St. Petersburg Times Online
Advertisement
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

The man who would have led Afghanistan

Ahmed Shah Massoud's assassination one year ago foreshadowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002


Ahmed Shah Massoud's assassination one year ago foreshadowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan -- Exactly one year ago today, two suicide bombers posing as TV journalists murdered a man named Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Few Americans had heard of Massoud then, and few know much about him now. But what happened to Massoud on Sept. 9 would become one of the chilling mysteries of Sept. 11:

Did the death of one man in a remote part of Afghanistan foreshadow the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in America just two days later?

In all likelihood, the answer is yes.

Massoud, 48, was the dashing commander of the Northern Alliance, the resistance group hoping to rid Afghanistan of its repressive Taliban rulers and the terrorist network they sheltered, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida is widely assumed to have planned the September hijackings -- attacks that could bring a massive retaliation by America, the terrorists knew. With Massoud out of the way, the Taliban and al-Qaida would be rid of their most effective opponent and be in a stronger position to resist the American onslaught.

But even now, much of what happened Sept. 9 remains unknown. One of Massoud's assassins has never been identified. Who ordered the killing is a mystery, too. And the death was not confirmed for several days, reducing chances that Western intelligence agents might have recognized it as a sign of something catastrophic about to happen.

"Afghanistan at that time was a base of international terrorists," says Faheem Dashty, an Afghan newspaper editor. "Al-Qaida, the Taliban, other terrorists, the Pakistan security services -- they were all working together and it was a plot to kill him.

"Beyond that I don't know."

Dashty was one of the last people to see Massoud alive. On Sept. 9, he was in the same room when the bomb exploded, severely burning Dashty and killing the man Afghans consider their national hero.

Called the "Lion of Panjshir," after the lush valley in which he was born, Massoud was a leader of unquestioned courage and aquiline good looks. A haunting National Geographic portrait of him -- his face both dreamy and resolute -- has become the iconic image of the modern freedom fighter.

Massoud rose to prominence battling the Soviet Union, which occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Unlike Soviet forces, who killed indiscriminately, Massoud was always aware of civilians:

"On several occasions, he ordered the Panjshir to be temporarily abandoned by its population so that he could undertake military operations against the Soviets, unhindered by humanitarian concerns," according to the International Center for Humanitarian Reporting, a non-profit journalism organization based in Geneva.

After the Soviets withdrew, Massoud served as Afghanistan's defense minister from 1992 until the Taliban seized power in 1996. Ousted from Kabul, he resumed his role as Afghanistan's most charismatic resistance leader.

In interviews last summer, just weeks before Sept. 11, Massoud made clear his disgust with the Taliban and his hopes for his country:

"The Taliban are not a force to be considered invincible," he told Newsweek Online. "They are distanced from the people now. They are weaker than in the past. There is only the assistance given by Pakistan, Osama bin Laden and other extremist groups that keep the Taliban on their feet. With a halt to that assistance, it is extremely difficult to survive."

And, "There should be an Afghanistan where every Afghan finds himself or herself happy. And I think that can only be assured by democracy based on consensus."

As head of the Northern Alliance and an avowed enemy of the Taliban, Massoud would have been a key figure in any attempt by America to oust the regime and the terrorists it harbored. The date for the Sept. 11 attacks presumably had been set months in advance; it is likely, too, that Massoud's foes wanted to dispose of him well ahead of that day.

"I hear there was a program to kill Mr. Massoud 20 or 22 days before,' says Dashty, the newspaper editor. "But they could only kill him on the 9th."

A filmmaker as well as an editor, Dashty had been working on a documentary about Massoud's life for five years. When he heard that two foreign journalists planned to interview Massoud at his headquarters in the town of Khodja Bahauddin, Dashty decided to go and film the meeting.

He spent nine days in a guest house with the men, who appeared to be in their mid 30s. One was tall and spoke English, French and Arabic; the other was short and spoke only Arabic. They never gave their nationalities, and they were vague about their employer.

