The Afghan Taliban have named a deputy to former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour as their new leader, a spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday, the group’s first official confirmation that Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week.
The newly appointed successor is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of Mansour’s two deputies. He is a scholar known for extremist views and is unlikely to back a peace process with Kabul. The insurgent group said he was chosen at a meeting of Taliban leaders, which is believed to have taken place in Pakistan, but offered no other details.
Within an hour of the announcement, a suicide bomber attacked a shuttle bus carrying court employees west of the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing as many as 11 people and wounding several others, including children. The Taliban promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attack was in response to the Afghan government’s decision earlier this month to execute six Taliban prisoners on death row. Other attacks would follow, he added.
“We will continue on this path,” he said in a statement.
Mansour was killed in Pakistan on Saturday when his vehicle was struck by a U.S. drone plane, an attack believed to be the first time a Taliban leader was killed in such a way inside Pakistani territory.
The United States and the Afghan government have said that Mansour had been an obstacle to a peace process, which ground to a halt when he refused to participate in talks with the Afghan government earlier this year. Instead, he intensified the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.
Mansour had officially led the Taliban since last summer, when the death of the movement’s founder, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar became public. But he is believed to have run the movement in Mullah Omar’s name for more than two years. The revelation of Mullah Omar’s death and Mansour’s deception led to widespread mistrust, with some senior Taliban leaders leaving the group to set up their own factions.
Some of these rivals fought Mansour’s men for land, mostly in the opium poppy-growing southern Taliban heartland.
Senior Taliban figures have said Mansour’s death could strengthen and unify the movement, as he was in some ways a divisive figure. The identity of his successor was expected to be an indication of the direction the insurgency would take, either toward peace or continued war.
Haibatullah Akhunzada, who was named in a United Nations report last year as the Taliban’s former chief justice, is reported to be a respected religious scholar but little is known of his background.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of a network blamed for many high-profile bombs attacks in Kabul in recent years, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, will serve as deputies, Mujahid said in the statement.
“All people are required to obey the new Emir-al-Momineen (commander of the faithful),” the statement said.
The announcement, following a meeting of the Taliban’s main shura or leadership council, ends three days of confusion during which the terrorist movement had provided no official reaction to the death of Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan on Saturday.
The statement also called on all Muslims to mourn Mansour for three days, starting from Wednesday. It also attempted to calm any qualms among the rank and file by calling for unity and obedience to the new leader.
WARNING FOR NEW LEADER
A spokesman for Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah called on the new Taliban leader to join talks, or face dire consequences.
“We invite Mula #Haibatullah to peace. Political settlement is the only option for #Taliban or new leadership will face the fate of #Mansoor,” spokesman Javid Faisal said in a tweet.
The United States, Pakistan and China have also been trying to get the militants to the negotiating table to end a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and security personnel and left Afghanistan seriously unstable.
The Taliban have made big gains since NATO forces ended their main combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, and now control more of the country than at any time since they were toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001.