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Taliban Shura chooses Haibatullah Akhunzada as new leader

May 26, 2016

Confirms killing of Mulla Mansour in Saturday’s US drone attack in Balochistan

PESHAWAR: After five days of silence over the killing of their leader, the Afghan Taliban on Wednesday finally confirmed that their supreme leader Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in Saturday’s US drone attack in Balochistan. They also elevated an elderly cleric, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada, as their new leader. Akhunzada was a deputy to Mulla Mansour.

“With a heavy heart, but full belief in Allah’s will, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces that the leader of the Islamic Emirate [Commander of the Faithful] Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was martyred in an American invader and evil forces’ drone strike on Saturday,” the Taliban said in a statement.

They also called on Muslims to mourn Mansour’s death for three days. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said they knew their ameer was killed in the strike, but the Taliban leadership chose to keep quiet till his successor was appointed.

Haibatullah Akhundzada had served as a judge during the Taliban regime. After the group was routed by the US  invasion in 2001, he was made shadow chief justice of Taliban judicial system. Akhundzada, who Taliban sources say is in his 60s, is known as a hardliner and has issued religious edicts or fatwas justifying attacks against US troops in Afghanistan.

A senior Taliban source, who spoke to The News on condition of anonymity, said Akhundzada's hard-line views, including his opposition to peace talks with the Afghan government and the US, were popular among the militants.

"We are very happy to have Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada as the new ameer. It seems we have Mulla Mohammad Omar back on the seat as he is similar to him in his policies. He is the true follower of Islam and never compromises on principles. He is as rigid as Mulla Omar used to be," said a senior Taliban member close to Akhunzada.

He said that like their slain leader Mulla Mansour, Akhunzada is against peace talks with the US and Afghan government and believes in jihad. Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Balochistan's Naushki district, 70 kilometres from the Afghan border.

On Tuesday, the federal interior minister became the first public official in the country to speak out against the attack. "Americans have sabotaged the peace process," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said at a press conference in Islamabad.

Taliban spokesman said all senior commanders and members of the Rahbari Shura (leadership council) gathered in Afghanistan and unanimously chose the new ameer. "They discussed different senior Taliban figures to choose one among them as the new ameer," Zabihullah Mujahid said. He said that after consultations, all the Shura members and commanders unanimously chose Akhunzada as successor to Mulla Mansour.

The Taliban spokesman said Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mulla Mohammad Yaqoob, Mulla Omar's eldest son, were appointed as deputies of Akhundzada. Haqqani was also deputy to Mulla Mansour. The United Stated has placed $10 million bounty on his head. Mulla Yaqoob, stated to be 26-year old, was earlier made head of Taliban military commission for 15 provinces in Afghanistan.

The Taliban spokesman said all the shura members pledged allegiance to Akhundzada in a safe place in Afghanistan. According to sources, some of the Shura members personally attended the meeting while others sent their representatives. Some Taliban leaders communicated their views via Skype and WhatsApp due to security constraints.

Senior Taliban members said the Shura first chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as the new ameer. However, they said, after Sirajuddin Haqqani politely refused to become the ameer, the Shura then decided to appoint Mulla Yaqoob as successor to Mulla Mansour.

"However, like Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mulla Yaqoob also politely declined to accept the offer and said he is too young and inexperienced to handle this huge responsibility. Mulla Yaqoob, Sirajuddin Haqqani and all other members then suggested that Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada should be given the responsibility as he is the senior most, and is an experienced man and religious scholar," said one member of the Shura.

According to Taliban sources, Akhunzada, son of Maulvi Abdul Sattar Akhundzada, was a close aide of Mulla Omar, but he was not among those Taliban figures who initially had picked up arms and joined Mulla Omar when he launched his armed movement in 1994 in Kandahar province of Afghanistan.

He was born in Kandahar, where the Afghan Taliban emerged initially, and belongs to the famous Noorzai Pashtun tribe and originally from Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province.

Haibatullah Akhundzada has spent most of his life in Kandahar city. He received religious education in different madrassas across Afghanistan. He taught Islamic studies in different madrassas in Afghanistan and in the Afghan refugee camps in the Pakistan.

He is known as an expert of Sharia and a smart Islamic scholar with good jihadi and leadership experiences. During the Afghan jihad against Soviet forces, he was associated with Maulvi Younas Khalis along with Akhtar Mansour under the command of the Taliban government's deputy head Mulla Mohammad Hassan Akhund.

The Taliban sources said that like Mulla Omar, Akhunzada is also opposed to taking pictures. When Akhundzada was appointed Mansour's deputy last year, he ran a large madrasa in Kuchlak town outside Quetta in Balochistan.

Many top Taliban leaders, including Mansour and Yaqoob, reportedly studied in the same madrassa and remained students of Akhunzada, sources within the group said. For its part, the Afghan government has said Mansour was an obstacle to the peace process, which stopped when he refused to participate in talks earlier this year.

Mansour's killing presented the Taliban with its second leadership crisis since July 2015 when the group revealed that Mulla Omar had died two years earlier in 2013 but had kept it a secret.

 

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