PANJSHIR VALLEY, Northern Afghanistan – It’s a simple round white chapel with a green dome. A sign beside the rocky trail points to “The Chief of the Martyr’s Hill.” The monument, located in one of the definitive Shangri La-like corners of the Panjshir, in a lush green valley bisected by the Panjshir River, is dwarfed by imposing naked mountains.
Earlier this week, scores of men worked around the clock in scorching sun and pitch darkness, wind and dust to add the finishing touches to the chapel. Students took a whole day to bicycle from the capital Kabul to pay their respects, dodging bombed bridges and wrecks of tanks, carrying bouquets of flowers and green banners with the inscription, “We follow the way of Masoud.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai paid his visit on Saturday – but not on the highly significant September 9, a date that for a great deal of fractured Afghanistan carries infinitely more meaning than September 11 does for many people in the West.
For September 9 was the day a year ago that Ahmad Shah Masoud, 48, mujahideen hero, the Lion of the Panjshir, former vice-president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, resistance leader for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and the closest to a nationalist leader and hero Afghanistan has had in a long time, was assassinated, and he now lies buried in “The Chief of the Martyr’s Hill.” It’s an unpretentious black marble grave, in the middle of the chapel, marked with a green Islamic flag.
The circumstances surrounding news of Masoud’s death are no longer a mystery. Everybody – not only Panjshiris – know that his death was kept secret for days: even his faithful field commanders and his own family didn’t know that his body was lying in a morgue in southern Tajikistan when they were being told only that he had had an accident, but was well. According to the official Northern Alliance version, he had “suffered an accident” with only “minor injuries.” Then, a few days later, he was “in a coma” in a Tajik hospital. And when he “officially” died, the world he had lived in had been turned upside down by the events of September 11, and the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been sealed.
But disturbing questions remain. Al-Qaeda may have hit Masoud to finish off the last and only hurdle for the Taliban to control all of Afghanistan – the Northern Alliance controlled between 5 percent and 10 percent of the country at the time. Masoud was a nemesis for Osama bin Laden, whose regional masterplan included the integration of Afghanistan’s northern neighbors in a radical Islamic axis.
Masoud’s killing, too, may have been bin Laden’s personal gift to Taliban leader Mullah Omar for the shelter that the Taliban provided al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The assassination, further, may have been the key event that sent the signal for the September 11 operation in the US. Ironically, some people argue that the only power to have profited from Masoud’s killing was America itself: Washington would never have been allowed to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan if Masoud, a nationalist leader par excellence, had been in charge of the Northern Alliance’s military.
The plot to kill Masoud was carried out by a Brussels-based Tunisian terrorist cell. Masoud was assassinated by two killers in their 30s posing as journalists and carrying fake Moroccan passports. The “reporter” called himself Karim Touzani – affable and relaxed. The surly, burly “cameraman” – who carried explosives in his battery pack – called himself Kacem Bakkali. Their letters of introduction presented them as television journalists from a certain Islamic Observation Center, based in London and concerned with “human rights issues for Muslims all over the world.”
Already in 1999 European intelligence had begun to notice increased al-Qaeda recruiting activity among Tunisians living in Europe. A key recruit was Abdul Sattar Dahmane, a Tunisian resident of Belgium. He had been trained in one of al-Qaeda’s Afghan military camps, where he lived in a house nearby with his Moroccan wife, Malika. In the spring of 2001 Dahmane was selected for a crucial mission. As he had studied journalism in Tunisia and Belgium, he would pose as a television interviewer, alongside another Tunisian posing as a cameraman – Rachid Bourawi, an illegal immigrant to Belgium. According to European intelligence, Dahmane was an operative in Brussels and London for the Tunisian Fighting Group, an organization with ties to al-Qaeda. The established European theory for the Masoud hit is that the Tunisian Fighting Group agreed to kill Masoud in exchange for its fighters training in al-Qaeda’s Afghan military camps.
Visiting Masoud in the Panjshir was an inescapable ritual for any journalist covering Afghanistan. Asia Times Online was there in the first two weeks of August 2001. Everybody had to go through the same motions: kill time in Dushanbe while waiting for a battered Russian MI-17 helicopter of the rickety Northern Alliance air force to be transported to the Panjshir. Like everybody else, the fake journalists stayed in a guesthouse of the Northern Alliance, close to the village of Bazarak. The guesthouse arrangement was another graphic sign of the extreme politeness of Panjshiris: journalists received a free room, three meals a day, access to a translator at modest rates and the requisite tour of the frontlines in the war against the Taliban.
