Is the Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada dead or alive? Despite claims made by the Taliban regime that he is alive, this question about him keeps coming up.
A report by the AFP news agency has once again raised the question citing many experts who suspect that Akhundzada is dead and wonder who is leading the Taliban.
The question about the whereabouts of the supreme leader of the group as he did not appear in public life even after the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan in August.
It was on October 30, two months after they came to power, that the Taliban claimed that their supreme leader Akhundzada had made a first ever public appearance and had delivered a speech at a Darul Uloom Hakimah madrassa in the outskirts of Kandahar, the birthplace of the group.
In a 10-minute crackling audio recording, circulated by the Taliban officials, Akhundzada said that theTaliban government faced a “big test” of rebuilding what they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“Let’s pray that we come out of this big test successfully. May Allah help us stay strong,” he could be heard saying in the audio clip but there were no photographs or video of his appearance.
When the supreme leader visited, he was “armed” and accompanied by “three security guards”, the madrasa’s head of security Massum Shakrullah had told the reporters.
“Even cellphones and sound recorders were not allowed into the venue because of security concerns”, he said.
“The news of Amir-ul-Momineen's death is false. He is alive and is currently holding consultations on political and military issues in Kandahar,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had told the media.
Recently an AFP journalist visited the madrassa where Akhundzada was reported to have appeared and asked the students and teachers if they could confirm that it was definitely Akhundzada. One of them said he and his peers were so overjoyed that they “forgot to watch … his face”.
There is only one photograph of Akhundzada that the Taliban released five years ago, when he took over the group's reins.
“He looked exactly the same as in the famous photo”, one student told the journalist.
But the officials of the previous Afghan government and other intelligence experts believe that the so-called madrassa visit by Akhundzada was a carefully choreographed deception by the Taliban regime.
“Akhundzada has long been dead and had no role before the takeover of Kabul", one security official of the previous Afghan regime told AFP, “he was killed alongside his brother in a suicide attack in Quetta, Pakistan, "about three years ago."
Akhundzada is "the centre of gravity for the Taliban... keeping the group intact", one Taliban member told AFP.
According to multiple sources who have met the elusive Taliban chief in 2020, Akhundzada does not use modern technology of communication like mobile phones for fear of drone attacks.
The continued fear of drone attacks, even after the end of the war with the Americans, explains Akhundzada's continued low profile.
The Taliban have a long history of keeping their supreme leader away from the public gaze. The group's founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was rarely seen and stayed “hidden” in Kandahar, when the group came to power for the first time 1996.
In 2015, the Taliban confirmed covering up their former leader Mullah Omar's death for more than two years.
Akhundzada appears to have adopted a similar elusive style.
According to the report, if Akhundzada is really dead, the group will not like to disclose it especially when there is a “war” with the rival Sunni extremist group ISIS-K. Any such announcement could lead to defections.
The other concern is about the internal rifts in the Taliban.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid insists that “Our Amir is doing his job, it is not necessary" for him to appear publicly.
AFP cited a regional security source as saying: "Nobody would confirm and nobody would deny Akhundzada's purported death.”