Who is new Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada?

Conservative successor to Mullah Mansoor is known for overseeing bombings and for being a “ruthless” former judge.

taliban new leader
Akhanzada fought against the Russians, then joined the Taliban in 1994 [Reuters/Handout]

The Taliban took two years to confirm the death of their leader, Mullah Omar, in 2013.

However, after the killing in a US drone strike of Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, it only took the group four days to make a public announcement.

Confirming the death of Mansoor early on Wednesday, the Taliban also announced the appointment of its new leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, known as a “religious scholar” and for his role as a “ruthless” judge handing down death sentences during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. 

Afghan Taliban names Haibatullah Akhunzada as new leader

Akhunzada, in his mid 50s and originally from Kandahar province, fought against the Russians during the 1980s and then joined the Taliban movement in 1994 under the leadership of Omar, who established strict Islamic law in Afghanistan.

Once Akhunzada joined the Taliban, Omar appointed him as the head of the military court in Kandahar and he became a powerful figure in the group.

Akhunzada comes from a traditional Taliban stronghold and is known for his role in major decision-making on bombing attacks when he served as a deputy to the slain Taliban chief, Mansoor.

READ MORE: Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Mansoor ‘killed in US strike’

“He is known for his ruthless role during the Taliban rule when he served as a judge in Kandahar. He maintained his position as a traditional mujahid [fighter] actively taking decisions in the past six months whenever Mullah Mansoor was not available,” Akbar Agha, a former leader of a Taliban’s breakaway faction, told Al Jazeera. 

“He will help run the Taliban movement exactly the way Mullah Omar did because of his traditional mujahideen mindset.”

Mansoor’s appointment was disputed, with reports at the time of rifts within the leadership emerging.

Violent clashes were reported between two rival Taliban groups in southern Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen fighters on both sides. 

Agha believes Mullah Yaqub, the elder son of Mullah Omar and now promoted as one of two deputies of Akhunzada, will play a major role in unifying the group. 

“The Taliban have utmost respect for their former leader Mullah Omar, so having Mullah Yaqub as one of the deputies to Akhunzada will prove to be very beneficial for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan,” Agha said.

Within the Taliban, Akhunzada has the reputation of being very “conservative” and “does not like taking pictures”, Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan expert who has met both Mansoor and Akhunzada several times, said.

“He does not even know how to use a mobile phone. He is known to be very narrow minded and has the attitude of a typical tribal man,” Yousafzai told Al Jazeera.

“Akhunzada’s background is mysterious and his habits are secretive. He does not like to appear in public, just like Mullah Omar.  

“Most Taliban are scared of him because of his role as a judge in the past. They say Akhanzada decreed that anyone who challenged or did not endorse Mullah Mansoor’s ‘leadership of the faithful’ should be executed.”

‘No hope for peace talks’

A former Taliban diplomat based in Afghanistan, who was involved in the round of talks brokered by Pakistan between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Murree last year, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, that hopes of peace talks are now slim.

“Mullah Mansoor got killed by US drone strikes, so instead of talking about peace, they are planning Mullah Mansoor’s revenge,” the source said. 

READ MORE: ‘Serious steps’ against Taliban on Afghan talks agenda

“There are no chances at the moment for peace talks and I don’t think there will be in the near future. Akhunzada was very close to Mullah Mansoor, and they took decisions unanimously. So if Mansoor was not willing to take part in peace talks, there are slim chances of Akhunzada moving forward.

“However, having said that, Mullah Mansoor travelled to Pakistan quite frequently and was killed there as well, which means Pakistan might have some leverage over his successor to persuade him to take part in peace talks.”

Mansoor’s death may increase infighting within Taliban

Agha, the former Taliban official, believes Akhunzada will only take part in peace talks if the group’s conditions are met. 

“They are not against peace, but are more against how their conditions are not being met, which is to impose Islamic law and to drive foreign forces out of the country,” he told Al Jazeera. 

Soon after Akhunzada was appointed, the Afghan president’s spokesman, Sayed Zafar Hashemi, said on Twitter that the Taliban have an opportunity to end violence or they will face the fate of Mansoor.

According to the United Nations, 2015 was Afghanistan’s deadliest year since the 2001 invasion by US forces, with more than 11,000 civilians killed and wounded. One in four of these casualties was a child, and one out of 10 was a woman.

An estimated 59,000 civilian casualties have been recorded since the UN began tracking the total in 2009.

Yousafzai said there is little hope that the bloodshed will end.

“The Taliban are unlikely to decrease their attacks in Afghanistan in the coming years, to prove that they are not weak despite the death of their leaders, Omar and Mansoor.”

Source: Al Jazeera