Who Is Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada?

The Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada likes to stay out of the limelight and actively avoids media attention. What many don't know is that he has sent his own son to carry out a suicide attack, and has served as the Taliban's Chief Justice.

Who Is Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada?

The current Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who by most accounts is in his mid to late fifties, has received little media attention relative to what someone of his stature and position deserves.

Like most Taliban leaders, Hibatullah—a Noorzai Durrani—comes from a humble background. Hibatullah is from the Qandahar province’s Panjwayee district, from a village named Safedrawan, where his father, Mulla Mohammad Akhundzada, was the imam (prayer leader) at the Pai-e-Malook mosque. Although Hibatullah’s father was a patient and respected gentleman, the family had a low social status, to the point where they would not be invited to local jirgas (gatherings).

According to Safedrawan’s village elders, Hibatullah’s family had no interest in politics, or were rather kept at arm’s length from politics by village elders who had a higher social status, until they migrated to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is very probable that Hibatullah and his family felt neglected, and even disrespected, by those who had a higher social status. No wonder Hibatullah has shown no interest in jirgas. He does not even mention the word jirga. Instead, he uses ghwanda (meeting in Pashto) to refer to gatherings.

As a young man in his twenties, Hibatullah took part in the jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. To be able to receive weapons, all Afghan Mujahedin were required to enlist with one of the Peshawar-based seven Mujahedin organizations. Hibatullah joined Mawlawi Younus Khalis’s Hizb-e-Islami. On the battlefield, under Mulla Hasan Akhund’s command, Hibatullah fought alongside former Taliban leader Mulla Akhtar Mansur. Their friendship would survive the test of time, and years later, all three would occupy important positions within the Taliban. 

Head of the Taliban’s Military Courts 

Despite his battlefield experience, Hibatullah managed to complete his religious studies in Pakistan. He’s one of the few senior Taliban leaders who has such an achievement under his belt. During the Taliban’s first rule, after a minor assignment in Farah province, Hibatullah became head of the Taliban’s military courts. As such, Hibatullah remained an unknown figure. Very few people probably would have heard of his existence in the 1990s. Hibatullah was neither a well-known fighter, and intellectually too, he failed to impress by not producing or translating any significant work on Islam.

The Taliban’s Chief Justice

After the US toppled the Taliban government in 2001, Hibatullah once again found refuge in Pakistan. For about 15 years between 2001 and either 2015 or 2016, Hibatullah used to live openly on the outskirts of Quetta in Kuchlak, Balochistan. During these 15 years, Hibatullah had a dual public-private assignment: first, he worked as head of the Taliban’s religious scholars’ council and then chief justice; second, he taught at a madrasa named Khair-ul-Madaris, adjacent to Al-Haj mosque in Kuchlak.

Hibatullah became the first Taliban leader whose son, Abdur Rahman, 23, carried out a suicide attack in July 2017 in Gereshk, Helmand.

At Khair-ul-Madaris, Hibatullah used to teach from 8 am to noon. His monthly salary was Rs. 10,000. During his stay in Kuchlak, Hibatullah was known as the Akhundzada of Kuchlak. As the Akhundzada of Kuchlak, Hibatullah used to address graduation ceremonies of various madrasas in the Quetta-Kuchlak area. It was an opportunity for Hibatullah to polish his public speaking skills. This is likely the reason he is renowned as an impressive orator.

Given that Hibatullah also worked as head of the Taliban’s religious scholar’s council and chief justice from 2001 to 2015, one could guess if he taught from 8 am to noon, he used to dedicate his afternoons to looking after judicial matters. As chief justice, Hibatullah would have been responsible for all Taliban civil and military matters that reached his attention. More than anything else, as chief justice, Hibatullah was responsible for permitting the use of suicide bombings by the Taliban, a costly and religiously and morally controversial decision with no roots in Afghan society or culture.

In 2015, when the Afghan intelligence leaked news of Mulla Omar’s death, the Taliban announced Mulla Akhtar Mansur, a former Taliban Aviation Minister, as their new leader. Mulla Mansur picked Hibatullah, an old friend from the 1980s, as one of his dputies. It was around this time that, according to the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, Hibatullah left the Al-Haj mosque complex in Kuchlak. The Al-Haj mosque custodian, Hafiz Abdul Majeed, however, stated that Hibatullah left the Al-Haj mosque complex just two days before becoming the Taliban leader in 2016. A failed assassination attempt in 2012 notwithstanding, it is mind-boggling how Hibatullah’s presence in Kuchlak missed the continued attention of US and Afghan intelligence for one and half decades.

