KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – He is now the most influential person in Afghanistan, and yet he remains a recluse, relegated to the shadows. The images of him circulating the internet appear to be years old. Moreover, his failure to address the public has sparked a fresh wave of conspiracies – even within Taliban circles – that he is no longer alive.
However, the newly-appointed Supreme Leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the official term for the Taliban government – is said to be pulling the strings and meeting with his close confidantes, awaiting the “right moment” to face the curious world.
But who exactly is Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada?
The shadowy cleric has led the Taliban since May 2016, after his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone strike. Akhundzada, who his followers refer to as “Commander of the Faithful,” has the final word on all things political, military and religious – and in a similar vein to neighboring Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – can make or break the already deeply divided and bloodstained nation.
According to one local, a 22-year-old named Zabiullah, who resides in a small village tucked inside Sange Sar, Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban movement, where Mullah Omar rallied the troops from a small, primordial mosque – Akhundzada came to town just two weeks ago. He is said to have met with locals at the nearby Shah Waliullah baba shrine. It marked his first visit to the area – complete with a 10 to 15-person security team – since the Taliban takeover.
“People love him here,” says Zabiullah. “He is very respected. People are very happy with him here.”
Akhundzada was reported to have been residing in Quetta, Pakistan, during the outfit’s insurgency years. Still, we’re told he is now in Kandahar, given the Taliban’s rise to governance. Believed to be around 50-60 years old and born in the province’s Takhta Pul district, the leader supposedly has a religious and scholarly background with no direct battlefield experience.
Akhundzada was not a founding member of the Emirate, yet has amassed a loyal following from the pioneers of the militant jihadist faction. In addition, Akundzada has personally taught Islamic studies to scores of Taliban commanders and fighters, garnering an internal cult-like following for his staunch, classical Islamic interpretations and legal knowledge.
One Taliban Commander based within the Spin Boldak police and intelligence unit says he was a student of Akhundzada and saw him a few weeks earlier “among mujahideen” at a mosque in Kandahar, where he brought together his supporters.
“He is capable of leading the whole Muslim world. He was our leader even before he became Amir ul Momineen (Supreme Leader). He would teach Talibs to have mercy on Afghans, don’t oppress them and don’t look down on them,” the Commander, Salim Yar, said. “Whatever help they have provided, be thankful to them. If there is someone for Afghans, he is the one.”
Salim Yar stressed that the most important thing to know about the Supreme Leader is that he had a son named Khalid who “suicided on Americans with four tons of explosives.”
“This was for the Afghanistan land, for our nation and Islamic groups. He sacrificed his son,” the former student says, adding that the attack took place in Helmand province several years ago. “I have seen three other sons with him, aged around 16, 10 and 8. He taught us in different areas, including Kandahar. He would show himself (then), but that was before becoming the Supreme Leader.”
Things changed, he recalls, when Akhundzada became the Deputy to Mullah Mansoor after the death of founder Mullah Omar was publicly acknowledged.
“He would be kept hidden. Bullets would be fired at him. That is why he would not have a public appearance now. Enemies and the whole world were looking for him,” Salim Yar said, highlighting that Akhundzada and Omar were incredibly close. “Mullah Omar had much trust and belief in him. He wouldn’t trust anyone else to be the Supreme Leader. So everyone is standing by Haibatullah.”
He served the movement as the leader of the Sharia Courts during the 1990s, initiating the draconian punishment inflicted upon the Afghan population – from stonings for adultery and public executions for murder to limb-severing for stealing and flogging for violations of the stringent dress codes. During this tenure, the much-feared “morality police” were first disseminated to the streets, and an array of other rules and regulations were enforced, including prohibitions on movies, music, and girls’ education.
During this time, the fatwas were finalized by then-leader Omar, and it is expected Akhundzada now possesses such authority. In a public statement issued hours after the Kabul fall, the obscure ruler vowed that he would “work hard towards upholding Islamic rules and Shariah law” across Afghanistan.
Nazar Mohamad Samimi, 40, a Kandahar-based former journalist who has been working in the provincial education ministry for the past six years – and is now serving as the publications manager and spokesperson for the Kandahar Directorate of Education – claims that the direction they have received from the Supreme Leader is that “girls can get an education.”
“Under the previous regime, areas where Taliban shadow governments were operational, we had schools. Students would go to school from grade one to six normally,” he says. “The Supreme Leader’s message was that both men and women can get an education.”
But as it currently stands, girls are still only able to attend through to the sixth grade – secondary schools remain closed to them, with only the boys able to resume.
