Taliban chief Mullah Omar has added to the mystery over Osama bin Laden, saying he hasn’t seen his ally and fellow fugitive since U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001.
“No, I have neither seen him, nor have I made any effort to do so, but I pray for his health and safety,” Omar said in an e-mailed response to questions sent by Reuters.
The questions were relayed to Omar through his spokesman, Mohammad Hanif, and a reply was received late Wednesday.
A half-dozen audio tapes of bin Laden were circulated during the first half of 2006, but the al-Qaida leader last appeared on video tape in late 2004, while tapes of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have been issued regularly.
A video tape of bin Laden was released late last year, but it was identified as old footage, and the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States passed without word from the al-Qaida leader.
Speculation over the whereabouts and health of bin Laden boiled over in September when a French provincial newspaper reported that he had died of typhoid in late August.
Although several governments and intelligence agencies rebutted that report, saying they had no evidence to suggest bin Laden had died, they acknowledged they had no clue to where he was.
The wealthy Saudi-born bin Laden helped bankroll the Taliban after moving to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and he was reported to have married one of Omar’s daughters to cement their alliance.
The United States has offered a $25 million reward for the capture of bin Laden and $10 million for Omar.
The best guess to bin Laden’s whereabouts remains somewhere on the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the ethnic tribal lands where Omar’s Taliban counts on support to fight an insurgency against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Still in contact?
Analysts say that while there was no apparent evidence for any meeting between bin Laden and Omar after the Sept. 11 attacks, the two fugitive militants are believed to have remained in contact in recent years.
“According to my information and the interviews which I conducted in the last two years in different provinces of the eastern and southern Afghanistan, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are in touch, at least (for the) last two years,” said Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist who interviewed bin Laden shortly after 9/11.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, both major U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, have deteriorated sharply over the past year in the wake of the bloodiest campaign mounted by the Taliban since it was ousted from power.
Omar said people from the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the border were rallying to the Taliban’s cause. “The people themselves have risen up to fight the Americans,” he said.
Although the Taliban and al-Qaida are seen as allies, Omar said his sole focus was Afghanistan while bin Laden’s movement was engaged in a global jihad, or holy war.
“They have set jihad as their goal, whereas we have set the expulsion of American troops from Afghanistan as our target,” he said.
To start a political process to end the militancy, Pakistan and Afghanistan plan to organize tribal councils — known as jirgas — on both sides of the border. No dates have been fixed.
A Taliban spokesman said last month that the group might join the jirgas if asked, but Omar rejected the proposal.
“The only people who would participate are those who have sold out to foreign powers. Our participation is absolutely out of the question,” the fugitive militant leader said.
He reiterated his call for the withdrawal of foreign troops to end the conflict in Afghanistan. “Unless that happens, the war will heat further up,” Omar said.
Afghanistan says Omar is based in or around the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, but Omar said he is in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, that Osama bin Laden’s deputy would soon release a new message calling for Muslims to support Islamic guerrillas in Somalia.