Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada is the leader of the Afghan Taliban, an armed militant group that was the former government of Afghanistan.
He is a religious scholar, reportedly the issuer of the majority of the Taliban’s fatwas, and was the head of the Taliban’s Islamic courts. Unlike many Taliban leaders, Akhundzada is believed to have remained in the country during the War in Afghanistan. He became the leader of the militant group in May 2016 following the death of the previous leader, Akhtar Mansour, in a drone strike. The Taliban also bestowed upon Akhundzada the title Emir-al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful) that his two predecessors had carried.
Akhundzada was born in 1961 in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province in the Kingdom of Afghanistan. A Pashtun, he belongs to the Noorzai clan or tribe. His first name, Hibatullah—which is more commonly used as a girl’s name—means “gift from Allah” in Arabic. His father was a village imam. Not owning any land or orchards of their own, the family depended on what the congregation paid the imam (Akhundzada’s father) in cash or a portion of their crops. Akhundzada studied under his father. The family migrated to Quetta after the Soviet invasion and Akhundzada continued his education at one of the first seminaries established in the Sarnan neighborhood.
When the Afghan Taliban captured the capital Kabul in 1996, one of Akhundzada’s first jobs was in Farah Province as a member of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice police. He later moved to Kandahar and was made an instructor at the Jihadi Madrasa, the seminary of about 10,000 students that Mullah Omar personally looked after.
Mawlawi Akhundzada was later appointed as Chief Justice of the Shariah Courts of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Rather than a warlord or military commander, he has a reputation as a religious leader who was responsible for issuing most of the Taliban’s fatwas and settling religious issues among members of the Taliban. Both Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour are known to have consulted Akhundzada on matters of fatwa. Unlike his predecessors who were educated in Pakistan—and who were also believed to have moved permanently east across the Durand Line after the U.S. invasion in 2001 and during the resulting war—Akhundzada is believed to have lived in Afghanistan throughout the 2001–2016 period with no travel record, though he has close ties with the Quetta-based Taliban Shura.
After his promotion to deputy leader of the Taliban in 2015, Akhundzada put in place a system under which a commission would be formed under the shadow governor in every province that could investigate abusive commanders or fighters, according to Mullah Abdul Bari, a Taliban commander in Helmand.
According to Mullah Ibrahim, a student of Akhundzada who was interviewed by The New York Times, Akhundzada was the subject of an attempted assassination in Quetta which the Taliban blamed on the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency. “During one of his lectures in Quetta one day about four years ago, a man stood among the students and pointed a pistol at Mawlawi Akhundzada from a close range, but the pistol stuck,” Mullah Ibrahim recalled. “He was trying to shoot him, but he failed, and the Taliban rushed to tackle” the man, he said, adding that Mawlawi Akhundzada did not move in the chaos.”
Because the reported assassination attempt occurred in Quetta, it contradicts reports that Akhundzada did not travel outside of Afghanistan after September 2001.
Akhundzada was appointed as the Taliban supreme commander on 25 May 2016 as the replacement for Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Mansour and a second militant were killed when munitions fired from a drone hit the vehicle in which they were riding from Iran to Pakistan. The strike was approved by U.S. President Barack Obama. Akhundzada was previously a deputy for Mansour. According to sources from the Taliban, Mansour had already named Akhundzada as his successor in his will.
A Taliban spokesman said that Sirajuddin Haqqani was named first deputy and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, was named second deputy. Mawlawi Akhundzada leads a number of madrassas, or religious schools, in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province.
Analysts believe that there were differences among Taliban ranks on who should be appointed the new chief. The suggested names were Mullah Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the latter being the most prominent member linked with the Haqqani Network. Akundzada, however, has sustained a neutral identity among the Taliban rank and file. To avoid conflict upon choosing Akhundzada as chief, the Taliban agreed that Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani will both work as his deputies.
Mullahs Abdul Razaq Akhund and Abdul Sata Akhund pledged their support to Emir Akhundzada in December 2016.
Yousef Ahmadi, one of the Taliban’s main spokesmen, stated on 20 July 2017 that Akhundzada’s son Abdur Rahman was killed while carrying out a suicide attack on an Afghan military base in Gereshk in Helmand Province.