Akhundzada is generally considered a Deobandi – depicted as a conservative Sunni revivalist movement that embodies a Salafist egalitarian model and endeavors to mirror the 7th-century epoch and teachings of Prophet Mohammed.
Mawlawee Noor Ahmad Saeed, 42, the Director of Information and Culture in Kandahar, surmises that Hibatullah Akhundzada is originally from Takhta pul district in Kandahar, but later moved to Panjwayi district.
Mawlawi Hayat Khan, the current Imam of Mullah Omar’s Mosque who still attends the Taliban founding mosque heralded by Mullah Omar a quarter of a century ago, remembers meeting Akhundzada in Pakistan around seven years ago.
“But he was a soft person; we knew him as an Islamic Scholar who later became our leader,” he explains. “He was very famous among people surrounding him, and 50-60 people would always be waiting in line to take lectures from him.”
Nonetheless, despite Akhundzada not being much of a mountain militiaman himself, it was under Akhundzada’s Taliban tutelage over the past five years that the insurgent force gained ground before sweeping to full power at dizzying speed last month.
All current – and future – cabinet ministers within the interim government, which has so far failed to include minorities or women, require his consent. Under Akhundzada’s direction, the Taliban took to talks with the United States, inking the controversial Doha agreement in early 2020.
And Akhundzada seemingly has the reins to alter the existing lineup of leaders as necessary.
“The announced cabinet is temporary and not final appointments. They are just there to fill the vacuum for the government. It’s just to keep the work going, and then a decision will be made on the government,” Saeed says. “The Supreme Leader intends to bring changes to the economic situation of Afghanistan. It’s a priority; human beings can’t live without education, food, and health.”
According to Saeed, when America invaded Afghanistan, Akhundzada continued his work as a judge. Back in 2015, when Mullah Omar’s death was announced, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor was elected to the supreme leader position, Mullah Hibatullah and Siraj Haqqani became his deputies. In 2016, when Mullah Masoor died, they decided that Akhundzada would become the Supreme Leader after three days of discussions among Taliban leaders. His deputies would be Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar.
“On the second day of Mullah Mansoor’s election as Supreme Leader and him becoming a deputy, I met him back then. It was a faraway area of Afghanistan, and I had a job at the Cultural Affairs Department of the Taliban, and we were there to interview him,” he remembers. “At his guest house, there were three rooms, two of them were for guests, but the third one was a library where he would generally study mostly religious books.”
Even in the face of these eyewitness accounts asserting that he has been seen and heard from in recent weeks and months, conspiracies will continue to swirl regarding his status as alive or dead. Rumors also ran rampant last year that he had contracted COVID-19 and possibly died.
Yet Mohammad Sadiq Sabery, a 28-year-old senior Taliban police officer in the Kandahar-Pakistan border town of Spin Boldak, also claims to have met the leader around a month ago at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
“I reject all the fake news (about his demise),” he continues. “He is compliant to the Islamic rulings and has good conduct. He has a love for the country and its security. He wants to end the war and bring peace, to implement the Islamic regime.”
Sabery also notes that the new Taliban regime is different from the previous rule, and that there won’t be the same stringent enforcement of laws, especially against women, and that the Supreme Leader has made it clear he wants “good relations” with the United States now that they have left.
But he also points out that the new leader will follow in the footsteps of the Taliban founder and not cower to outsider demands.
“Mullah Omar delivered on his promise and avoided betrayal. He stood on his word with Osama bin Laden and lost the country just to avoid betrayal,” Sabery says. “This is against Islamic values that Muslim will hand over another Muslim to an infidel. That is how much we are standing on our commitment and standing on our promise, (as per) the teaching of Islam.”
Akundzada is not a designated terrorist by the US government, nor is he sanctioned by the United Nations, thus leaving the door open to some form of diplomatic relations within the wary international community.
Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Culture Director for Logar Province, Akif Muhajir, says that while he has not met Akhundzada personally, his recordings have been disseminated to the local leadership in recent weeks.
“We have listened to his audio. He meets with only selected leaders with strict restrictions to keep him secure,” he explains. “Our Supreme Leader lived nearby a foreigner’s camp in Zabul province for five years with the same (security) tactics and survived. That is all because we didn’t go to meet him on a daily basis.”
However, his hardline past and failure so far to herald a diverse government – in the face of repeated assurances from the Doha political office to do so – in addition to freezes on girls’ high school education and the abolishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs – will likely lead to the Emirate becoming a political pariah without international recognition for at least some time.
“Once Afghanistan has full control of its airspace, and there are no threats against him, Mullah Hibatullah will appear in public very soon,” Saeed adds.