leader, recently claimed that former Taliban members flying the Islamic State flag abducted 31 Shia men and boys in February.
"My assessment is that it's not actually ISIS that is trying to expand its base in Afghanistan," Abbas said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan's newly elected president, is rumored to be engaged in peace talks with the Taliban, and Abbas said the group has "severe divisions" caused by "disgruntled elements in the Taliban that haven't been contacted by Mullah Omar."
"They want to stay linked or associated with the religious extremist agenda — it's the natural thing to say they are ISIS," Abbas said. "It's a buzzword among extremists."
The biography describes Omar's "charismatic personality," with a "special sense of humor."
"Contrary to high-ranking officials and leaders, he does not want to show off or pretend himself," the biography says. "In most of his meetings, he usually speaks about Jihad."
The book says Omar has no "ordinary residence," and does not keep accounts at any foreign banks, a practice that dates to his period as ruler of Afghanistan. His favorite weapon, according to the biography, is the RPG-7, a type of rocket-propelled grenade.
M. Nazif Shahrani, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Indiana University, told VICE News that Afghans might be disappointed by the biography, which was apparently intended for a domestic audience.
"They have offered no alternative, other than the government is rotten, and any government is a puppet and foreign installed," Shahrani said. "I think the message from this biography is that their government was enforcing Sharia in the 1990s and it was fine, so they'd go back to playing the same game as then."
According to Abbas, even the portrayals of Omar's demeanor are misleading.
"He's seen as someone who is rude and arrogant," said Abbas. "No one has ever said he has any sense of humor."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford