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Implications Resulting from the Death of Mullah Omar, Leader of the Taliban Afghanistan

The Taliban Afghanistan, also known by its full name “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, is a Sunni Islamic jihadist organization that began to operate in Afghanistan in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet regime in country. The founder and leader of the organization, Mullah Omar, ruled the organization until 2013 when he died of an illness at a hospital in Pakistan. The organization’s leadership managed to keep his death a secret for two years and an announcement of his death was only published in the media at the end of July 2015.

News of the death of Mullah Omar, the organization’s undisputed spiritual leader, shook up the Taliban and created factions and camps within the organization. Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who had apparently led the organization in secret for two years, was officially appointed to serve as Omar’s replacement and leader of the organization. During Mansoor’s short term as leader, he mainly focused on attempting to settle internal disputes in the organization and on establishing his status among the organization’s members. The Islamic State, which began to seize hold of eastern Afghanistan, exploited the Taliban’s situation in order to recruit members to its ranks and to capture territory from the organization.

Despite and perhaps due to internal divisions, Mansoor’s reign was characterized by the expansion of control in Afghanistan and the rejection of peace talks with the Afghan government. Mansoor’s death as a result of an American drone strike left a divided organization in control of expansive territory in Afghanistan. After Mansoor’s death, Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed the new leader of the organization. Akhundzada faces challenges both in the internal organizational arena and with regard to, peace talks with the Afghan government and the organization’s front with the Islamic State.


The Death of Mullah Omar

At the end of July 2015, authorities in Afghanistan reported that the leader of the Taliban Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, had died two years earlier as a result of an illness in a hospital in Pakistan.[1]  The Taliban Afghanistan confirmed the announcement but initially preferred not to address when Mullah Omar died.[2] The day after his death was reported, the organization announced that its new leader would be Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who had served as Mullah Omar’s deputy. In addition, the announcement added that two deputies – Sirajuddin Haqqani and Hibatullah Akhundzada – would be appointed to Mansoor. The announcement then called on the Muslim Nation, especially Islamic Emirate jihad fighters, to obey the new leader.[3]  Only one-and-a-half months later, in the beginning of September, the organization admitted that Mullah Omar had died two years earlier and that it had kept his death a secret, explaining that 2013 had been a decisive year in the organization’s battle against foreign forces. It should be noted that over the course of those two years, the organization had continued to published announcements allegedly from Mullah Omar in order to keep his death a secret, with the last announcement being a holiday greeting for Eid al-Fitr in July 2015, just two weeks before his death was reported.[4]


The Rifts within the Taliban Following the Death of Mullah Omar

The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death caused a rift within the Taliban.[5]  The first to oppose the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor were the family members of Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, who had hoped to succeed his father or at least to receive a senior position in the organization, published a recording in which he claimed that his father did not appoint a successor, undermining the legitimacy of Mansoor’s selection. Mullah Omar’s brother, Abdul Manan Akhunda, also rejected the rumor according to which Mullah Omar’s family had agreed to Mansoor’s appointment as his successor.[6] Several days later, when Mullah Omar’s family swore allegiance to Mansoor,[7] there were those who claimed that it was done under duress in order to prevent the organization’s fighters from defecting to the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the oath of allegiance by Mullah Omar’s family to Mansoor did not bring an end to the rift within the organization.In the beginning of November, a movement that split from the Taliban Afghanistan announced the appointment of Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund as leader of the organization, and the appointment of Mullah Mansoor Dadullah and Sher Mohammed Mansoor as his deputies.[8] Later that month, internal clashes were reported within the Taliban, in the area of Zabul, between those faithful to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and those faithful to Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund. During the clashes, the Governor of Zabul Province claimed that those faithful to Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund were receiving support from Islamic State fighters.[9]


An Attempt to Establish Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s Standing

The rift that was created within the Taliban Afghanistan as a result of Mullah Omar’s death, required that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who is not endowed with the spiritual qualities of his predecessor, invest great efforts in order to establish his standing among the organization’s members. The day after Mansoor’s appointment, the organization published an announcement according to which governors, province leaders, leaders of many groups throughout the country, teachers and other dignitaries had sworn allegiance to the new leader.[10] In his first few speeches, Mansoor himself called for unity among the ranks of the organization since, he claimed, internal disputes only serve to gladden its enemies. He emphasized that the attempts made to split the Taliban after Mullah Omar’s death had failed.[11] Later, the organization published Mansoor’s biography in order to solidify his standing in the organization. The biography highlighted the leadership qualities that Mansoor was endowed with and even added that his selection was made in a legitimate manner acceptable according to shari’a. The announcement added that Mansoor is Mullah Omar’s successor.

