Afghanistan’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada appeared for only the second time since taking control of the Taliban in 2016 to tell worshippers celebrating Eid al-Fitr that the Taliban had achieved freedom and security since seizing power last year.
Flanked by security, Akhunzada spoke days after a powerful explosion ripped through a mosque in Kabul, killing more than 50 worshippers after Friday prayers – the latest of a series of attacks on civilian targets in Afghanistan during Ramadan.
“Congratulations on victory, freedom and success,” Akhunzada told thousands of worshippers on Saturday at the Eidgah mosque in the southern city of Kandahar, the group’s de facto power centre. “Congratulations on this security and for the Islamic system.”
While the number of bombings across the country has dropped since Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, attacks soared over the final two weeks of Ramadan, which ended on Saturday for Afghans.
Dozens of civilians have been killed in the primarily sectarian attacks – some claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) armed group – targeting members of the Shia and Sufi Muslim communities.
Akhunzada delivered his brief address from one of the front rows of worshippers in Kandahar without turning to face the crowd, according to social media posts. Taliban officials did not allow journalists to approach him. Two helicopters hovered over the mosque for the two-hour event.
In October, he had visited the Darul Uloom Hakimiah mosque in Kandahar, according to an audio recording circulated by Taliban social media accounts.
On Sunday, many Afghans stayed indoors after the recent deadly attacks.
“The situation of our people is very sad, especially after what happened in the mosques,” Kabul resident Ahmad Shah Hashemi said. “Many young and old people have been martyred. The people of Afghanistan have nothing but sorrow.”
Akhunzada’s low profile has fed speculation about his role in the new Taliban government – formed after the armed group took control of Kabul on August 15 – and even rumours of his death.
Akhunzada, believed to be in his 70s, has been the spiritual leader of the Taliban since 2016. He succeeded Mullah Akhtar Mansoor who was killed in a US drone strike inside Pakistan.
His public profile has largely been limited to the release of messages during Islamic holidays, and Akhunzada is believed to spend most of his time in Kandahar.
On Friday, in a message released before Eid al-Fitr, he made no mention of the bloodshed that has rocked Afghanistan over Ramadan, instead praising the Taliban’s building of “a strong Islamic and national army” and “strong intelligence organisation”.
He also called on the international community to recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban-led government is yet to be recognised by any country since it returned to power last August, 20 years after it was toppled in a US-led invasion.