The Afghan Taliban have announced a new leader to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike on 21 May.
In a statement, the Taliban acknowledged Mansour’s death for the first time and named his successor as Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. The statement disclosed that “Hibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme court), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him.” The statement further indicated that Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, would become a joint deputy head of the movement, alongside current deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is much more well known, is leader of the Haqqani network, which has been blamed for some of the most violent attacks inside Afghanistan.
The group is known for its daring raids on Western and Afghan targets, particularly in Kabul. Taliban sources have reported that Mansour named Akhundzada as his successor in his will, in what may be an attempt to legitimize the transition. Analysts have reported that it is unlikely that the group will change direction under hardline religious scholar Akhundzada. Mansour was killed in a strike, which targeted his car in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Saturday. Last year, the Taliban was plunged into turmoil when Mansour replaced the group’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. Under his stewardship, the Taliban refused to take part in peace talks and instead, militant attacks increased and became more daring. Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a former head of the Taliban courts, was a deputy leader to Mansour.
Profile of New Taliban Chief
The Afghan Taliban’s new leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is a hardline religious scholars from Kandahar. The fact that he comes from the Taliban’s traditional stronghold is likely to please rank-and-file fighters.
Born in Panjwai district in Kandahar, during the 1980’s, Akhundzada was involved in the Islamist resistance against the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. He was quick to join the Taliban, however his reputation is more that of a religious leader as opposed to a military commander.
He served as a deputy to previous Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. According to Gharzai Khwakhogi, a political commentator who worked in intelligence for a while under the Taliban: “(Hibatullah Akhundzada) has lived most of his life inside Afghanistan and has maintained close links with the Quetta Shura.” When the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s western Farah province, he was put in charge of fighting crime in the area. Later, he 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, Hibatullah Akhundzada became the head of the group’s military court and deputy head of its supreme court. When the Taliban was toppled by the US-led coalition in 2001, he became the head of the group’s council of religious scholars. He is a member of the Taliban’s leadership council and has been responsible for issuing most of the Taliban’s fatwas. He also reportedly ran a madrassa (religious school) near Quetta. Experts have indicated that Hibatullah Akhundzada maintained close links with the Quetta Shura, which is understood to make the Taliban’s main decisions as well as appointing its leaders.
The new Taliban chief is not as controversial as his predecessor, who led the militants for two years before news emerged that Taliban founder Mullah Omar was actually dead. Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed by senior Taliban figures who are said to have met somewhere near Quetta in Pakistan. However, not all members of the shura (council) were there, with many not appearing over fears of being attacked.
While the Taliban has called the new appointment unanimous, they did the same when Mullah Mansour took over last summer. Shortly after his appointment, splits emerged, with sources disclosing that this time, there could still be some disagreements, however they will probably be not enough to challenge the new leader’s authority.