Al-Qaeda expressed support for Mansoor in an attempt to prevent the organization’s members from defecting to the Islamic State. The leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, published an audio clip in which he swore allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Al-Zawahiri also added that the Islamic Emirate established by the Taliban was the first legitimate emirate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and stated that there is no other legitimate emirate.[12]

Mullah Akhtar Mansoor made an effort to rebut rumors of internal struggles in his organization. For instance, the organization denied that a violent struggle had taken place between the organization’s factions in Zabul, and claimed that the clashes took place against IS fighters who had accused the mujahideen of heresy.[13]

Whether the clashes took place with the faction of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund or with Islamic State fighters, Mansoor eventually managed to sign a ceasefire agreement with the former.[14] In addition, with the assistance of his deputies, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a senior Taliban fighter in Helmand Province and the former Chairman of the Taliban’s military committee that spoke out against Mansoor’s policies, swore allegiance to him.

In addition, Mullah Omar’s family members who were initially opposed to Mansoor’s appointment later received positions in the organization’s leadership: Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, was selected to head the organization’s military committee and Mullah Omar’s brother, Abdul Manan Akhunda, was appointed decision-maker in the Shura Council. Within the organization, it was hoped that the appointments of Mullah Omar’s relatives would succeed in establishing a better standing for Mansoor.[15]

Mansoor’s efforts to maintain unity within the organization were also manifested in his frequent speeches – at least one per month – that were published on the official Web site of the Taliban Afghanistan, most of which addressed the importance of maintaining unity among the ranks of the Taliban.


The Key Players in Mansoor’s Government

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, a terrorist organization based in Pakistan and operating in cooperation with the Taliban Afghanistan, was selected to serve as Mansoor’s first deputy. The “Haqqani network” has ties to the Taliban since the 1980’s when Sirajuddin Haqqani’s father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, led the network and collaborated with Osama bin Laden against the Soviets.[16] Pakistani sources claimed that the Pakistani army pressured for the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as Mansoor’s deputy in order to protect him from the Americans. In addition, according to reports, Haqqani was appointed due to his military expertise, which exceeds that of Mansoor.[17]

During Mansoor’s reign, Sirajuddin Haqqani was responsible for the Taliban’s military activities, including the worst terrorist attacks to take place in Afghanistan – especially the attack that was carried out in Kabul in April 2016 in which tens of people were killed. Mansoor, who wanted to create a tough image by increasing attacks in Afghanistan in order to suppress any rebellion against him within the organization, mainly relied on Haqqani.[18]

In addition to his military role in the organization, Haqqani played a part in uniting the ranks within the Taliban. According to reports, he was the one who brought Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, and brother back into the fold and convinced Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir to swear allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. In his statement published on the Taliban’s official Web site, Haqqani claimed that Zakir’s oath of allegiance to Mansoor ended the dispute between Muslims and the mujahideen instigated by the enemy. He added that the enemy will not succeed in creating a rift within the Taliban Afghanistan, and he emphasized the importance of unity among the ranks and obedience to the leader.[19]

Although the selection of Haqqani seemingly made it easier on Mansoor on the intra-organizational level, this was not the case on the political level. The choice of Haqqani, who is considered the head of a terrorist organization, and the increase in the number of terrorist attacks carried out by the Taliban, undermined peace talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban Afghanistan. In addition, the choice of Haqqani, whose organization is sponsored by Pakistan, as deputy to the leader of the Taliban Afghanistan undercut the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the latter demanding that Pakistan stop its sponsorship of Haqqani’s movement.[20]

Hibatullah Akhundzada, a cleric who served as a judge during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, was selected to serve as second deputy to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.  Akhundzada was originally from Kandahar Province, from the Nurzai tribe (Mullah Omar’s tribe), and he joined the organization immediately after its founding in the 1990’s.[21]  During Mansoor’s reign, Akhundzada took part in the organization’s decision-making, including decisions regarding the terrorist attacks carried out by the organization. In addition, in the framework of his role as a cleric, he issued a fatwa that justified the organization’s military activities. Like Haqqani, Akhundzada also took part in solidifying Mansoor’s reign. For instance, he held a reconciliation gathering between several clerics and Mansoor,[22]and ruled that anyone who questions Mansoor’s appointment should be executed.[23]In addition, little is known about Akhundzada since he – like Mullah Omar – does not often appear in public.