Leading the insurgency

After the US killed Mulla Mansur in a drone strike in May 2016 in Balochistan, the Taliban leadership council selected Mulla Mansur’s deputy Hibatullah as their new leader. The Taliban selected Hibatullah as a compromise to keep the movement united during the war. The other two choices for leadership included Sirajuddin Haqqani—a Khosti and a non-Qandahari, hence a non-starter—and Mulla Omar’s son Mulla Yaqoob (in his twenties still), who backed out of the race and instead proposed Hibatullah’s name.

As the new Taliban leader, Hibatullah had multiple urgent assignments: first, preserving the unity and integrity of the movement; second, injecting morale and motivation into the movement, especially after it lost two leaders in quick succession; third, maintaining the initiative on the battlefield, and keeping NATO and Afghan troops on the backfoot. With the benefit of hindsight, one could argue that Hibatullah managed to achieve all of the above, but at a considerable cost in blood to Afghans, including his own family.

Hibatullah became the first Taliban leader whose son, Abdur Rahman, 23, carried out a suicide attack in July 2017 in Gereshk, Helmand. Prior to this event, some anti-Taliban figures such as the jihadi leader Abdur Rab Rasool Sayyaf had criticized the Taliban for making others, not their own family members, carry out suicide attacks. Hibatullah’s son’s suicide attack brought that debate to a close.

The year 2017 (up to that point) was the deadliest and most violent year of America’s war in Afghanistan. That year, the US dropped around 4,000 bombs–including the Mother of All Bombs–on Afghanistan. In response, the Taliban ramped their violent campaign through suicide and IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks on military and civilian targets. 

In the midst of raging violence in September 2017, Afghan media reported that Hibatullah had traveled unhurt to Musa Qala, Helmand. Hibatullah’s trip had two objectives: first, to assess the battlefield situation and keep the Taliban in good spirits; second, to cement his military credentials as a true mujahid of Islam. Despite heavy US bombing, the Taliban retained the initiative on the ground. Realizing this, the US finally sat down for serious talks with the Taliban in 2018.

Hibatullah is of the view that Islamic and non-Islamic values are fundamentally irreconcilable, and as such the struggle between Islam and kufr (non-belief) would last until the end of time.

While the Taliban-US talks were underway in Doha, Qatar, in August 2019 a bomb blast in Kuchlak’s Al-Haj mosque targeted Hibatullah’s family. As a result, Hibatullah’s younger brother, Hafiz Ahmadullah was killed. Additionally, one of Hibatullah’s sons and two of his nephews were also reportedly wounded in the blast. The blast, however, failed to derail the Taliban-US talks. Both sides subsequently signed the Doha Agreement in February 2020, which paved the way for US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power.

Like Mulla Omar, Hibatullah has maintained a low-profile since becoming the Taliban leader—a sharp contrast from maintaining a high profile before assuming leadership. Hibatullah’s decision to keep a low profile might partly be influenced by Mulla Omar’s reclusive attitude and partly by Mulla Mansur’s fate. Mulla Mansur remained active and maintained a busy travel schedule (by Taliban standards) between Pakistan, Iran, and the UAE. His overt travels made him an easy target for a fatal US drone strike. 

Finally, at the helm of affairs

Qandahar, a conservative city with little female presence outdoors, suits Hibatullah’s conservatism and his penchant for a low-profile life. Since 2021, Hibatullah has maintained a reclusive presence in Qandahar, with occasional public appearances. When he appears in public, the Taliban make sure Hibatullah is not filmed or photographed by anyone. Such is the life of the man who purports to have defeated the mightiest military the world has ever seen. Despite his reclusiveness, Hibatullah has concentrated too much in his person, including making all the important decisions for and on behalf of the Taliban.

As Hibatullah himself has not written a pamphlet or treatise, for instance like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, to elucidate his worldview and how he wants to run Afghanistan, it is primarily through his public addresses that one could get peep into his worldview.

