Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada
|Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada
|Date of birth
|Former Pashtun Sufi and Taliban Leader
|History and Biodata
Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada died at the age of 84 in the Pakistan city of Quetta. Two men on a motorcycle shot him when he came out of a mosque following his afternoon prayers on 29 January 2014. The assassins managed to escape.
Taleban and Pakistani intelligence sources based in Quetta accused the Afghan secret service NDS of the murder. Other recent murders of religious leaders in Quetta – like those of Mullah Salim and Mullah Nurullah Hotak, both leading Taleban members– were also described as the result of NDS cross-border operations by these sources. A member of Zakeri’s tribe in Kandahar, however, said Zakeri was not necessarily an enemy of the Afghan state – or the Taleban or the Pakistan intelligence, other possible perpetrators – but he might have been killed because of a private conflict.
Zakeri’s son Qayum said over the local radio in Kandahar that his father had foreseen that he would one day be killed by the US. “My murderers will be Americans”, his son quoted him, adding that his father had always been strongly opposed to the US.
Zakeri united several aspects in his person. He was an alem (a religious scholar), a political activist since at least the 1960s – who later, in the mid-1990s, tried to influence the Taleban movement and its supreme leader when it was still young – and a practitioner of Sufi rituals that are deeply embedded in the beliefs of many Afghans.
It was less reported that Zakeri’s ideas clashed with those of the movement’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and led to a fall out between the two. As a consequence, not many Taleban would have mourned Zakeri’s death, it is said in Quetta, since he had become an outcast.
During the ‘jihad’ against the Soviets, Zakeri was in prison for a while, but – as a legend goes – he prayed so hard that he was able to free himself from his handcuffs. After that, he moved to Quetta, where he established his own religious organisation, Ettehad-e Ulema-ye Afghanistan.
Because of their tribal link, Mullah Omar’s father, who died when the later Taleban leader was only two years old, was sometimes a guest of Zakeri, his followers claim. Also Mullah Omar’s stepfather, who raised the boy after his father’s death, had good relations with the Pir, as Khateb Akhundzada, a mullah in the centre of Kandahar, told the author. Mullah Omar’s two uncles also were enthusiastic practitioners of Sufi traditions. According to a former Taleban minister, the young Mullah Omar might have received some religious lessons from Zakeri, but was not considered close to him. Mullah Omar received most of his education from other Sufi teachers, like Haji Baba whose grave Mullah Omar – when he was the Taleban leader – would visit almost every week.
Zakeri played a role in 1995–96, when the Taleban initially had enormous trouble taking Kabul. The then secretary of Mullah Omar remembers an internal conflict over whether to continue fighting or to negotiate a peaceful handover of the city with the Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar refused to negotiate and possibly share power with men that, he said, “had blood on their hands.” The disagreement grew so strong that pro-negotiations Taleban leaders like justice minister Mullah Nuruddin Torabi and health minister Abbas Stanakzai pushed for his removal. The majority though, including Zakeri, supported Mullah Omar and kept Torabi’s group at bay.
But relations between Zakeri and Mullah Omar were never smooth. It was a clash of personalities and status: Zakeri being senior in age to Omar, while the latter – as amir-ul-momenin – was senior in rank.
Zakeri preferred to rely mostly on mullahs. In 1997, he angrily left Mullah Omar, when the Taleban leader relied on a renegade commander, General Dostum, and former communist army officer, Abdul Malek, to take the city of Mazar-e Sharif.
Zakeri later became more extreme, which pushed him back into the limelight. Zakeri joined Osama bin Laden and extremist Pakistani religious leaders who called for a global jihad. In a 1998 fatwa, Zakiri propagated an “armed crusade” by all Muslims in the world against the Americans, which corresponded with the ideas of Osama bin Laden, who had received asylum in Afghanistan.
Zakeri started openly cursing Mullah Omar and accused him of being soft and incapable of running a state. According to sources on both sides, he questioned the level of Mullah Omar’s religious education, and insulted him as the ‘one-eyed mullah’, a curse from the Quran. Soon Mullah Omar stopped seeing Zakeri and ignored his suggestions, often written down as fatwas, which Zakeri kept sending.
It is not completely clear how much influence Abdullah Zakeri Sahebzada wielded in the Taleban movement. He participated in a number of crucial meetings, particularly before the Taleban came to power, and he had access to their key leaders. Later on, his purist position, to keep the movement free of fellow travellers and opportunists and limit government positions to religious leaders only, and his jihadist stance as well as his short temper collided with the ideas of the ideologically more eclectic Mullah Omar. Being from the same tribe no longer bridged the gap. The more Zakeri’s influence on the Taleban leader waned, the more extremist his positions became.
This led to some curious developments: Zakeri has sometimes been confused with or thought a relative of the leading Taleban military commander, Abdul Qayum Zaker (whose ‘retirement’ for ‘health reasons’ was announced in late April). Zakeri's son Karim Agha was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in 2011, although he did not occupy any position in the movement. He was released after two years. ( 7 September 2013)
Nobody knows yet what the future of the Zakeri Sahebzada family will be, particularly its status as one of Sufi Pirs. Zakeri sent one of his sons to receive higher education, and he speaks fluent English. Another one, Qayum, has already been seen in the mosques of Quetta and Karachi introducing himself as the successor, the one to go to for guidance, both spiritual and political.