Mansoor’s Death and the Rise of Hibatullah Akhundzada

According to the Taliban’s official publications, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the leader of the organization, was killed in a US drone strike in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan on May 22, 2016. Media reports offered several names of potential replacements for Mansoor, including Mullah Omar’s deputies, son or brother.[24]  In contrast to Mansoor, who was the actual leader of the organization for two years before the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, this time the organization published an official announcement four days after Mansoor’s death stating that the leadership of the Islamic Emirate had selected Mansoor’s second deputy, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, as the new leader of the organization and swore allegiance to him. In addition, the announcement stated that Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob, Mullah Omar’s son, were selected to be Akhundzada’s deputies. The announcement then called on the mujahideen and the Afghan nation to unite, and added that it is the religious obligation of every mujahid to swear allegiance to the new Emir of the Faithful.[25]  The call for unity within the Taliban at the end of an announcement regarding Akhundzada’s appointment symbolized the biggest difficulty that faced the previous leader and could continue to present a challenge to the new leader – the rift within the ranks of the Taliban. Some analysts claimed that Akhundzada, who comes from Mullah Omar’s tribe and from the spiritual center of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, was selected in order to bring about unity among the ranks. Akhundzada, just like his predecessor, selected Haqqani as his deputy leading us to assume that both Pakistan’s influence on the organization and the organization’s militant line that began with Mansoor will continue. Nevertheless, Akhundzada – unlike his predecessor – was able to choose Mullah Omar’s son as his second deputy, thus avoiding opposition from Omar’s family to his appointment. [26]

In addition to Akhundzada’s selection of deputies who can guarantee him quiet at home, other attempts were made both within and outside of the organization to solidify his standing. For example, the organization published an oath of allegiance taken by the family of the previous leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, to the new leader.[27] In addition, just like he did with Mansoor, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri stepped in to strengthen Akhundzada’s legitimacy by publishing a recording in which he swore allegiance to him.[28] Moreover, the organization published video clips showing Taliban Afghanistan training camps[29]  and various provinces in Afghanistan[30] swearing allegiance to the new leader. In addition, Akhundzada emphasized in his first message the importance of unity among the ranks of the Taliban and noted that he will continue the path of the organization’s previous leaders.[31]


The Taliban’s Stance on Peace Talks

In June 2015, the Taliban – led by Mullah Akhtar- secretly entered the first round of reconciliation talks with the government in Kabul, apparently under pressure from Pakistan.[32] However, the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and the discovery that Mansoor had been the one leading the Taliban for the last two years led to a rift within the ranks of the organization. Mansoor, who was unable to placate both the Pakistani army and Taliban commanders, chose to end the peace talks.[33]  Later during his reign, Mansoor was mainly occupied with establishing his standing among members of the organization through military operations and territorial expansion, among other things. In January, when additional preparations were being made ahead of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, in which representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States took part,[34] the Taliban reached the peak of its territorial control since the downfall of the country’s government in 2001.[35] In an announcement published by the Taliban in that same month, the organization claimed that it was committed to peace but was compelled to fight a defensive war, and that the purpose of jihad is to end the occupation and establish an independent Islamic system in Afghanistan. Later in the announcement, the organization noted that several steps must be taken before the peace process can begin, such as the official recognition of the Islamic Emirate, the removal of the organization from the list of terrorist organizations, the release of prisoners and the end to propaganda against the organization. The organization added that direct discussion must be held between the Islamic Emirate and the US in matters concerning foreign forces, but Afghans can resolve issues relating to Afghan issues on their own.[36]  Direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which were supposed to begin in early March 2016 after several rounds of meetings between the four countries, were postponed by the Taliban.[37] Analysts claimed that the success of the organization’s attacks in Afghanistan placed it in a position of power and it refused to continue negotiations with the Kabul government.[38]

After Mansoor’s death, US officials claimed that his death was unavoidable since he was unwilling to take part in peace talks between his organization and the Afghan government. However, it does not seem that the selection of Hibatullah Akhundzada will bring the organization back to the negotiating table with the government in Kabul. According to reports within the organization, Akhundzada swore to take revenge on foreign forces and the Afghan government for the killing of Mansoor and, therefore, there is little chance of him taking part in reconciliation talks with the government.[39] Even US President Barack Obama stated in a speech that he assumes the Taliban will continue its offensive line and he doubted that peace talks would restart between the organization and the Afghan government.[40]  It is reasonable to assume that Akhundzada, who was very close to Mansoor and a partner in his decision-making, will continue along the same line as his predecessor. In addition, it seems that – like his predecessor – he will have to demonstrate strength and first bridge the internal divisions in the organization before turning to peace talks with the Afghan government.

