Updated on May 25 at 9:23 a.m. ET
The Taliban’s new leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is being described as a “hardline religious scholar” who issues most of the group’s fatwas, as well as “well-educated and respected,” with at least one regional expert saying his appointment “will not fully appease all factions within the Taliban.”
The Taliban announced Tuesday that Akhundzada was replacing Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed Saturday in a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan. It is the first time the Taliban has acknowledged Mansour’s death. The organization also announced that Sirajuddin Haqqani and Muhammad Yaqoub would serve as Akhundzada’s deputies. Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, is viewed as a hard-line member of the group who is opposed to peace talks with the Afghan government. Yaqoub is the son of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the late Taliban leader who Mansour officially replaced last year. Both were tipped to replace Mansour.
Sayed Mohammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, tells CNN Akhundzada is from Panjwai district in Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban.
While he was involved in the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, Agha says the new leader is unlikely to have participated in frontline military activities. He is principally known as a religious teacher and scholar among the Taliban.
He did judicial work between 1996 and 2001, during the Taliban's ruling period in Afghanistan, and following the group's fall from power in late 2001 he worked as Taliban Chief Justice, according to Agha who lives in Kabul and says he knows the new leader.
Akhundzada served as Mansour’s deputy and, according to Agence France-Presse, the Taliban leader who was killed last Saturday named him his successor. Estimates of his age range from 47, according to the Taliban, to about 55, according to various news organizations. He has lived mostly inside Afghanistan and joined the Taliban soon after the group emerged following the Soviet withdrawal. The BBC adds:
When the Taliban captured Afghanistan's western Farah province, he was put in charge of fighting crime in the area.
Later, Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed to the Taliban's military court in Kandahar and then as head of its military court in eastern Nangarhar province.
As the Taliban consolidated its grip on power in Afghanistan, he became head of the group's military court and deputy head of its supreme court.
When the Taliban were toppled by the US-led coalition in 2001, he became head of the group's council of religious scholars.
Writing in the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio says the new leader may unify the Taliban, which was riven by factionalism under Mansour’s leadership, but he is unlikely to alter its position on opposing talks with the Afghan government.
Akhundzada “is considered to be widely respected within the Taliban, and his previous position as top sharia official has given him the religious and legal credentials to lead the group,” Roggio writes.
Mansour was officially named the Taliban’s leader last year after the group acknowledged that Omar had been dead for a number of years. Although Mansour had already been leading the militant organization, his official appointment caused several members to join other militant groups, and one of them, Mullah Rasul, began a breakaway branch of the Taliban.
“But with Mullah Yaqoub and Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, a brother of Mullah Omar, returning to the fold and being given senior positions with the group two months ago,” Rogggio writes, “there are indications that the rift with the Rasul faction may be mending.”