Afghan Taliban announce successor to Mullah Mansour

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Media caption,

Hibatullah Akhundzada is a religious scholar and he is former head of the Taliban courts

The Afghan Taliban have announced a new leader to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was killed in a US drone strike.

In a statement, the Taliban acknowledged Mansour's death for the first time and named his successor as Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada.

Analysts say it is unlikely the group will change direction under hardline religious scholar Akhundzada.

Meanwhile, a breakaway faction has rejected the move, saying Akhundzada does not represent the group.

This highlights deep divisions in the Taliban following the death of the group's founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and his replacement by Mansour.

Mansour was killed in a strike on his car in Pakistan's Balochistan province on Saturday.

Under his stewardship, the Taliban refused to take part in peace talks. Instead, militant attacks escalated and became more daring.

Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a former head of the Taliban courts, was a deputy leader to Mansour.

Analysis: Waheed Massoud, editor, BBC Afghan service, Kabul

It doesn't look as if there will be a major shift in the Taliban's approach to peace talks under the new leadership. Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada was deputy to Mullah Mansour and held senior positions under the movement's founder Mullah Omar.

He comes from Kandahar in the Taliban heartlands of southern Afghanistan and seems to have been an acceptable choice for a significant number of Taliban shura (council) members.

The new leader is not as controversial as his predecessor, who led the militants for two years before news emerged that Mullah Omar was actually dead.

A Taliban statement said the new appointment had been unanimous, the same word the Taliban used when Mullah Mansour took over. Splits soon emerged after that - this time there could still be some disagreements, but probably not enough to challenge the new leader's authority.

"Hibatullah Akhundzada has been appointed as the new leader of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) after a unanimous agreement in the shura (supreme council), and all the members of shura pledged allegiance to him," the Taliban said in a statement.

It also said that Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, would become a joint deputy head of the movement, alongside current deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is much more well known, is leader of the Haqqani network which has been blamed for some of the most violent attacks inside Afghanistan.

The group is known for its daring raids on Western and Afghan targets, particularly in Kabul.

Mansour named Akhundzada as his successor in his will, Taliban sources told AFP, in what may be an attempt to legitimise the transition.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, urged the new Taliban leader to join talks.

"We invite Mula Hibatullah to peace. Political settlement is the only option for the Taliban or new leadership will face the fate of Mansour," Javid Faisal tweeted.

Image source, FBI
Image caption,
The US has set a bounty on the head of Sirajuddin Haqqani

In 2015 the Taliban was deeply divided over the selection of Mullah Mansour as the new leader.

The fact that Akhundzada comes from the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar is likely to please rank-and-file fighters, the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder in Kabul says.

But there is already controversy surrounding his appointment, with a splinter faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool saying it will reject the group's new leadership.

"I believe this appointment is done by outsiders. This does not represent the Taliban movement," the faction's deputy head and spokesman, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, told the BBC.

"We call them a group for the benefit of foreigners. They cannot represent Afghans and the Taliban. And we are standing against them."

Separately on Wednesday, 11 people were killed and many others were injured in a suicide attack that hit a bus carrying court employees in Kabul. The Taliban said it was behind the attack.

What we know about Hibatullah Akhundzada

  • More of a religious leader than a military commander, he has been responsible for issuing most of the Taliban's fatwas
  • Thought to be 55 and has lived most of his life inside Afghanistan, with little evidence of travel
  • However, experts say, he maintains close links with the so-called Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban leaders said to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta
  • From southern Kandahar province, he belongs to the Noorzai tribe
  • Hibatullah in Arabic means "gift from God"