Hibatullah Akhundzada: What we know about the Taliban's secretive supreme leader

In the days since taking power in Afghanistan, a wide range of Taliban figures have entered Kabul: hardened commandos, armed madrassa studen...

In the days since taking power in Afghanistan, a wide range of Taliban figures have entered Kabul: hardened commandos, armed madrassa students and greying leaders back from years of exile.

But one major name seems to be absent — the group's supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. Very little is known of Akhundzada, who became leader of the Taliban in 2016.

Here's a bit of information about him:

Early life

Akhundzada was born in 1961 in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar. His first name, Hibatullah, means "gift from God" in Arabic.

The family migrated to Quetta in the Balochistan province of Pakistan after the Soviet invasion and Akhundzada studied at one of the madrassas there. In the 1980s, he was "involved in the Islamist resistance" to the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan.

Taliban career

Akhundzada was quick to join the Taliban after the group emerged in the 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

When the Taliban captured Afghanistan's western Farah province, he was put in charge of fighting crime in the area.

Later, Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed to the Taliban's military court in Kandahar and then as head of its military court in eastern Nangarhar province. As the Taliban consolidated its grip on power in Afghanistan, he became head of the group's military court and deputy head of its supreme court.

When the Taliban were toppled by the United States-led coalition in 2001, he became head of the group's council of religious scholars.

Rather than a military commander, he has a reputation as a religious leader who was responsible for issuing most of the Taliban's fatwas and settling religious issues among members of the Taliban.

He served as a deputy to previous Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on 21 May, 2016. The latter named him as successor in his will, in what was seen as an attempt to legitimise the transfer.

After taking the insurgency's reins, the cleric was tasked with the mammoth challenge of unifying the group, as there were two other contenders for the role of Emir — one being Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mansour's other deputy, and Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of founding leader Mohammad Omar.

Little is still known about Akhundzada's day-to-day role, with his public profile largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays.

Additionally, the group has also released only one photograph of their supreme leader, who has never made a public appearance.

According to reports, two attempts have been made on Akhundzada's life — one in Pakistan's Quetta in 2012 and the other in 2019 in Balochistan.

Where is Akhundzada?

When asked about his whereabouts, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: "You will see him soon, God willing."

As per AFP, "Akhundzada's absence follows years of rumours about his health, with chatter in Pakistan and Afghanistan suggesting he had contracted COVID or had been killed in a bombing. There has never been much in the way to prove these rumours."

What's with the secrecy?

The Taliban has a long history of keeping their top leader in the shadows.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the group's founder, was noted for his hermit ways and rarely travelled to Kabul when the Taliban was in power in the 1990s.

According to Laurel Miller, the head of the Asia programme at the International Crisis Group, Akhundzada has also adopted a "reclusive" style similar to Omar.

The secrecy might also be fuelled by security fears, Miller added, citing the assassination of his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour by a US drone strike.

Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan expert who has met both Mansoor and Akhunzada several times, also noted that Akhunzada has the reputation of being very “conservative” and “does not like taking pictures”.

“He does not even know how to use a mobile phone. He is known to be very narrow-minded and has the attitude of a typical tribal man,” Yousafzai told Al Jazeera.

“Most Taliban are scared of him because of his role as a judge in the past. They say Akhanzada decreed that anyone who challenged or did not endorse Mullah Mansoor’s ‘leadership of the faithful’ should be executed.”

Afghanistan and Akhunzada

The fate of Afghanistan now lies in Akhunzada and his council and how they want to run the country. On 18 July, before the Taliban takeover, Akhunzada had said he “strenuously favours” a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.

However, experts are unsure about what style of governance he is likely to follow.

What is known, as of now, is that Akhunzada has promoted extreme violence. His enthusiasm for the tactic of suicide bombing is so intense that he is proud his own son was a ‘successful’ suicide bomber; in July 2017 Akhundzada's younger son Abdur Rahman had died carrying out a suicide attack on an Afghan military base in Gereshk in Helmand Province.

After taking over Afghanistan, Akhundzada also granted amnesty to all political detainees from all prisons of Afghanistan.

If his past is anything to go by, then the assurances of the Taliban of not turning Afghanistan into a militant haven would remain a dream.

As of now, we can only wait and watch.

With inputs from agencies

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