Hibatullah’s plan for Afghanistan’s future is simple: to enforce his version and interpretation of Sharia in Afghanistan at any cost, without any compromise with anyone inside or outside Afghanistan, no matter what. Like the rest of the Taliban, Hibatullah is a literalist, and rarely does he take into account the context and wisdom behind Quranic verses and Hadiths.

Hibatullah’s third public appearance on July 1, 2022, in Kabul, addressing a gathering of around 3,000 religious scholars from across Afghanistan, was by far his most important to date. He spoke for about an hour in Pashto and made some interesting statements, which the Taliban have not hesitated to translate into action.

Hibatullah made it unequivocally clear that the Taliban had fought a religious war against the US to pave the way for enforcing Sharia in Afghanistan. The Taliban would not compromise on enforcing Sharia with anyone, inside or outside Afghanistan. Hibatullah added that he would neither accept the world’s unsolicited “advice,” nor would he compromise on enforcing Sharia, even if the whole world used its entire nuclear arsenal against Afghanistan. Hibatullah lashed out at foreigners who offer unsolicited advice to the Taliban concerning how they should run Afghanistan. He asked foreigners: “Why are you interfering in my internal affairs? How are my country, my government, and my principles any of your business?

Hibatullah is of the view that Islamic and non-Islamic values are fundamentally irreconcilable, and as such the struggle between Islam and kufr (non-belief) would last until the end of time. He ordered Afghans to confront non-believers, and in so doing, be prepared for hardships. Hibatullah made sure everyone listening to him understood that the Taliban would not accept any of the outside world’s demands that displeased God Almighty. This could be a reference to allowing girls and women to study beyond grade six and work, respectively.

Hibatullah also shared the secret behind the smooth functioning of the government which, according to him, lied in enforcing Sharia. “Peace would come to the government through enforcing Sharia.” Thus, it was incumbent on everyone in the government to enforce Sharia on themselves, on their families, and eventually on their administration(s). Since lower ranking Taliban officials did not possess adequate knowledge of Sharia, Hibatullah stated that he would appoint religious scholars across the government (in courts, ministries, provinces, and districts) to make sure Sharia was enforced.  

Hibatullah is no fan of the media or receiving advice through or from the media. He has made it clear that if someone had any piece of advice for him, it should be offered in private. Public criticism, according to Hibatullah, led to (moral) corruption, and showed that the religious scholars and Taliban leaders were not united. Instead, religious scholars should preserve their unity and advice should be offered in private.

Hibatullah offered amnesty to all members of the former Afghan government. They were free to live in Afghanistan as private citizens, but they would not be put in charge of government affairs. He essentially poured cold water on any remaining hope of forming a broad-based power sharing coalition in Afghanistan. To Afghanistan’s neighbors, Hibatullah’s message was one of peaceful coexistence. He did emphasize though that the Taliban would not accept their neighbors’ “orders.”  

Finally, Hibatullah advised Afghans not to rely on foreign aid. “Non-believers are not going to make roads for Afghanistan.” Instead, Afghans themselves should rebuild their country through their own efforts. Hibatullah also stressed the need for creating a just society where justice would rule supreme. According to Hibatullah, a government would not last with oppression.

At a subsequent public appearance on April 21, 2023, at Qandahar’s Eidgah Mosque on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, Hibatullah elaborated that just like praying five times a day was compulsory on Muslims as an individual worship, Muslims were also required under the collective worship obligation to gain enough strength to establish an Islamic government that could enforce those commands of Islam (such as jihad and punishing criminals) which could not be enforced at an individual level.

In the months and years to come, Hibatullah will do his best to enforce his version of Sharia in Afghanistan. For now, given the necessity to maintain unity amongst the Taliban rank and file, there is virtually no resistance to Hibatullah.

Hibatullah did not just talk about an abstract Islamic government, he also elaborated on what his Islamic government would do. Hibatullah’s Islamic government would teach Islam to Afghans and enforce Islam, including collecting zakat, capturing thieves, doing jihad with non-believers, safeguarding Afghanistan’s borders, preventing interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, promoting virtue, preventing vice, and enforcing Hudood (crimes whose criminality and punishment both are prescribed in either the Quran or Hadith) and Qisas (retributive) punishments. It was discouraging to hear Hibatullah wanting to teach Islam to Afghans, who had fought since 1978 for Islam and lost all they had in the process.