"They said they didn't work for a newspaper or TV but an Islamic organization in London. They said, "We want to research Islam and we came here to Afghanistan because it is an Islamic country and Mr. Massoud is a famous commander.' "

Still, Dashty says, "they looked very calm and normal," and he suspected nothing.

The interview was set for Sunday, Sept. 9. Around noon, Dashty accompanied the men into a room where they found Massoud and four other people, including Massoud's security chief.

But the security was surprisingly slack. No one searched the men or examined their video camera. Massoud, who had survived assassination attempts, asked the men only where they came from and how they got there.

At Massoud's request, the tall man then read a list of 14 or 15 questions. Most were about the Northern Alliance's relations with the Taliban, al-Qaida and Pakistan, whose security forces had worked closely with the Taliban regime.

"I think the last question was about Osama bin Laden," Dashty recalls. "He asked, "If you take power in Kabul what would you do with Osama?' "

At that point, the short man set his camera on a tripod. Dashty, assuming the interview was about to begin, was adjusting the lights on his own equipment when he heard an explosion.

"In the first minute I couldn't understand what happened. My hands, my face, my legs were burned. I saw a security guard and I asked him to take me to the hospital and he said, "What happened to Massoud?' When I looked back I saw a lot of dust, smoke, the doors and windows were damaged. Then I saw Massoud, all of his body -- his face, his hands, his legs -- full of shrapnel."

The bomb, hidden in the camera, instantly killed the short man, Massoud's secretary and his security chief. The other assassin tried to run, but was shot by guards.

In retrospect, Dashty does not see how Massoud could have survived the blast, so devastating were his wounds. Still, he was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a hospital in neighboring Tajikistan. Northern Alliance aides insisted he was still alive. So did Massoud's brother, who told CNN in a phone interview from London that he had been assured Massoud had regained consciousness and was even eating and talking.

"He's in a much better situation now," the brother said.

In fact, Massoud almost certainly died on the spot, Dashty believes. But he and most other Afghans did not officially learn of his death until several days later. By that time, the Northern Alliance commander had been placed on a helicopter for his final journey, to the windswept mountaintop overlooking his beloved Panjshir Valley.

Today, Massoud lies in a simple grave marked by the green Northern Alliance flag. Around the earthen mound, his countrymen have erected a small mosque, which they rushed to complete by today's anniversary of his death. A more elaborate, permanent shrine will someday take its place.

French police eventually identified one of Massoud's assassins -- the short man -- as a Tunisian named Dahman abd Al Sattar. He and his companion had traveled under fake Belgian passports and posed at least part of the time as Moroccan TV journalists.

While living in Belgium, police said, Dahman joined a radical Islamic group that sent new recruits for training in Afghanistan, then supported them when they returned to Europe where they formed terrorist cells. To date, four people have been charged with involvement in Massoud's assassination; among the charges are providing false documents.

But who was the mastermind behind the plot? Last month, the Associated Press quoted a senior Taliban official as saying bin Laden personally ordered the murder. The official later denied making such a statement; the news agency stands by its report.

The AP story speculated that bin Laden might have had Massoud killed to ingratiate himself with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, thus ensuring Omar's protection if America retaliated for the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. officials have said they think bin Laden had prior information about Massoud's murder but have not commented on what level of involvement he might have had.

The full story of what happened a year ago may never be known. But one thing is certain: The assassination of Ahmed Massoud propelled an already legendary figure into one of mythic proportions.

On April 25, he was officially proclaimed the national hero of Afghanistan. His portrait is in homes, in shops and on postage stamps. A committee is collecting signatures to have him awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.

And every day, hundreds of admirers make the arduous trek to visit his grave.

"He was a brave man," says Sulaiman Durrani, 23, an Afghan now attending college in Pakistan. "He was the only man who stood behind the people, and this is why the people stand behind him."

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.