The Afghan Taliban confirmed the death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. airstrike and named the group’s chief justice as his replacement early Wednesday.
Haibatullah Akhundzada was elevated to the group’s top position.
Akhundzada also served as a judge during the Taliban regime. After the group was routed by the U.S. invasion in 2001, he was made shadow chief justice. He has issued religious edits or “fatwas” justifying terrorist operations.
Mansour was killed Saturday in a U.S. airstrike in southwest Pakistan — the first time since the beginning of the Afghan war that the United States had directly targeted a Taliban leader.
In a statement, the Taliban confirmed his death.
“With heavy heart, but full belief in Allah’s will, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announces that the leader of the Islamic Emirate [Commander of the Faithful] Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was martyred in an American invading and evil forces’ drone strike on Saturday,” the statement said.
When Akhundzada was appointed Mansour’s deputy last year, he ran a large madrasa — or religious school — in Pakistan’s lawless Balochistan province.
As one of Mansour’s teachers, he wielded great influence over the group’s leadership.
Sarajuddin Haqqani, the operational commander of the dreaded network of the same name, was named first deputy. One Western diplomat has dubbed the Haqqanis “the Kennedys of the Taliban movement.”
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, was named second deputy, Taliban spokesman told NBC News.
Mansour’s death presented the Taliban with its second leadership crisis since last July — when the group revealed that Mullah Omar had died two years earlier in 2013.