A former anti-Soviet fighter, al Qaeda ally, and proud father of a suicide bomber known as the “Commander of the Faithful” is poised to take on a significant role as the Taliban form their Afghan government.
Hibatullah Akhundzada is considered the “emir” of Afghanistan by the Taliban. He was part of the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s, helped lead Afghanistan’s Sharia courts in the 1990s, and current al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri reportedly swore allegiance to him as the “Emir of the Believers” in 2016.
Akhundzada took the reins in 2016 after Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Mansour, in turn, had taken over the group following Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death sometime in 2013. Mansour reportedly named Akhundzada as his successor in his will, though it is possible this was just a Taliban effort to shore up support for his leadership.
The Long War Journal noted that al Qaeda’s media arm, As Sahab, released a statement this week lauding the Taliban’s victory and praising the Taliban’s three “emirs” since it was founded — Omar, Mansour, and Akhundzada.
Al Qaeda said, “On this historic occasion, we would like to offer our congratulations to the leadership of the Islamic Emirate, specifically Haibatullah Akhundzada. May Allah accept your martyrs – the men, women, and children who offered sacrifices in this path!”
On Friday, the Taliban released a film that “celebrated the Taliban’s ‘martyrdom-seeking’ squadrons — that is, the units responsible for conducting complex suicide attacks.” The outlet said the film commemorated the Taliban victory over the United States and also blamed the U.S. for the attacks of 9/11, saying the terrorist plot was “the result of the United States’s policy of aggression against the Muslim world.”
The video also shows Taliban suicide units marching and parading around and ends with a message from Akhundzada, who says: “After withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country, we want good and strong diplomatic, economic, and political relations with the rest of the world, including United States, within the framework of mutual interaction and commitment, which is better for all sides.”
Amanullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, said this week that the group was finalizing its government, and there is “no doubt about the presence of the Commander of the Faithful (Akhundzada) in the government. He will be the leader of the government, and there should be no question on this.”
Other senior figures likely to make up the new Afghan government include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, and Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, was freed from Pakistan in 2018 and is the most prominent of thousands of Taliban prisoners freed at America’s request in its efforts to promote failed peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. A co-founder of the Taliban, he is seen as another option as the top leader for the country.
Yaqoob is the oldest son of Omar and is currently a deputy leader in the Taliban and serves as their military chief. He helped run the Taliban’s massive and successful insurgency against the Afghan government.
Haqqani, the “deputy emir” of the Taliban, also “currently leads the day-to-day activities of the Haqqani Network,” according to the State Department. Sirajuddin has been designated a terrorist by the U.S., and the State Department’s Reward for Justice program has offered $10 million for his arrest.
Yaqoob and Haqqani had been seen as possible rivals to Akhundzada for the Taliban top spot in 2016, but Akhundzada appears to have asserted his control since then.
Akhundzada was born in Kandahar in 1961, and during the 1990s, was reportedly tasked with fighting crime in a western Afghan province after the Taliban seized it. He was reportedly part of the Taliban’s notorious “vice and virtue” police and also went on to be a teacher at Mullah Omar’s Jihadi Madrasa, which was attended by thousands of students.
He was promoted to the Taliban’s military court in Kandahar before going on to lead the Taliban military court in an eastern Afghan province. Eventually, Akhundzada led the Taliban’s military court countrywide and was a key leader in the Taliban’s supreme court too.
After 9/11 and the U.S. invasion in late 2001, Akhundzada worked as the leader of the Taliban’s religious council and is well known for issuing dozens of religious rulings, known as “fatwas.” Much of the Taliban’s leadership was based in Quetta, Pakistan, during the nearly two-decade insurgency against the U.S. and its allies, and Akhundzada maintained close ties there.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid talked about Akhundzada in late August, saying: “He is present in Kandahar. He has been living there from the very beginning.” A deputy Taliban spokesman promised that Akhundzada “will soon appear in public.”
The Taliban has repeatedly touted the fact that one of Akhundzada’s sons, 23-year-old Abdur Rahman, apparently died conducting a suicide car bombing attack in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in July 2017, blowing himself up at an Afghan military base. A senior Taliban leader close to Akhundzada reportedly said at the time, “Before this, a number of close relatives and family members of previous supreme leaders had conducted suicide bombings, but Sheikh Haibatullah has become the first supreme leader whose son sacrificed his life.”
Sediq Sediqqi, then the director of the Afghan government’s information center, claimed at the time that the Taliban were lying, saying: “They lied — it’s part of propaganda. The Taliban leaders and their families are living in luxury in Pakistan and Qatar, and they incite others to kill Afghans in the name of jihad.”
Akhundzada reportedly said in June 2019 that the Taliban’s “rightful jihad and resistance against the occupation is nearing the stage of success.” He said in August 2018 that “the arrogant American generals have been compelled to bow to the [Jihadi] greatness of the Afghan nation.”