Dead or alive? On the trail of Taliban's supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada
Whether the Taliban's elderly cleric is alive or dead is something many Afghans are uncertain about, and even the most dedicated analysts have doubts about who is really leading the group.
When the Taliban overran Kabul in mid-August, seizing power for the second time, the years-old mystery over the whereabouts of the movement's Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada deepened further.
Whether the elderly cleric is alive or dead is something many Afghans are uncertain about, and even the most dedicated analysts have doubts about who is really leading the group.
AFP went on the trail of the elusive leader, and the findings are inconclusive.
On October 30 -- two months after a Taliban spokesman insisted Akhundzada was alive and well in Kandahar -- rumours swirled in the southern city that the "emir" had delivered a speech at a Koranic school, or madrassa.
Taliban officials gave their stamp of authenticity to his appearance at the Hakimia madrassa, releasing a crackling audio recording lasting more than 10 minutes.
"May God reward the oppressed people of Afghanistan who fought the infidels and the oppressors for 20 years," intones an aged and echoing voice, said to be that of Akhundzada.
His public profile had previously been largely limited to annual written messages released for Islamic holidays.
In one of the poorest suburbs of Kandahar, between a litter-strewn stream and a dirt track, two Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hakimia madrassa's blue-and-white gate.
It has become something of a magnet since October 30, attracting curious -- albeit respectfully distant -- crowds of Taliban supporters.
- 'Watching and crying' -
When the supreme leader visited, he was "armed" and accompanied by "three security guards", the madrassa's head of security Massum Shakrullah told AFP.
"Even cellphones and sound recorders" were not allowed into the venue, he added.
One of the students, Mohammed, 19, said "we all were watching him and were just crying".
Asked if he could confirm that it was definitely Akhundzada, Mohammed said he and his peers were so overjoyed that they "forgot to watch... his face".
The need for Taliban leaders to keep vanishingly low profiles became especially pronounced in the last decade of war, as deadly US drone strikes multiplied.
Akhundzada rose to the top spot after one such strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in 2016.
He quickly secured the backing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who called him "the emir of the faithful".
This endorsement by Osama bin Laden's heir helped seal his jihadist credentials with the Taliban's long-time allies.
The Taliban have released just one photograph of Akhundzada -- five years ago, when he took the group's reins.
And even that photo, depicting him with a grey beard, white turban and a forceful gaze, was taken two decades prior, according to the Taliban.
The supreme leader's appearance scotched "rumours and propaganda" about his death, said Maulvi Said Ahmad, who heads the madrassa where Akhundzada reportedly appeared.
He looked "exactly the same" as in the famous photo, said Mohammad Musa, 13, who watched from afar.
- 'Long been dead' -
Officials of the ousted Afghan regime and many Western analysts are sceptical, believing that Akhundzada died years ago.
For them the madrassa visit was a carefully choreographed deception.
There is a precedent -- the Taliban pretended founder Mullah Omar was alive for two years following his death in 2013.
Akhundzada himself "has long been dead and had no role before the takeover of Kabul", one security official of the former regime told AFP.
He was killed alongside his brother in a suicide attack in Quetta, Pakistan, "about three years ago", the source believes.
This theory, sometimes with slight variations, is seen as credible by several foreign intelligence agencies.
A separate regional security source told AFP that "nobody would confirm and nobody would deny" Akhundzada's purported death.
The Pentagon and the CIA, meanwhile, did not respond to AFP's request for comment on the rumours of Akhundzada's death.
- Eminent scholar -
In Panjwai, a district on a vast arid plateau near Kandahar, everyone knows of the Akhundzadas, a line of respected theologians.
The emir was born in the village of Sperwan.
"At the time of the Soviet invasion (1979) fighting broke out in the village and Hibatullah left for Pakistan," Niamatullah, a young fighter and former student of the supreme leader, told AFP.
After this first move to Pakistan, Akhundzada became a respected scholar and earned the title "Sheikh al-Hadith", a distinction reserved for the most eminent scholars of the Prophet Mohammed's sayings.
In the early 1990s, as the Islamist insurgency was taking hold in the wake of the Soviet occupation, Akhundzada, then in his thirties, returned to the village.
He would hold consultations with visitors from "the city and from Pakistan", remembers Abdul Qayum, a 65-year-old villager.
According to snippets from his official biography, his rise was meteoric after the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996.
After running the local madrassa, he became a judge at Kandahar provincial court, then head of the military court in Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan until 2000.
By the time the Taliban were forced from power in late 2001, he was heading Kabul's military court.
Akhundzada then fled to Pakistan, finding sanctuary in Quetta.
His mastery of Islamic law made him the head of the Taliban's shadow justice system and the acclaimed trainer of a whole generation of fighters who graduated through Quetta.
- 'Centre of gravity' -
Akhundzada was "the centre of gravity for the Taliban... keeping the group intact", one Pakistan-based Taliban member told AFP.
According to this source, who says he has met the supreme leader three times -- the last time in 2020 -- Akhundzada does not use modern technology.
He prefers to make phone calls on landlines and communicates via letters to the Taliban officials who now make up the government and with whom he retains a strong rapport.
He would have given the green light to the final offensive against the old regime and kept track of operations from Kandahar, where he had already been discreetly installed for several months, the Pakistani source said.
The continued fear of elimination, even after the end of the war with the Americans, explains Akhundzada's continued low profile, several Taliban sources say.
And if he were already dead, a regional security source said, concerns over the rival Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State's local chapter (IS-K), would in part explain the Taliban concealing the news -- as any such announcement could prompt defections.
"If they announce Akhundzada is no more and we are looking for a new emir, it will factionalise the Taliban and IS-K could take advantage," he said.
Despite the speculation, the Taliban insist nothing is untoward.
The emir is "leading in an orderly manner", a spokesman told AFP, adding "it is not necessary" for him to appear publicly.