On October 30, two months after a Taliban spokesman assured Akhundzade that Akhundzade was in good health in Kandahar, rumors emerged that the “emir” had made a speech at a madrasah (Koranic school) in this southern city from the country.
The intention of the Taliban leaders was to prove the authenticity of his appearance, and for this they released an audio recording of over 10 minutes of his speech.
“May God reward the oppressed people of Afghanistan, who have fought against infidels and oppressors for 20 years,” says an elderly voice, allegedly from Akhundzade. His public profile was previously limited to annual written communications during Islamic holidays.
In one of the poorest parts of Kandahar, between a drainage ditch and a dusty road, two Taliban fighters guard the blue and white door of the Hakimiya madrasah. The site has been attracting crowds of viewers and Taliban supporters since October 30.
When the supreme leader visited us, he was “armed” and accompanied by “three guards,” Madrassah security chief Masum Shakrullah told AFP. “Even telephones or tape recorders were not allowed inside the complex,” he added. “We all looked at him and cried,” recalls Mohammed, one of the 19-year-old students.
When asked if he could confirm that it was Akhundzada, Mohammed noted that he and his comrades were so moved that “they forgot to look … in his face.”
The need for Taliban leaders to remain in the shadows has increased over the last decade of the war as deadly American drone attacks have increased. AFP has tried to track the leader’s whereabouts, but the results are inconclusive.
Akhundzade took over command of the movement after his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, was killed in a bomb blast in 2016. The new leader quickly enlisted the support of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who called him “the emir of the believers.”
The support of Osama bin Laden’s heir has provided him with credibility with former Taliban allies.
The Islamic Movement published a photo of Akhundzade only five years ago, when he became its leader. And this image, in which he appears with a gray beard, a white turban and a defiant gaze, was taken two decades ago, according to the Taliban.
His appearance helped dispel “rumors and propaganda” about his death, said Maulvi Said Ahmad, head of the Kandahar madrasah. Mohammed Musa, 13, who watched her from afar, said she looked “exactly”.
Afghan government leaders have been defeated, and many Western analysts are skeptical that the leader died years ago. For them, visiting the madrasah was a carefully organized farce.
This would not be new. For two years, the Taliban pretended that their founder, Mullah Omar, was alive after his death in 2013. Akhundzada “has long been dead and did not take part in the capture of Kabul,” a former government security official told AFP. …
According to the source, he died with his brother in a terrorist attack in Quetta, Pakistan “about three years ago.” This theory, with some variations, is considered credible by many foreign intelligence agencies.
Another source in the region’s security forces assures AFP that “no one will confirm or deny” the alleged death of the Taliban supreme leader. The Pentagon and CIA did not respond to AFP inquiries about this.
In Panjway, an area located on a vast and arid plateau near Kandahar, everyone knows Akhundzadas, a line of respected theologians. Emir was born in the city of Spervan.
“During the Soviet invasion (1979), there was fighting in the city and Khibatullah left for Pakistan,” Niamatullah, a young guerrilla and former student of the leader, told AFP.
After his first move to Pakistan, Akhundzade became a respected scholar and received the title of Sheikh al-Islam, the title of which is awarded to the most prominent scholars of the Koran.
In the early 1990s, when Islamic rebels repelled the Soviet occupation, Akhundzade, in his 30s, returned home, consulting with guests “from the city and Pakistan,” recalls 65-year-old resident Abdul Qayum.
According to his official biography, his growth has been rapid since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996. Akhundzada ran a local madrasah, worked as a judge in the provincial court of Kandahar, and then headed a military court in Nangarhar (eastern Afghanistan) until 2000.
When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, he headed a military tribunal in Kabul. Akhundzada fled to Pakistan, taking refuge in Quetta. His knowledge of Islamic law has made him the head of the judiciary in the shadow of the Taliban and the recognized mentor of a generation of guerrillas trained in Quetta.
Akhundzada was “the center of gravity for the Taliban … keeping the group intact,” a member of the group in Pakistan told AFP. According to this source, who claims to have met with the supreme leader three times – most recently in 2020 – Akhundzade does not use modern technology.
He prefers to make landline calls and communicate through letters with the Taliban leaders who make up the government and with whom he maintains a fluid dialogue.
Also according to this Taliban in Pakistan, the leader authorized the latest offensive against the former regime and monitored operations in Kandahar, where he will operate unnoticed for several months.
The continued threat of death even after the end of the war with the United States explains his prudence, several Taliban sources say. And if he was dead, a regional source points out that concerns about the local branch of the Islamic State extremist group EI-K would explain why the Taliban are covering up his death.
“If they announce that Akhundzada is gone and that they are looking for a new emir, it will divide the Taliban and the EI-K will take advantage of it,” he says. However, the radical group rejects all assumptions. The emir is “going the old-fashioned way,” his spokesman told AFP. “He doesn’t have to ‘appear in public.’