by Michael Hughes
March 26, 2022
Hibatullah Akhundzada (هبت الله اخندزاده) has been the supreme leader of the Taliban since 2016 and Afghanistan’s head of state since August of 2021, when the radical Islamic movement seized Kabul after a 20-year insurgency and the withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces. Akhundzada was elected as the Taliban’s third leader after his predecessor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in May of 2016.
Akhundzada, unlike previous leaders, does not have a military background but is more of a religious scholar, known for issuing most of the Taliban’s notorious fatwas. However, what has been most conspicuous about Akhundzada is his absence – the reclusive leader has rarely been seen in public and rumors continue to swirl that he might not even be alive. These have been reinforced by reports of him dying while receiving covid treatment in mid-2021 and buttressed by the Taliban’s history of concealing the passing away of prominent figures.
Upbringing and Personality
Akhundzada, a Pashtun of the Nurzai tribe, is from Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province, although he has been described as “tribe-neutral,” not unlike Mullah Omar who comes from the same district. His exact birth date is unknown – several sources have him being born anywhere from 1961 to 1969.
His father was an imam at the Malook mosque in Safid Rawan village and his family was considered non-political and reclusive. According to tribal elders, his family were well mannered but kept to themselves and never participated in tribal assemblies and sessions. After the Soviet invasion, the family migrated to Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province where Akhundzada studied at one of the madrassas.
Personality-wise, he was and continues to be well-respected by other Taliban members especially as an Islamic jurist and spiritual leader. Mullah Omar even referred to Akhundzada as his teacher.
Akhundzada possesses impeccable so-called religious credentials, attaining the status of sheikh ul-hadith – a specialist in interpreting the sayings of the Prophet, with a track record for doing so in medieval fashion. He is more articulate and much more knowledgeable in Islamic studies compared to his two predecessors. Both Omar and Mansour consulted the cleric on fatwas.
Some independent interlocutors described Akhundzada as calm, quiet, modest, consistent, and a good listener. However, beneath the calm personality lies a radically religious soul. He has a long track record as an austere, strict, righteous and uncompromising disciplinarian. Afghan expert Sami Yousafzai told Al Jazeera in 2016 that Akhundzada is known as a “stone age mullah” – one who strongly believes in the Taliban.
Moreover, the cleric raised his children to be hardcore jihadists. A Taliban source told the Afghanistan Analysts Network that he had a son “registered as a suicide bomber,” who had been at a suicide bombing training camp just as Akhundzada became the group’s leader.
His reputation for piousness was seen in his reported disgust with his predecessor Mansour’s dabbling in the drug trade and love of wealth.
Scholar, Jurist, and Advisor
Akhundzada joined the movement in 1994 and served as a judge in the sharia courts during the Taliban’s first period of rule from 1996-2001. One of his first duties was as a member of the so-called “vice and virtue” police in Farah province, where he doled out punishments.
He moved on to head the Taliban’s military court in eastern Nangarhar Province and then became deputy head of the Supreme Court. He was also an instructor at the Jihadi Madrasa in Pakistan, which Mullah Omar himself personally looked after.
His rulings have been responsible for some of the most brutal punishments – from public executions of murderers and adulterers to amputations of those found guilty of theft. Some believe some of his edicts justified using terrorist attacks against U.S. troops and Afghan government forces.
After they were ousted in 2001, Akhundzada became the head of the Taliban’s council of religious scholars before being appointed to chief justice of the sharia courts and then an advisor to Mullah Omar. He was also a senior member of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura.
Although he rose to become an advisor to Omar, he remained largely in the background and focused on developing the Taliban’s internal guidelines, education, and discipline. For example, Akhundzada implemented a system of commissions under the shadow governor in every province in Afghanistan to investigate abusive commanders or fighters, according to a Taliban member in Helmand Province.
Despite his efforts to curb abuses, however, the Taliban’s brutality and bloodlust only seemed to increase on the battlefields unchecked while Afghan civilians were being killed at record rates. By 2016, Akhundzada was reportedly residing in the Ghaus Abad area of Quetta and leading 10 madrassas across Balochistan.
While serving under Mansour, Akhundzada was initially believed to be opposed to negotiating with the Americans. In fact, after Mansour was killed by the U.S. in a drone strike, Pakistani politician Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan at a press conference declared that “the Americans have sabotaged the peace process.”
Commander of the Faithful
On May 25, 2016, four day’s after Mansour’s death, Akhundzada was elected the new amir ul-mumenin (“Commander of the Faithful”) by a 35-person shura. Akhundzada, who had been a deputy under Mansour, tapped Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, to be his deputies. In fact, there were high expectations that either Haqqani or Yaqoob would be picked as leader, leading some to conclude that it was a compromise pick to prevent resentments between the other two. Overall, there was the sense that Akhundzada could be a unifying figure in a movement that was rife with internal divisions.
However, contrary to the claims of being a unifier, Akhundzada’s selection drew the ire of Mullah Rassoul’s breakaway Taliban faction who accused the new leader of being nothing more than a “puppet” of Pakistan. Despite these accusations, unlike Mansour, there was little to no evidence of Akhundzada having built any relationship with elements within the Pakistan government, which is consistent with his apolitical personal history.
Abdul Ghani Baradar would become Akhundzada’s third deputy and would play a pivotal role in the talks with the Trump administration that led to the U.S. withdrawal agreement. Although the leader appeared to approve of the Doha talks with the Trump administration, some of his statements gave early warnings that made a mockery of the U.S. demands that the Taliban respect human rights.
Akhundzada in a statement agreeing to the temporary Eid Al-Adhan ceasefire in July of 2020, at least three times stated that the Taliban plan to establish a “pure Islamic government.” After the Doha deal was signed by U.S. and Taliban officials at the end of February, Akhundzada issued a statement “Regarding Termination of Occupation Agreement with the United States,” in which he vowed that Afghanistan would be blessed with peace and “a just Islamic government.”
In June of 2021, it was reported that Akhundzada had contracted COVID-19 and had possibly died while receiving treatment, Foreign Policy magazine reported, citing three other three Taliban figures in Quetta, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The development is quite suspicious given his lack of public appearances and considering that the movement concealed Mullah Omar’s for two years.
After the Taliban re-seized Kabul, Akhundzada did not reside in the capital city like previous Afghan government leaders, preferring to remain in Kandahar. On October 30, 2021, he allegedly made his first public appearance since taking control of the group in a visited to the Darul Uloom Hakimah in the city of Kandahar. No photos or videos were released but a ten-minute audio recording was circulated by the Taliban to disprove rumors of his death.
Meanwhile, Pakistan, which helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan – twice – began to worry after the movement ousted Ashraf Ghani amid reports that Tehrik-i-Taliban chief Noor Wali Mehsud renewed allegiance to Akhundzada. It was ironic that their alleged puppet might be turning against the Pakistanis by forging an alliance with a Taliban faction that wants to topple Islamabad.
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