Who is the Taliban leader? The terrorist group’s leadership in Afghanistan explained

MAWLAWI Hibatullah Akhundzada is arguably the world’s strongest Islamic militant leader after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan.

But little is known about the cleric who has been dubbed “a ghost”.

Who is Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada?

Even Akhundzada’s date of birth is uncertain although it is often said to be either 1959 or 1961.

He is thought to have been born in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.

Akhundzada prefers to operate in the shadows rather than post bloodthirsty videos.

Even his missives to his followers are said not to be written in his own handwriting.

While Akhundzada may not be a fighter he was quite prepared to let his son, 23, die in a suicide bombing mission on an Afghan base.

Due to Akhundzada being a reclusive figure little is known about him and some have even questioned if he really exists, referring to him as a “ghost”.

He only occasionally issues written communiques and avoids public appearances due to fears of being assassinated.

Akhundzada joined the terror group in 1994, the year it was formed.

But it seems he rose through the ranks not as a fighter but as a religious scholar, upholding the group’s hardline edicts through the feared “vice and virtue” police.

By 2001, when the Taliban was ousted by US forces, he was one of Mullah Omar’s trusted inner circle.

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He took over at the head of the Taliban in 2016 after Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by a US drone strike.

His position was cemented the following year after he let his own 23-year-old son volunteer for a suicide bombing at an Afghan army base.

His reputation has also taken on an air of mythology after a story emerged about how he is said to have survived an assassination attempt in 2012 by what the Taliban claim was a group of government assassins.

A former associate told the New York Times in 2016: “During one of his lectures, a man stood among the students and pointed a pistol (at Akhundzada) from a close range, but the pistol stuck.”

According to the story, Akhundzada didn’t even flinch.

Questions have also been raised about just how hardline Akhundzada is.

Some claim he is against softening the Taliban’s edicts against music and dancing while others say he is open to women’s education.

Akhundzada though does appear to want to curb the more extreme Taliban brutality, even if it is only a way to prevent resistance to their rule.

He is once said to have told a group of Taliban officials: "Do you know why people support the government militias? It’s because you people cut off their heads for receiving minor help from an aid agency.”

Who are the other Taliban leaders?

Abdul Ghani Baradar

One of the co-founders of the Taliban, Baradar now heads the political office of the Taliban and is part of the negotiating team that the group has in Doha to try and thrash out a political deal that could pave the way for a ceasefire and more lasting peace in Afghanistan.

The process failed to make significant headway in recent months.

Baradar, reported to have been one of Mullah Omar's most trusted commanders, was captured in 2010 by security forces in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi and released in 2018.

Sirajuddin Haqqani

The son of prominent mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin leads the Haqqani network, a loosely organized group that oversees the Taliban's financial and military assets across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The Haqqanis are believed by some experts to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan and have been blamed for several high-profile attacks in Afghanistan including a raid on Kabul's top hotel, an assassination attempt on then-President Hamid Karzai and a suicide attack on the Indian embassy.

Haqqani is believed to be in his late 40s or early 50s. His whereabouts are unknown.

Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob

The son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, Yaqoob oversees the group's military operations, and local media reports have said he is inside Afghanistan.

He was proposed as overall leader of the movement during various succession tussles, but he put forward Akhundzada in 2016 because he felt he lacked battlefield experience and was too young, according to a Taliban commander at the meeting where Mansour's successor was chosen.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai

A former deputy minister in the Taliban's government, Stanekzai has lived in Doha for nearly a decade, and became the head of the group's political office there in 2015.

He has taken part in negotiations with the Afghan government, and has represented the Taliban on diplomatic trips to several countries.

Abdul Hakim Haqqani

He is head of the Taliban's negotiating team.

The Taliban's former shadow chief justice heads its powerful council of religious scholars and is widely believed to be someone whom Akhundzada trusts most.

Who is next in line if Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada dies?

While there is no obvious line of succession in the Taliban’s structure Baradar is emerging as Akhundzada’s deputy.

Baradar is the group’s political chief and its most public face.

In a televised statement on the fall of Kabul, he said the Taliban’s real test was just beginning and that they had to serve the nation.

He was Mullah Omar’s deputy and seen as a key architect in bringing the Taliban to power after the Soviets left Afghanistan.

By the time the US swept away the Taliban, Baradar was deputy minister of defence with a reputation as a a subtle political operator.

Baradar signed the Doha agreement with the US in February 2020.

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