To escape detection, Mullah Omar worked as potato vendor

Funeral prayers for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar drew a crowd at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, July 31, 2015.
Funeral prayers for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar drew a crowd at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, July 31, 2015. AP

After fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar took refuge in Pakistan’s densely populated southern port city of Karachi.

His cover? Potato trader in a downtown market.

For nearly three years, according to senior Pakistani intelligence operatives and a former Taliban government minister, Mullah Omar, among the most wanted men in the world, worked among the vegetable purveyors in low-end marketplaces in crowded Karachi.

He ceased all overt Taliban activity. He stopped trying to raise money or recruit new adherents. He even refused help from a support network operated by Pakistani militant groups allied with the Taliban, for fear informants would lead the Pakistani military intelligence services to his doorstep in Karachi’s downtown Lea Market, where he lived between late 2002 and early 2005, according to the accounts.

It’s impossible to independently confirm this version of Mullah Omar’s activities as U.S. forces swept aside the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States. The Pakistani intelligence officers spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak to journalists, and the former Taliban minister cited threats to his personal security in asking not to be identified.

But their accounts provide one explanation for how Mullah Omar managed to slip through a U.S.-imposed dragnet and remain at large, returning to Afghanistan in 2005, as the U.S. became increasingly focused on Iraq, to lead a resurgence of the Taliban until his death in a Karachi hospital two years ago. That death became public only last month.

What Pakistani officials knew about Mullah Omar’s presence in Pakistan remains an open question, just as it does for Osama bin Laden, the al Qaida founder who was discovered and killed by U.S. military raiders in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. An investigation by Pakistan of bin Laden’s presence found no senior leaders knew that he was living in a walled compound less than a mile from the country’s premier military academy.

Similarly, the accounts offered of Mullah Omar’s early years of exile absolve Pakistani officials of involvement in the Taliban leader’s protection. The sources said the Taliban maintained a highly secretive, compartmentalized network in Karachi to keep its top operatives’ whereabouts hidden precisely because they feared Pakistani military officers could profit personally from their capture. The United States, for example, had offered a $10 million reward for Omar’s capture.

“From their perspective, it was the right thing to do,” said a ranking officer of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s top spy agency. “If we’d known of Mullah Omar’s whereabouts then, doubtless he would have been sold to the Americans.”

The sources said Karachi was the favored place of exile for Omar and other top functionaries of the Taliban regime overthrown in 2001 because they’d previously lived there for many years prior to the militant group’s emergence in the mid-1990s.

Omar first arrived in Karachi in 1979 to study at the Jamia Binoria Dar-ul-Aloom, the city’s premier seminary for orthodox Sunni Muslims, they said.

Like other students, Omar was bound by the strict discipline of the seminary and lived in on-campus dormitories while undergoing a series of courses in religious instruction, starting with basic Arabic-language recitation of the Quran and culminating in rote memorization of Islam’s holy book before he graduated in 1982 and returned to Afghanistan, the sources said.

Omar regularly visited Karachi until founding the Taliban movement in the mid-1990s and its subsequent seizure of most of Afghanistan, they said.

After the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime, its leadership fled to cities in Pakistan. Many lived as refugees in Peshawar and Quetta, western Pakistani cities near the border with Afghanistan, but most headed for Karachi, the former Taliban minister said.

However, Omar did not leave Afghanistan until late 2002, despite the urgings of his colleagues, according to the sources. When he did, he headed to Karachi.

“Karachi was Omar’s natural destination because he had lived there for quite some time and was as familiar with the city as any other resident,” said the former Taliban official, who was a member of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s cabinet-in-exile.

Omar arrived in the city unannounced, without using a logistics support network operated by the Taliban’s allied Pakistani militant groups, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-i-Mohammed, the sources said.

The network earlier had escorted Omar’s secretary, Tayyab Agha, to Karachi, where he owned a house and where his wife and children lived. But the Taliban chief was wary of capture and insisted on making his own travel arrangements to keep them secret even from top colleagues, the sources said.

His destination was a crowded section of downtown Karachi encompassing the discount-rate markets of Kharadar, Lea Market and Light House, where the vast majority of traders are Omar’s fellow ethnic Pashtuns – most of them Afghan refugees, the former Quetta Shura member said.

Pashtuns make up about a quarter of Karachi’s estimated population of 20 million. They are second in numbers only to the city’s politically dominant community of Urdu-speakers descended from Indian migrants.

Omar’s host was a Pakistani militant residing in Lea Market who provided Omar accommodation at a series of safe houses in the area – mostly small apartments in multipurpose four-story buildings.

McClatchy was asked not to name the militant host by the former Taliban official because his identity is unknown to Pakistan’s security authorities.

To fit in with the resident community of Pashtun traders, Omar went into business, selling potatoes off a stall in the Kharadar street market, the sources said.

“He did not start the business from scratch,” explained a ranking ISI counterterrorism operative.

“Instead, he joined an established collective of wholesale greengrocers run by other Taliban leaders and their Pakistani allies,” he said.

Omar left Karachi in 2005, but he is believed by Taliban and Pakistani intelligence sources to have revisited the city several times since.

In 2011, according to published reports in the United States, then CIA Director Leon Panetta showed Pakistan’s then president, Asif Ali Zardari, evidence that Omar was seriously ill and under treatment at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi’s top medical facility.

The sources said Omar’s presence at Aga Khan Hospital would not have been a surprise. Prior to the September 2001 attacks, wounded Afghan Taliban arriving in Karachi had been treated exclusively at the facility, they said.

For years, Pakistan’s security agencies were unable to pinpoint the movements of Omar and other Taliban leaders in the city because of a huge, well-entrenched network of militant organizations that operated offices on “virtually every street in Karachi” until Islamabad withdrew its support under intense U.S. pressure, the former Taliban minister said.

Most were shut down, but the militants retained a handful of such offices in ethnic Pashtun-populated areas of Karachi, re-branding them as libraries named after historical Islamic warriors.

The Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar, wasn’t captured until early 2010 from Karachi’s Ittehad Town, an impoverished western suburb, in a raid that the sources said the Pakistani military mounted at the behest of the CIA.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @tomthehack