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Taliban supreme leader makes first public appearance since 2016

Reclusive Akhundzada addresses his ‘brave soldiers and disciples’ at Kandahar madrassa; no photos or video of event, but audio recording shared on social media

In this undated and unknown location photo, the new leader of Taliban fighters, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada poses for a portrait. (Afghan Islamic Press via AP)
In this undated and unknown location photo, the new leader of Taliban fighters, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada poses for a portrait. (Afghan Islamic Press via AP)

KABUL — Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada addressed supporters in the southern city of Kandahar, officials announced Sunday, his first public appearance since taking control of the group in 2016.

Akhundzada has been the spiritual chief of the Islamist movement since 2016 but has remained a reclusive figure, even after his group seized power in Afghanistan in August.

His low profile has fed speculation about his role in the new Taliban government — and even rumors of his death.

On Saturday, he visited the Darul Uloom Hakimah madrassa to “speak to his brave soldiers and disciples,” according to Taliban officials.

There was tight security at the event and no photographs or video have emerged, but a 10-minute audio recording was shared by Taliban social media accounts.

In it, Akhundzada — referred to as “Amirul Momineen,” or commander of the faithful — gives a religious message.

In this picture taken on October 29, 2021, Taliban members guard an entrance gate of the Panjwai district police headquarters in Kandahar province. (Javed TANVEER / AFP)

The speech did not touch on political organization, but sought God’s blessing for the Taliban leadership.

He prays for the Taliban martyrs, wounded fighters and the success of the Islamic Emirate’s officials in this “big test.”

Widely believed to have been selected to serve more as a spiritual figurehead than a military commander, Akhundzada’s statements will fuel speculation that he now plans to take a more central role in leading the new government.

Unifying figure

Akhundzada rose from low-profile religious figure to leader of the Taliban in a swift transition of power after a 2016 US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

After being appointed leader, Akhundzada secured the backing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who showered the cleric with praise — calling him “the emir of the faithful.”

Still image from video obtained on September 11, 2012, of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri speaking from an undisclosed location. (AFP/Site Intelligence Group)

This endorsement by Osama bin Laden’s heir helped seal his jihadist credentials with the Taliban’s long-time allies.

Akhundzada was tasked with unifying a Taliban movement that briefly fractured during the bitter power struggle after Akhtar’s assassination, and the revelation that the leadership had hidden the death of their founder Mullah Omar for years.

His public profile has largely been limited to the release of messages during Islamic holidays, and Akhundzada is believed to spend most of his time in Kandahar, the main city in the Taliban’s southern Afghan heartland.

His last message was on September 7, when he told the newly appointed Taliban government in Kabul to uphold sharia law as they govern Afghanistan.

Taliban members keep watch near the site where a grenade was thrown at a Taliban vehicle at the Deh Mazang Circle in Kabul on October 20, 2021. (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

Last week, Mullah Yussef Wafa, the Taliban governor of Kandahar and a close ally of Akhundzada, told AFP he was in regular contact with his mysterious chief.

“We have regular meetings with him about the control of the situation in Afghanistan and how to make a good government,” he said in an interview.

“As he is our teacher, and everyone’s teacher. We are trying to learn something from him,” he added.

“He gives advice to every leader of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and we are following his rules, advice, and if we have a progressive government in the future it’s because of his advice.”

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