Haibatullah Akhunzada, Taliban leader.jpg
Photograph: EPA/AFGHAN TALIBAN

Taliban new leader Haibatullah Akhundzada is a veteran of the movement, but has very little battlefield experience like his two predecessors.

A cleric from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, Akhundzada’s role was limited to dealing with religious and legal issues during the late 1990s Taliban regime.

He issued religious decrees to justify Taliban actions against fellow Afghans, before the US invaded the country following the airplane attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington DC in 2001.

“He was never someone very prominent,” a Taliban source said. “He was one of many clerics in Kandahar who helped the Taliban rise.”

It was only a few years after the movement took over most of Afghanistan that Akhundzada got close to founder Mullah Omar and was made the chief justice.

“He has been extremely hardline,” said the former Taliban official. “He was a hardliner even by their standards.”

Regarded as an expert on the conduct of Muslim Prophet Mohammad, Akhundzada follows a strict interpretation of Islam that is followed in most parts of the Wahabi Arab world.

“That is where the danger is: that he can take the movement closer to the ideology of Islamic State militant group,” the source said.

Akhundzada was a driving force behind a Taliban decision to blow up centuries-old Buddha statues in the province of Bamiyan during their regime.

Said to be around 50 years old, the cleric moved to the south-western Pakistan after US troops ousted the regime in Afghanistan in 2001.

He is thought to have good relations with the main Pakistani spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence, which is a key attribute to lead the Afghan Taliban.

Taliban sources said Akhundzada was a “compromise” choice due to the respect he commands as an Islamic cleric.

But his role could be ceremonial in the presence of two powerful deputies – Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of Haqqani network and Mullah Yakoub, son of Mullah Omar – whose command of troops gives them a great deal of power within the organization. 

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