WASHINGTON — Mullah Mohammad Omar, the obscure, one-eyed zealot who led the Taliban from its beginnings as a band of student insurrectionists through a fateful alliance with Osama bin Laden, to military defeat following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the movement’s reemergence as an insurgency that threatened the American occupation in Afghanistan, died more than two years ago in Pakistan, according to Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and the office of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. The cause of death was unclear.
Much about the Taliban chief’s biography, including his exact date of birth, is uncertain or clouded by the myth-making of his propagandists. Yet Mr. Omar clearly proved to be a capable and resilient enemy of the United States, one who fled advancing American troops on a motorcycle in late 2001 but survived that humiliation to revive the Taliban and elude a decade-long, CIA-led manhunt and the $10 million bounty on his head.
Mr. Omar, a member of the majority Pashtun tribe, was born into deep poverty in a village in southern Afghanistan. Various authors have placed his date of birth somewhere between the late 1950s and early 1960s. A 5,000-word Taliban biography, published this year, said he was born in 1960 in the village of Chah-i-Himmat in the south of the country. His father died young, and he was forced to support his mother and family.
Despite some of the vaunted titles later bestowed on him, such as Commander of the Faithful, he had no scholarly grounding in Islam. Before his rise to national leadership, he obtained a rudimentary religious education that allowed him to serve as a village cleric. He was married with three wives and had numerous children. One son, Yacub, who is in his 20s, is favored by some Taliban to succeed his father.
Like many of his generation, Mr. Omar fought with the mujaheddin against Soviet forces, which occupied Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, and served bravely, according to his contemporaries. The Taliban biography said that he destroyed many Soviet tanks. His right eye was surgically removed after he was struck in the face by shrapnel, although Taliban legend had him cutting it out himself with a knife.
After the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, Mr. Omar scratched out a living, in part by trading religious instruction for food.
A tall and taciturn man who spoke in whispers when he spoke at all, Mr. Omar often said he was guided by dreams, including a visitation in which Allah told him to lead his people.
Mr. Omar’s reported first step toward power, if true, proved to be a telling indicator of his willingness to rule through violence: In 1994, villagers told Mr. Omar of two young girls who were being held as sexual slaves by a militia leader. Mr. Omar assembled a group of former mujaheddin, rescued the girls, and hung the local commander from the gun turret of a destroyed Soviet tank. The facts were never quite established, but the story’s appeal as a galvanizing force was undeniable.
‘‘The Taliban established their story so that Pashtuns could recognize it as a revival of old glory,’’ wrote journalist Steve Coll in his book ‘‘Ghost Wars.’’ ‘‘The Taliban connected popular rural Islamic values with a grass-roots Durrani Pashtun tribal rising. They emerged at a moment when important wealthy Pashtun tribal leaders around Kandahar hungered for a unifying cause.’’
Mr. Omar somewhat reluctantly became commander of this new movement, his deceptively low-key style making him acceptable to the diverse interests that began to support the Taliban, including major Pashtun tribal leaders.
‘‘He would listen to everybody with focus and respect for as long as they needed to talk,’’ wrote Abdul Salam Zaeef, who fought with Mr. Omar, in his memoir, ‘‘My Life With the Taliban.’’
Soon backed by Pakistan, the growing movement of fighters captured Kandahar and surged across southern Afghanistan in the back of pickup trucks, drawing young, highly motivated young men from religious schools and earning support from a public exhausted by war and corruption. Wearing black turbans, the fighters were called the Taliban, or seekers of the truth.
In 1996, Mr. Omar wrapped himself in the cloak of the prophet Mohammed, which was taken from a shrine, and appeared before hundreds of leaders who declared him ‘‘commander of the faithful.’’ For a man with no tribal pedigree, the title ‘‘gave him badly needed legitimacy and a new mystique,’’ according to Ahmed Rashid in his book ‘‘Taliban.’’
In September 1996, the Taliban rolled into Kabul, and among their first acts was to drag the former communist president Mohammad Najibullah from his home in a UN compound. After being beaten and tortured, he was hung from a pole in central Kabul.
‘‘We killed him because he was the murderer of our people,’’ Mr. Omar said.
