In July 2015, Afghan authorities (and others) announced that Mullah Omar was dead. He would have died two years earlier in a hospital in Karachi where he was being treated for tuberculosis, the Afghan secret service said. The announcement initially caused confusion as there had been regular reports of Mullah Omar’s death since 2001, which have always been considered false. I was also cautious when various media asked me to comment on the news, as the Taliban initially gave no response to the announcement.

Weeks after the first report of Omar’s death, Mullah Mansour, now named his successor, confirmed that the former leader had indeed died two years earlier. He also confirmed the cause of death, but said Mullah Omar died not in Karachi but in Afghanistan, where he remained after 2001. Mansour said Taliban leaders kept the “tragic news” secret for two years because at the time of Omar’s death the Taliban believed they could definitively defeat the Americans in Afghanistan in 2014.

The situation surrounding the death of Mullah Omar has once again revealed how little Americans (and I too) really knew about Omar; indeed, many senior Taliban officials found themselves in a similar position.

For a long time, it seemed to me that I should end my book on Mullah Omar with this brief description of his last years. I sent my manuscript to the publisher in the summer of 2018. I agreed with them that while they were editing the book, I would have one last time to learn more about Mullah Omar’s life after 2001.

Abdul Jabbar Omari’s name came up regularly in the many conversations I had had about the Taliban leader over the years. Many people said he was the man who helped Mullah Omar after he disappeared from Kandahar in 2001. After Omar’s death, Omari hid in Pakistan and later in Zabul, the province where he was born, but he was arrested in 2017 and it looked like he had probably been held in the notorious Bagram prison near Kabul ever since. Perhaps he was the crucial link in Mullah Omar’s story. I decided to try my luck again by going to Kabul to see if I could talk to Omari there.

In Dubai, en route to Afghanistan, I met the man who was working on a biography of Mullah Omar for the Taliban. According to him, Omari was not in Bagram after all; he was under house arrest in Kabul by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan secret service.

Once in Kabul, I managed to arrange an interview with an NDS general who said he would reveal where Omari was being held. As I sat in his office, our conversation quickly took a surprising turn. The general was brief: the secret services were holding Omari, but he didn’t want to introduce me because I shouldn’t waste my time talking to him because Omari didn’t know anything.

The NDS General then told me in detail what the Secret Service had discovered about Mullah Omar’s last years. This account was completely contrary to what the American and Afghan authorities had been saying so far. The general told me that the NDS had known for some time that Mullah Omar had never visited Pakistan after 2001, or maybe only briefly – just across the border from Zabul. But he had spent all those years in the province of Zabul. He had lived in a small village where he dared not venture into the streets.

Mullah Omar continued to lead his movement by sending tapes. Later he used written instructions which were broadcast by a messenger. “You should talk to this messenger, Mullah Azizullah,” the general told me. It was the same name I had heard years earlier from Mutasim.

Of course, I would have liked to talk to Mullah Azizullah, but that was not a realistic option. The man, who had married the sister of Mullah Omar’s second wife, was now a Taliban in the province of Helmand, often the scene of heavy fighting. All lines claiming to lead to Omari seemed to be dead ends. Intrigued by the remarkable information from General NDS, I decided to travel to Zabul with a stopover in Kandahar. Who knows, maybe I’ll discover something once there.

In Kandahar, I spoke to different people in order to properly prepare for a possible trip to Zabul. Many of them advised me against going there, saying that this province was too risky. But soon enough, something happened. I remembered a local journalist from Zabul and called him. “Oh, Betty Dam, the famous author who wrote Karzai’s book! I will come to you immediately!” He was at the Indian consulate and ran to my house with my Karzai book in his hand. I signed it and he told me that he had decided to study political science after having read my book.

I was very touched and we discussed my way of doing journalism. “What brings you here?” He asked. I explained my plan to him, choosing my words carefully: I was looking for Mullah Omar’s hiding place. The reporter didn’t really understand why I was so secretive. “This story has already come out in Zabul. Everyone there knows that,” he said. I let him speak. He gave me the gist of the story.

Mullah Omar was staying in Zabul in two places and he was able to show evidence. Omari had been arrested by local authorities in Zabul, the journalist had met him and Omari had told the story to local authorities when he was airlifted to the shelter in Kabul.

I had a small local article about this arrest on my laptop, with a photo of Omari. ” Is the one ? I asked, and the reporter nodded. “He is now in Kabul.” The local journalist put me in touch with Atta Jan, a former provincial administrator. Apparently he knew more about Omari’s arrest and was even supposed to have spoken to the man after his arrest. It turned out to be correct. We caught up with Atta Jan the same evening at a dinner with one of Kandahar’s wealthiest businessmen. We ate a meal fit for a king. “Wow, she’s the one who wrote Karzai’s book!” I heard the Afghan guests say.

