Mullah Mohammed Omar was a reclusive figure even before his militant Taliban government was overthrown by the Americans and he was forced into hiding. His refusal to give up Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks, was the main motivation for the US-led strike on Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar and bin Laden go back to their time as resistance fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Bin Laden is believed to have at least partially financed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, from which Mullah Omar emerged as 'commander of the faithful,' a title with great resonance in Islamic history. Reports that Mullah Omar had married bin Laden's eldest daughter while bin Laden took one of Mullah Omar's daughters as his fourth wife have been consistenly denied by the Taliban.
The few people who have actually met the reclusive Taliban leader say he is relatively young -- in his early 40s -- and tall, with a black beard and a black turban. His right eye was damaged by shrapnel when he was fighting Afghanistan's Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. When the Taliban were in power he rarely left the southern city of Kandahar where he lived in a large house that was reportedly built for him by bin Laden. The two were reported to have spoken daily by satellite telephone, and some reports suggested they also met for fishing trips.
Under Mullah Omar's rule, a strict interpretation of Islamic law was imposed on Afghanistan under Taliban control. Women were strongly discouraged from leaving their homes, denied schooling and jobs and forced to fully cover themselves. Women found guilty of adultery were stoned to death, homosexuals crushed under brick walls, thieves' hands amputated and murderers publicly executed by victims' families. Edicts from Mullah Omar included the death sentence for anyone converting to another religion, as well as the infamous orders to destroy the country's ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan.
Through the auspices of an influential jihadi leader, Mohammad Shehzad spoke with the Taliban supremo over the phone from Kabul. Shehzad, who had met Omar in a cave near Kandahar in October 2002, positively identified the voice.
Where are you? How is your health? What are you doing for food?
I cannot disclose my location due to security reasons. I change it very frequently. But I can tell you I am in Afghanistan. I am perfectly fine. Food should not be an issue for a true Muslim. God feeds me like he feeds other Muslims.
What is your strength? Who provides you arms and ammunition?
We are so many in numbers that our strength cannot be counted. Before vacating the country, we had dumped the arms and ammunition in huge quantities at various secret locations. We have enough to fight for decades. Moreover, we snatch arms and ammunition from the coalition forces just like we seized it from the Soviet forces.
What is your strategy?
We carry out guerilla activities. We recently carried out some suicide attacks that have been very fruitful by the grace of God. We have set up a special suicide squad that consists of 2,000 Taliban. This squad will make life hell for the US and its allies and force them out of Afghanistan. Insha Allah!
How did you manage to escape the US troops in Afghanistan? Are stories of your under-the-moonlight motorcycle getaway fact or myth?
This does not matter how I managed to escape. What really matters is God's mercy, kindness and greatness. He has been protecting Osama bin Laden and myself when the US warplanes were intensively bombarding the Tora Bora caves. It was almost impossible to escape this attack. But by the grace of God, we did not receive a single scratch.
Did you flee to Pakistan?
I am not sure. Perhaps! The border between the two countries is so contiguous that it is extremely difficult to judge whether one is physically in Pakistan or Afghanistan. We don't stay at one place and keep moving.
When was the last time you met or heard from Osama? Is he alive?
I met him months ago and we are in contact with each other. He is very much alive and kicking.
Where is he?
You think I will tell you! All I can says is, he is not in your (Pakistan) tribal areas!
You said you are in contact with Osama. What is your mode of communication?
I cannot go into details. There could be several ways. We have our own traditional system of communication.
Do you regret lending support to Osama and hosting him in your country?
Not at all. Osama is the greatest mujahid of the present times. He is not a terrorist as propagated by the US. He fought for Afghanistan. He saved Afghans. How could we regret hosting him? I asked the world to provide evidence again him. He was innocent. Therefore, nobody -- even Saudi Arabia -- could prove anything against him.
We had tremendous pressure to expel him -- even from our friends like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Your [former Pakistan] interior minister Moinuddin Haider and even General Pervez Musharraf met me personally to seek Osama's extradition. But I refused. We paid a very heavy price for this decision. But we proved that the Taliban were independent people. They were nobody's product as portrayed by the media.
The Taliban could have escaped the US wrath had they expelled Osama
We don't care for the US wrath! We are only afraid of God's wrath. The US was hell-bent to topple our legitimate government. It would have still done so even had Osama been expelled.
Don't you think you unnecessarily antagonised the international community? After all, what was the rationale behind destroying the Bamiyan Buddha?
I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings -- the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha's destruction.
What is your opinion about General Musharraf?
General Musharraf was used by the US to topple our legitimate government. Thus he has committed a major sin. We will not forgive him! He is not loyal to Pakistan. He has betrayed the people of Pakistan as well as the Muslim nationhood. Like Bush, he too is a threat to the Muslim unity. I urge the people of Pakistan to wage jihad against Musharraf, remove him from power and punish him severely.
Afghans have chosen a constitution. They will be electing their president soon. Don't you think the country is moving toward stability?
All the delegates of the Loya Jirga were criminals as rightly pointed out by a young lady [Malalai Joya]. She showed the courage of telling the delegates that they were murderers of innocent people of Afghanistan and they should be dragged to the national and international courts of justice. The Loya Jirga is a US ploy to derive legitimacy for the Karzai government. We denounce it.
Our position is clear: we will kill all those who will register themselves as voters or cast votes in the forthcoming election. We will kill all those who support the US and its allies in any manner. America is the greatest evil on earth. It is the enemy of Islam. Whoever is the US friend is the enemy of Islam. Killing the enemies of Islam is jihad. We have already consigned to hell more than 1,000 infidels that include the Americans, their allies and their Afghan flunkies.
Have you issued a religious ruling to kill women that are working with aid agencies in Afghanistan?
Yes. As I said, whoever sides with the US or its allies deserves death. I am giving such women the last warning. If they do not dissociate themselves from these agencies within 30 days and confine themselves to the boundary wall of their houses, death will be their destiny. These agencies are preaching Christianity under the cover of development. Most of the Afghans have become apostate. They also deserve death. We will kill them.
What do you think of Afghan President Hamid Karzai?
He is a puppet of America, just like Abdul Haq, Haji Abdul Qadeer and Ahmad Shah Masoud. We condemned these three traitors to death. Insha Allah very soon, Karzai will also meet their fate. We want to show the world how the Taliban treats traitors!
Your former foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil has turned renegade after striking a deal with the US. Another colleague Mullah Siddiqullah has deserted you. Does not it indicate 'demoralisation' among the Taliban?
The Taliban are not demoralised. Despair is a sin. The Taliban are united. We are giving the US and the coalition forces a tough time. We are hunting them down like pigs. We are very happy to learn that the US is dispatching an additional contingent of more than 2,000 soldiers. This will be a huge herd of pigs for us to hunt down. We are waiting anxiously for their arrival!
Mullah Muttawakil has not tuned renegade. He is in US custody, enduring the worst physical and mental torture. The US has failed to extract anything from him. Moreover, the Taliban is the name of a movement based on ideology. Such movements do not depend on individuals, but conviction, belief and God's support. All these elements are very much there.
A section of Afghan society says 'Mullah Omar' is a brand name and not a real person.
You better ask General Moinuddin Haider [former interior minister of Pakistan] or General Musharraf. They have met me. They will tell you whether 'Mullah Omar' is a myth or a reality. However as said earlier, our movement does not depend on individual. If I die today, there will be many 'Mullah Omars' to replace me. Similarly, if Osama dies today, there will be many 'Osamas' to replace him.
Photograph: Getty Images
Design: Dominic Xavier