Masoud was always ready and willing to meet journalists – especially from all corners of the Muslim world. He was particularly frustrated by the general perception in the Middle East that his beloved mujahideen were a tool of the Russians or other foreign powers, acting against the best interests of Muslims. When he talked to Asia Times Online – his last interview in the Panjshir before he moved to Khwaja Bahauddin, his far-flung base near the Tajik border, Masoud repeatedly accused the Taliban of destroying Afghanistan with the assistance of Arabs and Pakistanis.
The Northern Alliance was in deep trouble in the spring and summer of 2001. At least 16,000 Taliban, including a few thousand hardcore al-Qaeda warriors, were ready to take all of Takhar province, north of the Panjshir Valley. The Taliban were planning a final offensive to wipe out any resistance, take control of the whole of Afghanistan and increase their support of hardcore Islamist movements in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The key arrangement in the Masoud killing was the way in which the fake Moroccan journalists managed to get into the Panjshir. This happened through an introduction by one Dr Hani, an Egyptian friend dating back from the anti-USSR jihad of the 1980s of the notorious “Professor” Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – renamed by his Arab patrons Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Dr Hani apparently called Sayyaf from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Sayyaf agreed to endorse the “journalists” and request permission for them to follow the usual tour of the frontlines.
Repeated attempts recently by Asia Times Online to reach Sayyaf proved unfruitful. Some people said that he was incognito in Kabul. Some people said that he had been to a secret meeting in eastern Kunar province, along with fierce Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now promoted by the Pentagon to the status of America’s number one “wanted dead or dead” villain in Afghanistan. Some people said that Sayyaf would never agree to talk to foreigners about his controversial role in the Masoud killing. But a source in Kabul confirmed that during the loya jirga (grand council) last June, Sayyaf admitted that the two fake journalists had spent two weeks with him and his people – in Taliban-controlled territory – before crossing to the Northern Alliance areas.
Sayyaf, a Kharruti Pashtun from Paghman, in Kabul province, is the leader of the Ittihad-e-Islami (The Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan), a party that during the 1980s was basically a vehicle for Sayyaf to receive loads of funds and weapons from wealthy Arab donors. Sayyaf is still a big supporter of the strict Wahhabi Islam and thanks to his solid Arab connections remains the most well-known mujahideen leader in Saudi Arabia, heartland of Wahhabism. Unlike Masoud, he is fiercely opposed to nationalism, and supports a pan-Islamic ideal, and he is now definitely plotting with Hekmatyar to undermine the already fragile Hamid Karzai government in Kabul and to see all foreign troops booted out of Afghanistan.
Sayyaf’s relationship with Masoud was always extremely complex. Masoud had tremendous problems dealing with fundamentalists like Sayyaf and Osama bin Laden himself – who enjoyed unlimited Arab support. Bin Laden and other future al-Qaeda notables were among the thousands of Arabs who fought alongside Sayyaf in the 1980s jihad. During the chaotic mujahideen “governments” of 1992-1996, Masoud was defense minister to President Barhanuddin Rabbani, and Sayyaf was a presidential adviser. These “governments” were such in name only: warlords at the time wreaked havoc in Afghanistan and created the conditions for the emergence of the Taliban.
Bismillah Khan, a stocky, workaholic warlord who had fought alongside Masoud for 22 years and was one of his top generals, was the man who led the fake Moroccan journalists on the required frontline tour after Masoud himself approved their visit. He insisted on demonstrating to the “Moroccans” that only Afghans were members of the Northern Alliance. Bismillah Khan remembers that these posers were different. They didn’t ask for interviews and they filmed practically nothing. Before they finally managed to kill him, there were a few near-misses between them and Masoud. One day, the Lion of the Panjshir himself showed up at the guesthouse, but they were away. Another day they were supposed to travel in his helicopter back to Khwaja Bahauddin. But the helicopter was overloaded – as usual – and they had to stay behind.