The Taliban quickly set about outlawing many of the small pleasures enjoyed by Afghans, from smoking to kite-flying to music. Women, banned from education and employment, were essentially told to vanish into their homes. Men were told to grow long beards. And an austere brand of Islam, backed by floggings, amputations, and public executions, including stoning women to death, was imposed.
Osama bin Laden and his entourage arrived in Afghanistan in May 1996 after being expelled from Sudan. Bin Laden lauded the ‘‘invincible land’’ that offered him shelter, and he quickly sought to ingratiate himself to the Taliban, investing in construction projects and directing Arab fighters to the ongoing campaign against the Northern Alliance, which controlled part of Northern Afghanistan.
Beneath the Islamic solidarity, however, there was tension between Mr. Omar and bin Laden. The Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, who met with both men at that time, said Mr. Omar was sometimes infuriated by bin Laden’s calls for international violent jihad and by his thirst for publicity.
Only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — recognized the Taliban regime.
In June 1998, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief, attempted to convince Mr. Omar to break with bin Laden and turn him over to the Saudis. Turki later said Mr. Omar, who greeted him with great warmth, agreed in principle but wanted a group of Islamic scholars to find some mechanism that would allow the Taliban to hand him over without it being seen as a betrayal or an unforgivable breach of hospitality.
Some writers, including Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, question whether Mr. Omar was ever serious about handing over bin Laden.
‘‘Mullah Omar is a Muslim and a Pashtun above all, and so his care for a guest to whom refuge has been granted is absolute,’’ wrote Scheuer in his book ‘‘Osama Bin Laden.’’ ‘‘Mullah Omar is the prototypical Pashtun tribesman in that, as was said about Ulysses S. Grant, ‘he don’t scare worth a damn.’ ’’
Al Qaeda’s first assault on the United States — the August 1998 bombings of embassies in East Africa — intervened to bind irrevocably Mr. Omar to his troublesome guest. The Clinton administration responded to the attacks, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, with cruise missile attacks on a camp complex near Khost in eastern Afghanistan.
Two days after the attacks, in one of his few contacts with Americans, Mr. Omar called Michael E. Malinowski, a State Department official, at home, according to a declassified cable about the unusual exchange.
Mr. Omar said he had seen no evidence that bin Laden was involved in the embassy bombings, that the US missile strikes would lead to anti-American feelings in the Islamic world, and that Congress should force Clinton to resign.
When Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief, flew back to Afghanistan in September, he said he found Mr. Omar highly agitated in the wake of the American attack. ‘‘Why are you doing this? Why are you persecuting and harassing this courageous, valiant Muslim?’’ said Mr. Omar.
International abhorrence with the regime before the attacks on New York and Washington peaked in early 2001 when the Taliban announced a plan to destroy all statues in Afghanistan, including two giant sandstone images of Buddha that were dated to the third and fifth centuries.
Mr. Omar said he had no choice but to ignore international pleas to preserve the icons.
‘‘Allah will ask me, ‘Omar, you have brought a superpower called the Soviet Union to its knees. You could not break two statues. And what would Mullah Omar reply?’’ said Mr. Omar, according to an account in Time magazine.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Omar refused again to surrender bin Laden and swore to resist helping the United States, believing that the administration of George W. Bush would not deploy ground troops and the Taliban could weather an expected bombing campaign, according to Rashid’s ‘‘Taliban.’’
After Kandahar fell, Mr. Omar hid first in Helmand province in Afghanistan before crossing into Pakistan, where much of the top leadership of the Taliban and Al Qaeda was safely in place.
For Mr. Omar, it was the first time he had left Afghanistan. After coming to power, he turned down Saudi invitations to participate in the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and he never met with Western diplomats.
As the head of the Taliban shura, or council, based in Quetta, Pakistan, Mr. Omar revitalized his fighters, created a shadow government inside Afghanistan, and became a principal leader of the factionalized insurgency fighting the United States and its allies.
Until his death, Mr. Omar communicated with his followers by issuing audiotapes on two Muslim holidays each year. There have been repeated reports that Mr. Omar and the Quetta Shura were interested in some form of reconciliation with the Afghan government that would allow at least some Taliban to re-enter political life. But serious talks never materialized, and the fighting continued.