Leaderless, which fighters would defect?

Photographer: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

A Leaderless Taliban Benefits Islamic State

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Read More.
a | A

Normally when a terrorist leader like the Taliban's Mullah Omar is reported dead, it's good news for the counterterrorism world. Think Osama bin Laden in 2011. President Obama boasted about that victory all the way to the next election.

But experts and U.S. intelligence officials tell us the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death may end up being a boon for the Islamic State, the former al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq that today is the chief rival to al-Qaeda for jihadists' loyalty.

The story gained steam on Wednesday after Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service, confirmed to the press that Omar had died in April 2013. U.S. officials have told reporters that it's likely to be true, but have not said they had confirmation.

Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told us the claim was still being confirmed. When asked what the implications would be, he said: "It definitely changes the leadership of the Taliban. The question is how active has he been, and the other question is how long ago did he die?"

Derek Harvey, a retired senior military intelligence officer who specialized in Iraq and Afghanistan, told us Wednesday: "There were reports in 2013 that he died, but this was unsubstantiated. It was denied by some people and we picked that up. In 2002 and 2003 and then in 2009, 2010 and 2011 we had similar reports and none of them were confirmed."

If Omar is dead, however, that will be a big deal. Harvey told us Omar's death would create space for fence sitters in al-Qaeda to defect to the Islamic State. "Omar was recognized by Osama bin Laden and many others in al-Qaeda as the commander of the faithful," Harvey said.

This meant in practice that several al-Qaeda leaders pledged fealty to Omar. With Omar out of the picture, they are free to pledge to other leaders or groups, Harvey said. They also are free to squabble among themselves. "This creates more opportunity for ISIS," Harvey said. Current U.S. intelligence officials agreed.

Omar's death could bolster efforts of Afghanistan's government to reconcile with Pakistan, by leaving a power void after eliminating the Taliban leader who had had opposed compromise. Disunity inside the Taliban is not entirely a bad thing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net