The fact that they didn’t ask many questions, like other journalists, according to Bismillah Khan, caused widespread suspicion. But they could not be challenged because they were Sayyaf’s guests. And that’s the key to the mystery. The mysterious phone call from Bosnia-Herzegovina which convinced Sayyaf to invite the two journalists to the Panjshir actually came from Kandahar – in the heart of Taliban land. But nobody among the Panjshiris took pains to investigate it at the time.
Helicopter rides were one more inevitable fixture in every visit to the Panjshir. Anybody had to wait sometimes days for the skies to clear: it’s suicidal to fly in the Hindu Kush under a cloudy sky. And that’s why the fake journalists had to wait a few extra days before traveling to Khwaja Bahauddin – where they arrived as “guests of Sayyaf.” Their interview was once again delayed because the summer Taliban-al-Qaeda offensive had begun – and Masoud was extremely busy. The “Moroccans” had to kill their time in a room next door to General Mohammed Arif, Masoud’s chief of internal security.
Abdul Malik, commander of the military tank base in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan – now working closely with American Special Forces – today tells a substantially different version of Bismillah Khan’s story. Malik says that “Arabs” forced Sayyaf to introduce the fake journalists to Bismillah Khan, who in turn got them to Masoud. Anyway one looks at it, though, Sayyaf’s role remains murky.
In the summer of 2001, Masoud was still trying to recover from a devastating blow in 2000 when the Taliban captured his former headquarters in Taloqan. When he spoke to Asia Times Online he was not only preparing a defense plan against the renewed Taliban attack, but also a Northern Alliance plan to retake Taloqan – and that was as far as his dreams were set. During the first months of 2001 Masoud was involved in a tireless effort to rally commanders, major regional warlords and all kinds of tribal factions to fight against the Taliban. Through skilful diplomacy, he managed to get more money from Iran and more weapons from Russia. By late spring, all major warlords – Uzbek General Abdul Dostum, Hazara Karim Khalili and the now-called “Emir of southwest Afghanistan” Ismail Khan were back in the country from exile in Turkey and Iran, and ready to fight the Taliban.
During the 1990s, and especially during the time of the Taliban rule, which began in 1996, Washington never knew exactly how to deal with Masoud. But after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents sought a meeting with Masoud in Dushanbe. The CIA wanted information on how to get to bin Laden. Masoud carefully considered all the angles, but ultimately he could not but criticize American shortsightedness. For the Bill Clinton administration, the ultimate aim was to get bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. For Masoud, the main point was to destroy the Taliban. He repeatedly stressed at the time that “without the Taliban, Osama can’t do anything.”
Masoud, indeed, had agents and intelligence in the heart of Taliban country. The best example is how his Panjshiris planted a powerful truck bomb just outside Mullah Omar’s compound in central Kandahar, in 1999. The explosion left a huge crater and killed 10 people, including three of Mullah Omar’s bodyguards. Omar escaped, almost by a miracle, but if the Northern Alliance could get close to the Taliban, they could not penetrate al-Qaeda’s ultra-hardcore security to try to find and menace bin Laden. And as much as the Northern Alliance could penetrate the Taliban, security chief Arif – now head of intelligence of Hamid Karzai’s government – says that “Osama was actively trying to recruit spies inside the Panjshir Valley.” But once again, no one investigated the “Moroccans.”
In his interview with Asia Times Online, the second-to-last in his lifetime, Masoud repeatedly portrayed al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan as a sort of “triangle of evil.” He criticized the US for basically following a Pakistani plan: try to “reform” the Taliban and concentrate on seducing Taliban “moderates” (a contradiction in terms). There were never any moderates within the Taliban. Mullah Omar was totally under the spell of bin Laden. American diplomats with knowledge of Central Asia were warning about the “Arabization” of Afghanistan. But no one in Washington was listening. The US only got the message after September 11 – and after Masoud’s death.
In the first months of 2001, Masoud calculated that he had to involve himself in a complex gamble: change his image from warrior to statesman. He addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg, France, in April 2001. This was his first official trip to the West. He tried hard to attract Western support for the resistance against the Taliban. But still no one was listening. In Strasbourg, Masoud delivered a stunning message that nobody took seriously at the time: “If President Bush doesn’t help us, then these terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon – and it will be too late.”
