July 28, 2011
Various reports claiming the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar have emerged in the last year, all of them apparently false. The latest report of his death was the most unusual, as it appeared to originate with authentic Taliban spokesmen, the apparent victims of a concerted attempt to hack into their electronic communications devices in order to deliberately spread disinformation at a critical point in the struggle for Afghanistan. The Commission of Cultural Affairs of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan, i.e. the Taliban] responded by issuing a “Statement of the Cultural Affairs Commission of the Islamic Emirate Regarding the Recent Shameful Attempt by the Enemy” a day after the July 20 hacking effort (alemara1.com; July 21; ansar1.info, July 21).
In the early hours of July 20, text messages began to circulate from the mobile phones of veteran Taliban spokesmen Zabihullah Mujahid and Qari Yusuf Ahmadi saying: “Leadership council of IEA [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] announces that Amir al-Mumineen [Commander of the Faithful, i.e. Mullah Omar] has passed away. May mighty God bless him.” More detailed e-mails were also sent from the movement’s official website that claimed the Taliban leader had died of a heart attack. The notice was accompanied by a long obituary and the announcement that the Mullah had been succeeded by Gul Agha, a close aide (AFP, July 20).
A spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security (NDS) said his agency had received no reports of the death of the Taliban leader, who has remained in hiding since being forced from the Taliban capital of Kandahar in 2001. The NDS may have been hesitant to support the latest claims, having been embarrassed in May when it spread reports that Mullah Omar had gone missing from his Quetta hideout. A more elaborate version of this story suggested that Mullah Omar had been killed by his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) escort on May 21 while being transported from Quetta to a new hideout in North Waziristan in an operation directed by former ISI director General Hamid Gul (Tolo News [Kabul], May 23; Reuters, May 23). Both the Taliban and General Gul dismissed the report, the latter describing it as “rubbish.”
The Taliban statement on Mullah Omar’s latest “virtual death” blamed the hacking effort on the CIA, claiming the agency had hacked the Islamic Emirate’s official website alemara1.com by posting a fake announcement of Mullah Omar’s death in Pashto, English and Arabic. The announcement was also sent using the email addresses of spokesmen Zabibullah and Qari Yusuf. Text messages were sent from the spokesmen’s mobile phones through the Roshan and Afghan Wireless mobile communications companies. The work was done at night while the mobile phones of Taliban officials are usually powered off.
Qari Yusuf Ahmadi
The statement admitted that “the enemy” had already created many problems for the Taliban website, including the posting of false information. Nonetheless, “the colleagues working at the website of the Islamic Emirate have foiled all efforts of the enemy. When the enemy hackers managed to take control of the website, our technical managers… promptly retrieved from [the enemy hackers] control of the website.” The Taliban described the hacking as a “diabolic act,” though it noted: “We would like to say that in the world of technology, such pernicious attempts and fraudulent activities are not unusual things… But this incident was unusual in that the attempt had been made by a known party and still more at the level of a government. So it was a shameful and unusual action.” The movement urged the mobile phone companies, the Yahoo and Google web browsers and journalists whose reputation was harmed by circulating the false report to “raise their voice of protest.”
Last January, the Washington Post ran an article claiming Mullah Omar had suffered a heart attack on January 7 and had been treated for several days in a Karachi hospital. The report was based on information provided by The Eclipse Group, a “private intelligence” firm operated by former CIA agent Duane R. Clarridge (Washington Post, January 18). Clarridge was indicted in the Iran-Contra scandal but was later pardoned. In 2010, rumors that Mullah Omar had been arrested in Karachi by the ISI were spread by American thriller writer Brad Thor and “confirmed” by Colonel Oliver North, who was also indicted in the Iran-Contra affair.
This article was originally published in the July 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.