Atta Jan took the time to talk to me and we adjourned to one of the many empty rooms in the villa. Atta Jan said Mullah Azizullah was a key witness to the secret life Mullah Omar led after 9/11. The same applied to Omari. According to Atta Jan, undercover NDS agents stationed in Zabul had suspected for years that Omari knew about Mullah Omar’s life after 2001. When Omar’s death was reported in 2015, the NDS told Omari a secret offer of witness protection if he spoke to them. on Mullah Omar.

He was offered his choice of luxury accommodation in a city like Ankara, Doha or Istanbul. As Omari himself had disappeared immediately after Mullah Omar’s death, Atta Jan had relayed the Secret Service’s offer to Omari’s brother at the request of Afghan President Ghani. Omari had never responded to this offer, Atta Jan said.

In 2017, Omari suddenly appeared in the local press, in an article I have on my laptop (thanks to my good friend Anand Gopal). This article (in Pashto) reports that Mullah Omar’s bodyguard was arrested in central Zabul. According to the article, this happened during a random check of cars by local police. Omari identified himself and asked for the deal that Atta Jan had offered earlier.

Later I learned that Omari was arrested in the local bazaar by the police, who treated him very roughly. It had prompted him to accept the NDS offer after all, and Atta Jan was called in to identify the man. Since then, Omari had been living in a heavily guarded villa in a secret location in Kabul.

Atta Jan put me in touch with an important Hotak chieftain from Zabul who lived near the village where Omari was born. I met the man in Kandahar and to my surprise he had Omari’s phone number. When I got home, my Afghan colleague Patmal and I dialed the number – and again to my amazement, Omari answered.

We had only been in Kandahar twenty-four hours, but it seemed like everyone knew that. The voice on the other end of the line sounded happy. When I spoke to him briefly in Pashto, he complimented me on my language skills. I asked him if I could meet him in Kabul. In a calm voice, he replied that I would be welcome, but that I had to arrange my visit through the head of the Afghan secret service. In the days following this phone call, I tried to contact Omari several times at the same number, but never received a response.

I decided not to go to Zabul but to return to Kabul instead. Once there, I did everything to gain access to Omari. Atta Jan had told me that Mullah Omar’s hideouts in Zabul had always been organized by Samad Ostad, a well-known driving instructor in Qalat. Ostad had been Omari’s driver during the days of the Taliban regime, and had been killed recently in Pakistan (I haven’t had time to find out exactly why but people say it was because of his work for Mullah Omar).

In Kabul, I spoke to a man I had known from the beginning of my investigations into Mullah Omar, Daud Gulzar, a Hotak leader and former head of the Zabul provincial council. In recent years, Gulzar has lived in an expensive apartment in the capital and worked as an adviser to the Afghan president. I sat down in front of him, exasperated. “Gulzar, I should have listened to you,” I said.

It was Gulzar who, at the beginning of my research, told me to start my work on Mullah Omar in Zabul. “It’s his tribe’s area. This is where his life begins – in the heart of the Hotak community. I ignored this because I made a Western assumption: Mullah Omar was not born in Zabul, so his personal life did not start in Zabul. But now I regret it. Omar relied on his tribesmen when he needed them. I realize now that when I first told Gulzar about it, Omar was still alive and people in Zabul knew where he was.

Gulzar told me that Samad Ostad used to visit Gulzar in the reception hall of his house in Qalat. “He had no money, so I gave him rice and flour. Now I know that food was going to Mullah Omar,” Gulzar said with a laugh.

According to Gulzar, the Afghan secret service had an eye on this driver at the time, which I had also heard from another tribal leader in Zabul. The Secret Service suspected Ostad of having some sort of connection to Mullah Omar, according to Gulzar, because the Americans had told them as much. But local shuras systematically protected the driving instructor.

Every time Ostad was ordered to report to the Secret Service office, he would call on one of his followers. They included Daud Gulzar. “What do you want with this poor wretch? Gulzar would ask the agents. And then they left him in peace for a while. Gulzar was struck by the fact that Ostad carried about twenty traditional lucky charms tweet amulets around his neck. “But I didn’t know he was protecting Mullah Omar,” Gulzar said.

Each interview I did only convinced me more that I had to talk to Omari if I wanted to know more about Mullah Omar’s last years. After several days on the phone, I finally had the opportunity to speak to the head of the Afghan secret service. I hoped he would give me permission to visit Omari in his safe house.

Turns out he was ready to see me.

Excerpted with permission from In Search of the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown TalibanBette Dam, HarperCollins India.