The one-eyed former Afghanistan Taliban leader who had a $10 million bounty on his head in the wake of the 9/11 attacks secretly lived near American military bases in the war-torn country for years and U.S. troops were just steps away from finding one of the most-wanted men on the planet more than once, a new book claims.
The revelation published in "Searching for an Enemy," by Bette Dam, came after the veteran Dutch journalist interviewed Afghan officials and senior surviving members of the Taliban, including the man who said he helped hide Mullah Omar until his death in 2013. The reporting also contradicts past claims by the U.S. and Afghanistan that Omar – accused of harboring Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda militants in the years before and immediately following 9/11 -- was living out his final years in Pakistan.
“It was very dangerous for us there,” Jabbar Omari, a provincial governor-turned-Omar bodyguard, reportedly told Dam in the book. “Sometimes there was only a table width between us and the foreign military.”
The book was printed last month in Dutch, but some of its findings have been translated into English by the Zomia Center research group and recently provided to news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.
After the fall of the Taliban government, Omar, according to the book, took refuge during the first four years of the insurgency inside a small compound in Qalat, near an Afghan government post, while his wives fled to Pakistan. The property belonged to Omari’s former driver and the Taliban leader’s identity was kept hidden from those already living there, who were threatened with death if they spoke about their mysterious guest, it added. Omar reportedly even rejected an offer by Omari for his own son to visit him.
Dam writes that Omar was nearly discovered twice by U.S. forces patrolling the area.
In the first instance, Omar and Omari were said to be outside in the courtyard and hid behind a pile of firewood after hearing approaching steps. The second time, American forces searched the home but failed to notice an entrance to a secret room that Omar created, the book says, which was concealed behind what appeared to be a cupboard on a wall.
U.S. forces started building forward operating base Lagman just hundreds of yards away from the compound in 2004, prompting Omar to flee, The Guardian reported.
Omar’s next hideout was a riverside shack around 20 miles southeast of Qalat, connected to a network of underground irrigation tunnels where he would take cover if U.S. troops or aircraft were nearby, the book claims.
The U.S. also started building another base three miles away from the new location, Wolverine, which would go on to house more than 1,000 American and NATO troops, according to The Guardian. But instead of running off again, Omar apparently decided to stay put.
Omari reportedly told Dam that Omar only went outside to catch sunlight in the winter and would go days at times without speaking to anyone except his cook and another guard.
Other times, The Guardian reports, Omar would record himself chanting verses from the Koran on a Nokia cellphone that had no sim card. The Wall Street Journal, in their report, wrote Omar would sometimes request a dye for his beard and local tobacco.
Another revelation in the book is that Omar handed over operational control of the Taliban insurgency to his underlings in 2001, despite the group claiming Omar as its leader until 2015, The Guardian reports.
It was only every few months that a messenger would travel between Taliban leadership in Quetta to the shack hideout, the book says.
In 2013, Omar was said to have fallen ill, and refused offers of medical help from Omari. He eventually died in April and, days later, Omar’s son and half-brother had his gravesite at the hideout dug up to confirm it was him, The Guardian reports.
Two years later, the Taliban would finally admit Omar died. Omari, according to the Wall Street Journal, is now living under house arrest in Kabul.
The U.S. has not appeared to publicly comment on the book’s findings, but a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is pushing back Monday on the part about Omar living out his final days in the country.
“We strongly reject this delusional claim and we see it as an effort to create and build an identity for the Taliban and their foreign backers,” Haroon Chakhansuri posted on Twitter. “We have sufficient evidence which shows he lived and died in Pakistan. Period!”