The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, made a rare public appearance in the southern city of Kandahar, Taliban officials announced on Sunday, contradicting widespread rumours of his death.
Akhundzada, known as the leader of the faithful or Amir ul Momineen, had not been seen in public even after the Taliban’s August takeover of the country, giving rise to the speculation.
A senior Taliban leader who was present with Akhundzada said the supreme leader visited Jamia Darul Aloom Hakimia, a religious school in Kandahar on Saturday.
There was tight security at the event and no photographs or video have emerged, but a 10-minute audio recording was shared by Taliban social media accounts.
As the Islamist movement announced its interim government in September after US-led forces withdrew, Akhundzada retained the role he has held since 2016 of supreme leader, the ultimate authority over the group’s political, religious and military affairs.
Though some officials say Akhundzada has made unpublicised appearances before, this was the first official appearance of a man who has long kept a low profile. This shadowy existence has led to constant speculation about his whereabouts and health.
Previously, the Taliban did not confirm the death of their founder and original supreme leader, Mullah Omar, for years.
Akhundzada rose from a low-profile religious figure to leader of the Taliban in a swift transition of power after a 2016 US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
After being appointed leader, Akhundzada secured the backing of the al-Qaida chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who showered the cleric with praise, calling him “the emir of the faithful”.
This endorsement by Osama bin Laden’s heir helped seal his jihadist credentials with the Taliban’s longtime allies.
Akhundzada was tasked with unifying a Taliban movement that briefly fractured during the bitter power struggle after Akhtar’s assassination, and the revelation that the leadership had hidden the death of Omar for years.
His public profile has largely been limited to the release of messages during Islamic holidays, and Akhundzada is believed to spend most of his time in Kandahar, the main city in the Taliban’s southern Afghan heartland.
His last message was on 7 September, when he told the newly appointed Taliban government in Kabul to uphold sharia law as they govern Afghanistan.
Last week, Mullah Yussef Wafa, the Taliban governor of Kandahar and a close ally of Akhundzada, told Agence France-Presse he was in regular contact with his leader.
“We have regular meetings with him about the control of the situation in Afghanistan and how to make a good government,” he said in an interview. “As he is our teacher, and everyone’s teacher. We are trying to learn something from him.
“He gives advice to every leader of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and we are following his rules, advice, and if we have a progressive government in the future it’s because of his advice.”