More than a military commander, Hibatullah Akhundzada is known to be a religious leader, whom both his predecessors Mohammad Omar and Akhtar Mansour consulted. His movements in Afghanistan are largely unknown though he is said to be in Kandahar.
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan over two weeks ago, a number of leaders of the movement have emerged from exile. But Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, known as the ‘amir al-Mu’minin’ or the commander of the faithful, is yet to appear in public.
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Who is Hibatullah Akhundzada?
Since his succession in 2016, Hibatullah Akhundzada has never made public appearances and is known mostly for his annual messages released during religious holidays.
However, he has been instrumental in unifying the jihadist movement since he came to power after the death of former Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2016.
His movements in Afghanistan are unknown, although spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently said he is in Kandahar. “You will see him soon, god willing,” Mujahid told reporters.
Akhundzada was born in Panjwai district in Kandahar and belongs to the Noorzai clan. He joined the Taliban in the 1990s when the group emerged after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. In 1995, after the Taliban captured Farah province, Akhundzada was given the responsibility of fighting crime in the area. He was later inducted into the military court in Kandahar and made head of the Taliban military court in Nangarhar province. He later became the deputy head of its supreme court.
After the Taliban was removed from power by the US in 2001, Akhundzada became the head of the group's council of religious scholars. More than a military commander, Hibatullah Akhundzada is known to be a religious leader, whom both his predecessors Mohammad Omar and Akhtar Mansour consulted.
In 2015, he was appointed as one of the deputy leaders to the then chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. The following year he was made the supreme leader after Akhtar Mansour’s death.
Coming to power
Unlike his predecessor Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Hibatullah Akhundzada is not a controversial leader. Mansour had kept the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar under wraps for almost two years. Akhundzada was named Mansour’s successor in his will. Even though not all members of the shura (council) were present at the appointment of Akhundzada, he was accepted by senior Taliban figures as the head. There were two other contenders to the post -- Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was also Mansour’s deputy, and Mohammad Yaqoob, who was the son of Mohammad Omar. Haqqani and Yaqoob were later appointed Akhundzada’s deputies.
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Suicide bomber son
Akhundzada’s son had died in July 2017 while carrying out a suicide attack in the province of Helmand in southern Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman, 23, also known as Hafiz Khalid, died driving a vehicle laden with explosives into an Afghan military base, Reuters had reported. He had enrolled as a suicide bomber before his father became leader of the Taliban and had insisted on continuing after Akhundzada took office.
In February 2021, it was rumoured that Akhundzada was killed in an explosion in Pakistan. However, the Taliban dismissed the rumours.
"Akhundzada enjoys respect among his followers in particular for being a religious scholar and sits at the helm of the Taliban's massive structure and its leadership shura. As far as we know, he has been in Afghanistan, which means he has not been in Doha with the political commission or under his neighbour's thumb in Pakistan," Tricia Bacon, associate professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, DC, told Newsweek.
Bacon added that it was not unusual for the leader of the Taliban to have a low public profile. However, she added that the Taliban would not hide the death of another leader as it would impact the movement at a critical moment.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)
First Published: IST