In Hibatullah’s Afghanistan, there is no room for opposing a government’s decision or decree as long as it’s couched in religious terminology. Hibatullah, for instance, added that if the Taliban government issued a decree that was in line with the Quran, Hadith, and ijma (consensus of Muslim scholars), then it was incumbent upon Afghans to follow the decree. He maintained that following such a government decree was like following the command of God Almighty.

In his latest public appearance on June 28, 2023 during Eid-al-Adha prayer at Qandahar’s Eidgah Mosque, Hibatullah revealed that work had already begun on Afghanistan’s laws to make sure they conformed with Sharia. All ministries had been tasked to review all their relevant laws and ensure their compliance with Sharia. Soon, according to Hibatullah, Afghans would see verses from the Quran, Hadith, and aspects of the Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence) in their laws.

Hibatullah claimed that the world would put pressure on Afghans, including engaging in propaganda against it. He struck a defiant tone, ordering Afghans “Do not move back [from enforcing Sharia]. Move forward. Islamic teaches courage…not cowardice.” Hibatullah concluded by saying “If in our century Afghanistan can get an Islamic government, it will be a great success for us.”

In addition to his public speeches, Hibatullah’s decrees, orders, and instructions (DO&Is), which he has been issuing since mid-2016, are also worth mentioning briefly. Hibatullah has issued a total of 65 DO&I. In late May 2023, the Taliban’s Ministry of Justice published Hibatullah’s DO&Is in one volume in the country’s Official Gazette.

Hibatullah’s DO&Is are followed with strict compliance by Taliban officials. The DO&Is cover a wide range of topics from prescription on haircuts to the Taliban, to not torturing prisoners, to aspects of women’s rights such as not forcibly getting them married, to preventing drug addiction and narcotics, to preventing the illegal usurpation of land, and to setting up and dismantling government departments.

Currently, these DO&Is are the supreme laws of Afghanistan. If there’s a contradiction between Hibatullah’s DO&Is and Afghanistan’s laws, the former will prevail. The length of each DO&I differs, ranging from one paragraph to a couple of pages. They’re written in plain language and are easy to follow.  

An uncertain future

Hibatullah was a 12- or 13-year-old young boy when Afghanistan descended into chaos in 1978. He has since spent most of life being involved in the conflict in one role or another. During the course of the conflict, Hibatullah has lost his closest family members, including a young son and a brother. Thus, the Afghan conflict has a deeply personal dimension for Hibatullah. He views the Taliban victory over the US as the hard work of his family and followers who sacrificed themselves for the cause of Islam.

Hibatullah may have noble intentions for Islam and Afghanistan, after all one does not sacrifice one’s 23-year-old son in a suicide attack for ulterior motives. That said, the means he has adopted, such as ruling by decree, not allowing any criticism of the government and especially of his person in the media, enforcing a draconian ban on female education beyond sixth grade, and severe restrictions on women’s employment, to lead Afghanistan to success and prosperity are completely misguided and untimely. Hibatullah seems completely out of touch with the modern world and its demands.

Hibatullah believes the Taliban’s time in power is a test from God Almighty. The Taliban can only emerge victorious from this test if they enforce their version of Sharia in Afghanistan. If the Taliban fail to do so, especially because of a compromise with elements outside Afghanistan, the Taliban will be responsible for their failure before God. Additionally, by failing to enforce Sharia, the Taliban will betray the wishes of their deceased colleagues and followers who made ultimate sacrifices.

In the months and years to come, Hibatullah will do his best to enforce his version of Sharia in Afghanistan. For now, given the necessity to maintain unity amongst the Taliban rank and file, there is virtually no resistance to Hibatullah. Anyone trying to stand up to him can easily be sidelined. Reports of rifts amongst the Taliban are exaggerated by the media. As of this writing, Hibatullah is the undisputed leader of the Taliban, who follow his orders unquestionably.  

No sensible Afghan is opposed to Islam. Those with adequate knowledge of Islam and Islamic history acknowledge the need for interpreting Quranic verses and Hadiths in their context. Thus, Islam has left the door of ijtihad (the derivation of instruction and guidance from the Quran and Hadiths) open. Afghanistan’s laws, including its Civil Code, which has more than 2400 articles, are rooted in Islamic jurisprudence. It is a fact many Taliban, including Hibatullah, do not seem to be aware of.

Arwin Rahi is a former advisor to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.