In his first announcement regarding his appointment, Akhundzada noted that in addition to the jihad activities aimed at ending the occupation by foreign forces and implementing shari’a, there is also room for political processes and that the organization’s political department would continue to search for a solution to the Afghan issue,[41] but a short time later he announced that the Taliban would not surrender by agreeing to peace talks. He added that people thought the organization would lay down its arms after the death of Mansoor but it will continue to fight until the end.[42] Even Haqqani, who continues to serve as Akhundzada’s deputy, plays a role in influencing Akhundzada’s position on peace talks. Recently, in an audio recording that was published by the organization, he referred to the possibility of holding future peace talks and claimed that the Islamic Emirate is not opposed to peace talks as long as they are in line with shari’a.[43]  With these statements, Haqqani bought to the fore the discrepancy between the perception of the Taliban regime and the democratic model proposed in the peace talks with the Afghan government. Aware that the US and the Afghan government would not agree to a state based on shari’a, he essentially brought peace talks to an end and declared that if they should be held at some point in the future, they would not be in the current format.


The Organization’s Attitude towards the Islamic State

Even before the official announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, Mansoor’s deputy addressed the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in June 2015 and asked for the IS to fight under the auspices of the Taliban and for an end to the rift among jihad fighters. In addition, he warned al-Zawahiri against creating new jihadist groups under the auspices of the IS in Afghanistan. He added that it is the religious obligation of the Taliban to want the best for the Islamic State but, just as the Taliban does not interfere with the Islamic State’s issues, it expects the same treatment in return.[44]

The official announcement of Mullah Omar’s death that came a month later created a rift within the Taliban Afghanistan. The Islamic State, which began to base its operations in eastern Afghanistan, exploited the Taliban’s situation in order to recruit new fighters to the ranks of the organization. In September, approximately a month and a half after Mansoor’s appointment, the UN published a report according to which the Islamic State’s influence in Afghanistan had grown at the expense of the Taliban Afghanistan, and approximately 10% of Taliban fighters support the IS.[45]  Within the Taliban itself, it was claimed that one of the factions that split from the organization was receiving support from the IS.[46] Meanwhile, tensions between the organizations grew and led to the breakout of violent clashes between Taliban and IS fighters.[47] In addition, the Taliban denounced the suicide attacks carried out by the IS against civilians.[48] It seems that during Mansoor’s rule, the IS managed to expand the ranks of the organization and increase the territories under its control at the expense of the Taliban, especially in eastern Afghanistan.[49] John Campbell, a NATO commander in Afghanistan, estimated the number of IS fighters in Afghanistan to be between 1,000 and 3,000. However, the President of Russia’s Envoy to Afghanistan estimated that there are 10,000 IS fighters in Afghanistan.[50]

The Taliban, which sees the Islamic State’s increased recruitment of fighters, is trying to diminish the importance ascribed to the organization and the scope of its operations in the country. In an announcement published at the end of December, the Taliban declared that it does see the need to obtain assistance from other countries in fighting against the IS in Afghanistan since the IS currently only has a small presence in one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan and does not pose a threat.[51]



The announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader who earned the title, “Emir of the Faithful” led to a change in the Taliban as it was known to that point. Despite the fact that Mansoor apparently led the organization for two years before Mullah Omar’s death was announced, the public announcement of his appointment shook up the organization and caused a deep rift among its ranks. Mansoor, who was not considered to be a spiritual leader or to have special military capabilities, and whose appointment was not unanimously accepted, was forced to establish his standing and transmit strength and power by increasing terrorist attacks and conquering territory. In order to unite the ranks of the organization, he was aided by his two deputies: Haqqani helped in the military arena and in strengthening the relationship with the Pakitani army, and Akhundzada helped in the religious and political arenas.

Mullah Omar’s death also changed the organization’s position on peace talks. In June 2015, prior to the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, the organization – led by Mansoor – agreed to participate in peace talks. However, the announcement of his death and the internal crisis experienced by the organization put an end to the continuation of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Islamic State, which started to base itself in eastern Afghanistan, exploited the Taliban’s internal situation in order to recruit additional fighters to its ranks from among Taliban members opposed to the appointment of Mansoor.

Mansoor’s death left his successor, Hibatullah Akhundzada, a cleric from Kandahar Province, facing challenges both from within and outside of the organization. Akhundzada, who is not considered a military commander, selected Haqqani as his first deputy, like Mansoor, in order to strengthen his position by continuing military operations. Nevertheless, unlike Mansoor, Akhundzada also thought to appoint Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, as his second deputy, thus preventing additional internal opposition to his leadership.

Mansoor left his replacement facing not only intra-organizational battles but a military struggle against Afghan and foreign forces throughout Afghanistan, as well as against the Islamic State. Analysts estimate that Akhundzada will likely continue the line taken by his predecessor and try to establish his standing within the organization before reaching out, if at all, toward reconciliation with the Afghan government. However, it is clear that he is now facing a difficult choice since his predecessor was killed due to his refusal to sit at the negotiating table with the Afghan government.


[6] 14.9.15 

[15] 5.4.16 

[27] 29.5.16 

[28] 11.6.16