Who is Hibattulah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Taliban, still invisible?

Since taking power in Afghanistan, they have been everywhere. The leaders of various Taliban factions have appeared publicly in Kabul in recent days. These lieutenants preach in mosques, chat with opposition figures or even meet with representatives of the cricket federation. In this ambient hubbub, a man is missing: the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. Flanked by the title of “commander of the believers”, the sixty-year-old prefers to stay away from the cameras. And its officers have been discreet about its activities. The mullah, a specialist in judicial and religious issues, is said to be in the city of Kandahar – in the south of the country – and is expected to appear “soon in public”.

While waiting to hear from the new master of Kabul, his journey resembles that of a man who rose through the ranks little by little. Appointed head of the Taliban in May 2016 during a rapid transition of power, Akhundzada is chosen because he is one of the most consensual lieutenants within the movement. A major asset if we look at the mission entrusted to it at the time: unify the fundamentalist movement fractured by a violent struggle for power after the death of Mansour and the revelation that they had hidden for years the death of the founder of the movement, Mullah Omar. In an article portraying the new leader, the media Al-Jazeera described him in 2016 as a “highly respected” man within the Taliban.

And if this man seems supported by the majority of the Taliban, it is also thanks to another important element: Akhundzada is from Kandahar – heart of the Pashtun country and cradle of the Taliban – and from the Noorzai tribe. the Taliban leaders, “recalls the Qatari media. Thus, this son of a theologian enjoys before his appointment a great influence within the movement. “He runs a madrasa [école coranique] and many insurgent fighters consider him a teacher “, explained The Express Tribune upon his appointment. In the 1990s, he held important judicial and religious positions in the organization. In 1996, the scholar became a civil servant during the formation of the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, ruled by the Taliban. The future supreme leader of the Taliban works with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, in charge of respect for religious law in the country.

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A religious leader who managed to keep the Taliban together

Militarily, Hibatullah Akhundzada’s experience remains weak, but his reputation is more that of a religious leader. The leader has been credited with publishing many of the group’s most extreme interpretations of Islam. Before being propelled to the head of the Taliban, he notably wrote many fatwas and succeeded in winning the confidence of Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban group who died in 2013, by advising him on religious issues. Six years after his appointment, the “commander of the believers” seems to have succeeded in uniting the group. And what better than a victory to weld the fighters? “Compared to the very divided elites in Kabul, the Taliban could maintain greater group cohesion over time,” said specialist Kaweh Kerami in L’Express on August 15.

While he has succeeded in cementing the fundamentalist group, his actions within the organization remain opaque. Its role is limited to broadcasting rare annual messages during Islamic festivals. The Taliban released only one photo of him. He has never made a public appearance yet. But this treatment is not surprising. The group’s founder, Mullah Omar, led a hermit life and rarely went to the Afghan capital when the movement was in power in the 1990s. He preferred to stay in hiding at his home in Kandahar and only met with the dignitaries who visited him reluctantly. But his word was sacred and none of his successors inspired the same respect within the movement. According to Laurel Miller, the head of the Asia program of the International Crisis Group, Hibatullah Akhundzada “seems to have adopted a similar recluse lifestyle”.

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But this discretion could also be dictated by security reasons, to prevent him from knowing the fate of his predecessor Mansour, observes for AFP Laurel Miller. “A Taliban spokesman said their leader would appear soon and he might have reasons to do so to silence rumors of his death,” she added. “But it is also possible that after showing himself, he will withdraw again and exercise his authority in an isolated way, as Mullah Omar did”, she considers. His appearance would silence the rumors that have been circulating in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years about the fate of Hibatullah Akhundzada and which suggested that he would have contracted Covid-19 or would have been killed in a bombing. These rumors have never been substantiated by any concrete evidence. This is a crucial time for the Taliban, who will now have to demonstrate that they are capable of governing.


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