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Who’s who among Afghanistan’s secretive new Taliban rulers

Amid Islamist extremist group’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, its top leaders are heading back to Kabul, some after years in hiding

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 file photo, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, left, speaks to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, third left, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, third right, and other members of the Taliban delegation prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia.  (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 file photo, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, left, speaks to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, third left, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban's chief negotiator, third right, and other members of the Taliban delegation prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s senior officials were gathering in the Afghan capital Saturday for talks with elders and politicians on forming a government after their stunning sweep to power last weekend.

The inner workings and leadership of the group have long been shrouded in secrecy — even during their rule from 1996 to 2001 — but here is a rundown of what is known:

Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader

Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed leader of the Taliban in a swift power transition after a US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Mansour Akhtar, in 2016.

Before ascending the movement’s ranks, Akhundzada was a low-profile religious figure. He is widely believed to have been selected to serve more as a spiritual figurehead than a military commander.

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)

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

This helped seal his jihadi credentials with the group’s long-time allies.

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

His public profile has largely been limited to the release of messages during Islamic holidays.

Mullah Baradar, the co-founder

Abdul Ghani Baradar was raised in Kandahar — the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

Like most Afghans, Baradar’s life was forever altered by the Soviet invasion of the country in the late 1970s, transforming him into an insurgent.

He was believed to have fought side-by-side with the one-eyed cleric Mullah Omar.

In this file photo taken on February 29, 2020 Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar speaks at a signing ceremony of the US-Taliban agreement in Qatar’s capital Doha. – Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kabul on August 21, 2021 for talks on establishing a new “inclusive” government in Afghanistan, a senior official said. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

The two would go on to found the Taliban movement in the early 1990s during the chaos and corruption of the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.

After the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001 by US-led forces, Baradar is believed to have been among a small group of insurgents who approached interim leader Hamid Karzai with a potential deal that would have seen the militants recognize the new administration.

Arrested in Pakistan in 2010, Baradar was kept in custody until pressure from the United States saw him freed in 2018 and relocated to Qatar.

This is where he was appointed head of the Taliban’s political office and oversaw the signing of the troop withdrawal agreement with the United States.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Haqqani Network

The son of a famed commander from the anti-Soviet jihad, Sirajuddin Haqqani doubles as the deputy leader of the Taliban and head of the powerful Haqqani network.

This Aug. 22, 1998 file photo, shows Jalaluddin Haqqani, then Taliban Army Supreme Commander, talking to reporters in Miram Shah, Waziristan, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Mohammad Riaz, File)

The Haqqani network is a US-designated terror group long viewed as one of the most dangerous militant factions in Afghanistan.

The group is infamous for its use of suicide bombers and is believed to have orchestrated some of the most high-profile attacks in Kabul over the years.

The network is also accused of assassinating top Afghan officials and holding kidnapped Western citizens for ransom — including US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, released in 2014.

In this May, 30, 2013 file photo, insurgents suspected of being from the Haqqani network are presented to the media at the National Directorate of Security headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo, file)

Known for their independence, fighting acumen, and savvy business dealings, the Haqqanis operate from the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, while holding considerable sway over the Taliban’s leadership council.

Mullah Yaqoob, the scion

The son of Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoob heads the group’s powerful military commission, which oversaw the vast network of field commanders charged with executing the insurgency.

Yaqoob’s father enjoyed cult-like status as the Taliban leader, and that potent lineage makes him a unifying figure in the movement.

In this image released by the FBI, Mullah Omar is seen in a wanted poster. (FBI via AP)

Speculation remains, however, about Yaqoob’s exact role — with some analysts arguing that his appointment in 2020 was merely cosmetic.

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