Iran’s Taliban Connection: Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 6

On June 1, a report from the UN monitoring team was publicly released, stating that, “at least one group of senior Taliban had already formed a new group in opposition to any possible peace agreement, purportedly known as Hezb-e Wilayat Islami…” The report stated that the group was formed by former Taliban leaders residing outside Afghanistan. Further investigation by other sources concluded that this new faction was formed and is now based in Iran (Tolo News, June 3; UN, May 27; Gandhara, June 9).

While the exact membership of the new group has not yet been revealed, the recent news brings to focus the role of Taliban leaders with ties to Tehran. One of the most prominent of such leaders is Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir.

Zakir was born in 1973 in Soply, in the Kajaki district of Helmand province. He is an ethnic Pashtun and member of the Alizai tribe. Zakir is believed to have joined the Taliban in 1997, rising to a position of leadership within the organization. In 2001, however, he surrendered to U.S.-led coalition forces in Mazar-e-Sharif as the Taliban regime began collapsing. He became a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, until his transfer to the Afghan prison Pul-e-Charki prison in December 2007. However, in a move that would prove controversial, Zakir would be released by the government in May 2008, allegedly due to pressure from tribal elders (Afghan Bios, September 4, 2016; Al Jazeera, January 27, 2016).

After his release, Zakir quickly rejoined the insurgency, traveling to Quetta, Pakistan, and becoming an influential in the Quetta Shura, or Rahbari Shura, the Taliban leadership council. From there, he became a prominent deputy to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder and then-leader of the Taliban, overseeing operations in southern Afghanistan and the organizations’ provincial shadow governments, including in his native Helmand.

In 2010, Mullah Omar appointed Zakir as leader of the Taliban’s military commission, in charge of the insurgency’s day-to-day operations throughout Afghanistan. Zakir was reportedly removed from his position in 2014 due to differences with the senior Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The Taliban statement at the time stated that his resignation from the position was “due to his prolonged battle with ill-health,” but it was believed to be due to Zakir and Mansour’s differences over peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

In 2015, when Mullah Omar’s death was publicly revealed—he is believed to have actually died in 2013—Mansour succeeded him. Mansour’s elevation to leadership sparked internal tension within the Taliban and the emergence of breakaway factions in the group. He reportedly attempted to open negotiations with the Afghan government, and was considered close to Pakistani intelligence. Zakir had boycotted the process which appointed Mansour as supreme leader in 2015, and in fact favored the appointment of Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob (Al Jazeera, August 3, 2015). In addition, Zakir, an avowed hardliner, was opposed to reconciliation with the Afghan and U.S. governments. However, Zakir swore allegiance to Mansour on March 30, 2016, after the new leader reportedly met some of his demands (Pakistan Tribune, March 30, 2016). These demands were rumored to include a review of the Taliban’s intra-Afghan peace strategy and other internal policies. Zakir, an avowed hardliner, held back on swearing allegiance to Mansour because of what he saw as a conciliatory policy toward the Afghan government, and closeness with Pakistan (Outlook, April 11, 2016). Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, and was succeeded within four days by Haibatullah Akhundzada, the current leader of the Taliban. Akhundzada was considered an apolitical choice, and was reportedly the unanimous decision of the Quetta Shura (Pakistan Tribune, May 26, 2016; Outlook Afghanistan, May 29, 2016; see MLM, December 10, 2018).

Zakir’s replacement as head of the Taliban’s military commission, Ibrahim Sardar, was himself recently replaced by Mullah Yaqoob on May 7, 2020. Following this reorganization, Sardar and Zakir were made deputies to Yaqoob, with each overseeing operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan, respectively (Arab News, May 10). The move was seen as an attempt to unify the organization’s leadership in the runup to intra-Afghan peace talks. Sardar and Zakir are both Alizai tribesmen, and hardliners who are opposed to peace talks. The two are representative of a wider faction in favor of continued fighting, and are opposed to the Nurazi tribal faction loyal to Akhundzada (UN, May 27; see MLM, June 2).

Connection to Iran

In October 2014, Zakir reportedly led a secret delegation of Taliban leaders to Iran, to discuss the possibility of establishing a safe haven there for the organization. Zakir hoped the meeting would result in a new foreign sponsor that would balance the influence of the Pakistani government on the Taliban. However, Tehran refused to provide safe haven for the group unless it broke ties with al-Qaeda, which Zakir refused to do. He was able to attain financial assistance from Tehran, however, and the Iranian emissaries would allow the treatment of injured Taliban fighters to occur in their country (see TM, June 12, 2015). For Zakir, this was an attempt to regain influence in the organization after his removal by Mansour as head of the Taliban’s military commission.

While this early mission to Iran was not a complete success, it did place Zakir in connection to Iranian officials. On October 23, 2018, the U.S. Treasury, under the multinational Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) designated nine Taliban officials for facilitating support for the group from Iran, in order to undermine the Afghan government. One of these nine individuals was Ibrahim Sadar, who is closely aligned with Zakir as leaders of a conservative, hardline faction of the Taliban. U.S. Treasury reports that Sadar received monetary support and individual combat training to its fighters from Iran (U.S. Treasury, October 23, 2018; Gandhara, June 10). Iran is attempting to use its support to make inroads with the group, hedging its bets in case the Taliban successfully takes over the country and reestablishes their Islamic Emirate.


Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir remains a popular military leader among hardline Taliban commanders in Afghanistan. Despite losing his position as head of the group’s military commission in 2014, and becoming a deputy to the younger Mullah Yaqoob in 2020, he still holds support and influence over a large number of fighters. Zakir holds the potential to act as a spoiler in the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan. With the support of a conservative, hardline faction within the Taliban, which he leads, and with connections to Iran—making him potentially more independent from Pakistani pressure—Zakir has little motivation to engage in the peace process. He will likely continue to push his organization to continue fighting until they have accomplished their military objectives on the battlefield, which is the departure of US forces from Afghanistan.