The Afghan fundamentalist old guard – people such as Rabbani and Sayyaf – obviously hated Masoud’s new international status. The wife of one of Masoud’s killers told European intelligence early this year that Masoud’s comments were interpreted as a direct threat to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The plot to kill him may have started immediately after his visit to Europe. According to French intelligence sources, the amassed evidence shows that the fake Moroccan passports were prepared between April and May, as well as one of the letters of introduction.
Panjshiris now in Kabul, all in government jobs, still remember vividly the final hours of the Lion. On Saturday evening, September 8, the Taliban finally threw everything they had against the Northern Alliance. General Bismillah Khan was desperate. He called Masoud by satellite telephone for urgent strategic advice. Masoud delivered – in style – and then spent the rest of the night talking Persian poetry with the Northern Alliance’s ambassador to India. At 4 am on September 9, while Masoud and his friend were still talking against the backdrop of the legendary Amu Darya river, his personal secretary came with the news that Bismillah Khan’s mujahideen had stood their ground against the Taliban. Masoud took his morning prayer, slept for a little more than an hour and had his usual breakfast of tea, nan bread, almonds and cream.
Masoud then called Bismillah Khan by radio at the frontline in Jabal Saraj, south of the Panjshir. He wanted bodies of dead Arabs transported by helicopter as soon as possible so that he could show them to the fake Moroccan journalists. The long-awaited interview would be next door to his office, in the bungalow of security chief Arif. Masoud was on the phone when the journalists entered the room. They were accompanied by another journalist, Fahim Dashty, a Panjshiri who was shooting a documentary on Masoud. The visitors showed their letters of introduction from the Islamic Observation Center in London and from Arabic News International. Masoud ordered green tea for all. Masoud asked them about their trip in Taliban land. They said that Mullah Omar had refused them an interview because television is haram – forbidden under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia (Islamic Law). Ahmad Jamshid, Masoud’s personal secretary, says this was the last time that he saw Masoud smiling.
The killer cameraman then adjusted his tripod at a very low level, with the camera lens pointing to Masoud’s chest, about two meters away. Masoud asked to see the list of questions, which were then translated from English to Persian. Jamshid, the personal secretary, went out of the room. Dashty, the Panjshiri documentary maker, was still adjusting his camera. Then suddenly, as the Moroccan’s camera was switched on, a “blue, thick fire” engulfed the room, which was totally destroyed. There was a strong smell of gunpowder. A bomb hidden in the battery pack of the camera cut the body of the “cameraman” in two. But the “reporter” was only slightly injured and he tried to escape, saying that he didn’t know what happened. A bunch of Panjshiris threw him into an empty room, and when he tried to escape through a window he was instantly killed.
Haji Mohammad Omar, Masoud’s bodyguard for the past 12 years, ran into the devastated room and found Masoud still seated in an armchair, drenched in blood. With other Panjshiris they climbed into a Toyota Hi-Lux, holding Masoud’s body, and rushed on a mad drive to Khwaja Bahauddin airstrip. Masoud was still breathing when they boarded the helicopter. But soon it was over. “Amir Sahib had stopped breathing,” said Haji Omar. Everybody fell silent. When the helicopter arrived 10 minutes later at a clinic in southern Tajikistan, doctors found that Masoud’s heart had been pierced by two pieces of shrapnel.
A few days after September 11, a green MI-17 Russian helicopter showed up in Panjshir Valley. This time it was carrying CIA officials, with an official proposal. Since 1996, Masoud had tried to convince the US to smash the Taliban first, and then get bin Laden. Now, the US government was finally proposing the same thing: we need your help to smash the Taliban, because we think that this is the way to get to bin Laden. Since 1996, Masoud had fought the Taliban, asking – in vain – for weapons, supplies and money from the US and the European Union. Now, the US government was promising weapons, supplies and a lot of money.
Masoud said a few days before his death that his dream was to see peace in Afghanistan, and then work to maintain peace until he died an old man. He died relatively young, at 48, and Afghanistan is still not at peace. Afghans still contemplate what they describe as an ominous future. They wonder if the sacrifice of a quintessential Afghan hero was still not enough to placate the gods.
Meanwhile, the legend of the Panjshir Lion lives – stronger than ever. French intellectuals are proposing Masoud for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize. The Lion would have said not yet – not until peace reigns in the land of the proud Afghans.