For 15 years until his sudden disappearance in May, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the new leader of the Afghan Taliban insurgency openly taught and preached at the Al Haaj mosque in a dusty town in southwestern Pakistan, associates and students told Reuters.
Details of Akhundzada’s life in Kuchlak, near the city of Quetta, have not previously been reported, and could put further pressure on Pakistan to do more to crack down on militants openly living there.
Akhundzada is now believed to be in hiding after crossing the long and porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but not before going untouched in Kuchlak, located in Balochistan province, as he rose up the ranks of the Afghan Taliban.
He was promoted to “emir” in May after a US drone killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in another part of Pakistan, a strike that infuriated Islamabad but reflected growing impatience over what the US sees as ambivalence towards its enemies.
“Once he became Emir, he left with his whole family,” said Hafiz Abdul Majeed, who runs the Al Haaj mosque, adding that he himself studied for several years under Akhundzada.
Analysts say Pakistan has historically backed the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against India’s influence. Pakistan denies this.
At the Al Haaj mosque, where scores of teenaged boys attend classes at a religious school, the metal door of the room where Akhundzada is said to have rested has his name painted on a wall in large calligraphic text.
Colleagues and students described Akhundzada as a studious disciplinarian.
Majeed, the mosque administrator, said Akhundzada taught students from 8 am to noon every morning at the mosque, and was paid a monthly salary of 10,000 Pakistani rupees. “We are sad that he is gone because he was a great teacher and a great asset for this mosque,” he said.
Asked how someone closely associated with the Taliban could live so openly, Majeed replied: “He was just a man of faith. He was a ‘Sheikh-ul-Hadith’ (scholar of Islam’s Hadith texts). And when he became Emir, he left here. That’s all we know.”
One former pupil at Al Haaj, Pai Khan, says he heard Akhundzada speak at a public rally in Quetta in 2014 commemorating the death of an Afghan Taliban commander.