For more than three months, the Afghanistan of the Taliban has been ruled by an invisible being. In his southern stronghold, the supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, remains the country’s best-kept secret, revered by his supporters but so discreet that some experts doubt he is still alive.
On October 30 in the early evening in Kandahar, “shadow capital” of the new regime, in southern Afghanistan, rumors swelled. The “supreme leader” gave a speech at a Koranic school in the city. This would be his first official public appearance since his appointment in 2016.
In Kabul, the Taliban staff finally confirmed the information at 11:30 p.m., with an audio recording of 10 minutes and 30 seconds in support.
The soundtrack crackles. “May God reward the people of Afghanistan who have fought against infidels and oppression for 20 years.” The voice of an elderly man, lost in an echo, chanting blessings.
The existence of the Taliban “Commander of the Faith”, to whom Al-Qaeda has pledged allegiance, had until then only been attested by the rare written messages attributed to him during Islamic festivals.
Until the fundamentalists took power in mid-August, no one outside of close Taliban circles knew where he was.
Gray beard, wide nose and gloomy gaze pointed at the lens: only one photo of him emerged in 2016 and it dates back to around 20 according to the Taliban. Akhundzada would now be between 60 and 70 years old, according to cross-checked accounts.
“He is alive and in good health, and is in Kandahar from where he leads the Taliban movement,” insists his entourage.
– The appearance –
In one of the poorest suburbs of Kandahar, between a river of rubbish and a dirt driveway, two Taliban stand guard in front of the blue and white gate of the Hakimia madrassa, where some curious people crowd from afar since the visit consecrated from October 30.
That day, the supreme leader was accompanied by “three guards” and “was himself armed”, testifies to AFP, Massum Shakrullah, the head of security of the center of Koranic study.
“He chose a madrassa in a poor neighborhood” which for 20 years provided the Taliban with a number of young combatants who died “as martyrs”, underlines Mullah Saeed Ahmed, director of the center where 600 boys and adolescents study.
Was it the supreme leader of the Taliban who spoke that evening? “We all looked at him and we cried”, testifies a month later to AFP, Mohammed, 19, who says he was too moved at the time to “pay attention to his face”.
Mohammed Musa, 13, who was at the time of the speech “100 or 200 meters” from the supreme leader, assures us that the latter “looked perfectly” like the photo circulating of him since 2016.
They all say that he was dressed in white and in a turban that was sometimes black, sometimes white.
No video or photo has filtered from this unprecedented visit, before which the Taliban had confiscated the cell phones of hundreds of witnesses.
– “Hibatullah is dead” –
This appearance “silenced the rumors and propaganda about him”, judges the director of the madrassa.
But it will take more to convince some executives of the former Afghan regime, who suspect that Akhundzada has been dead for one or even several years.
They see in the episode of the madrassa a staging, which recalls another: the death in 2013 of Mullah Omar, mythical founder of the Taliban. The Taliban hid it for two years, before confirming it in 2015 when the secret was exposed by their enemies in the NDS, the intelligence services of the government at the time.
“He has been dead for a long time and has had no role in the capture of Kabul,” an NDS official told AFP. Pakistani Taliban Shrine.
Other foreign security services consider this scenario credible, AFP has learned.
Rumors of death are “neither invalidated nor confirmed,” admits a regional security source, which however leans on the side of the NDS, considering the emir absent from the affairs of the new regime.
Asked by AFP on the subject, the Pentagon and the CIA declined to respond.
– Young prodigy –
In the district of Panjwai, a vast arid plateau just outside Kandahar, everyone knows the village of Akhundzada, a line of respected theologians.
Two Islamist fighters get on their motorbikes and agree to guide through the dunes, turban in the wind, to Sperwan, the birthplace of the regime’s number one.
“At the time of the Soviet invasion (late 1979), fighting broke out in the village and Hibatullah left for Pakistan,” Niamatullah, a young fighter from the region who followed his teachings in Pakistan, told AFP. most beautiful memory of his life “.
Akhundzada then becomes a respected scholar and earns the title of “Sheikh al-hadith”, a distinction reserved for the most eminent specialists in the words of the prophet.
In the early 1990s, when the Islamist insurgency emerged from the ruins of the Soviet occupation, Akhundzada, then in his thirties, returned to his lands.
At the mosque of Sperwan, where he settled for “five to six years”, according to accounts, “the ulemas (specialists in Islamic law) came from the city and from Pakistan to meet and consult him”, recalls Abdul Qayum, a 65-year-old villager.
According to snippets of his official biography, when the first Taliban regime came to power in 1996, the rise of the young prodigy in theology was dazzling. In 2001 he became the head of the military tribunal in Kabul.
During the American invasion at the end of 2001, Akhundzada fled to Quetta and became the head of justice for the Taliban, and a trainer praised by the new generation of mujahideen.
– “Center of gravity” –
Since the death of Mullah Omar and then of his successor Mullah Mansour in 2016, “he has been the center of gravity of the Taliban, he has managed to preserve the group intact,” told AFP a Taliban executive living in Pakistan.
In recent years, Mullah Hibatullah is said to have played a decisive diplomatic role. He can also be more unexpected, as when he called in 2017 to every Afghan to “plant trees” for “the protection of the environment and economic development”.
According to the Taliban executive living in Pakistan, who says he met Akhundzada three times, the last time in 2020, the supreme leader, who does some physical exercise between prayer and his sermons and morning hearings, is known for his refusal to use new technologies, preferring old-fashioned phone calls or “letters” to members of the Taliban government, with whom he maintains a close and brotherly bond.
Speaking four languages and of good stature, 1.75 m, he wears the traditional shalwar kameez and a waistcoat, often accompanied by a shawl.
Last summer, he reportedly gave the green light for the latest offensive and monitored operations from Kandahar, where he had already been clandestinely for months, according to the Taliban executive.
Any official appointment to the new government now bears his signature.
“See, a man who never appears in public conquered a country,” laughs the Taliban executive.
– “Whenever possible” –
If he is kept in the strictest hiding, it is first of all for fear that he will be eliminated, underline many Taliban sources.
Even though the Americans left Afghanistan at the end of August, the Taliban still fear their formidable drone fire. And the attacks, more and more numerous, of their Sunni rivals of the Islamic State (IS) group.
The few traces of Akhundzada calls out Kate Clark, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), who recalls that “even Mullah Omar, without allowing himself to be photographed or filmed, made statements and interviews on the radio and met foreign officials “.
But unlike the years 2013-2015, when many Taliban admitted privately that they did not know where Mullah Omar was and if he was still alive, they all assure today that Hibatullah is alive and well.
For the regional security official, if the Taliban emir is dead, the Islamist movement has no interest in announcing it, at the risk of starting a war of succession “which will further divide the Taliban”, and of which the IS could “take advantage”.
In this case, notes the former Afghan security official, the Taliban will not reveal his death “until things are more stable” and they have a “form of international recognition”. And that, “nobody knows when it will happen,” he said.
When will the supreme ruler appear in the eyes of the whole world? The official Taliban response suggests that the ambiguity is not about to be resolved.
“It is not necessary for Sheikh Sahib (another nickname of Akhundzada) to appear, since even in this way he manages to command in an orderly and efficient manner”, answers AFP the deputy spokesman of the government , Ahmadullah Waseeq, while promising that he will show up “when possible”.