20 years since the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud

Two days before 9/11, an Al-Qaeda suicide squad posing as journalists sat down for an interview with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the last major commander resisting the jihadist group’s Taliban allies in northern Afghanistan.

Before I could answer a question, they detonated explosives that investigators later said had been cleverly disguised in their camera gear.

Twenty years later, the assassination of Massoud and the September 11 attacks in the United States are for many Afghans the twin cataclysms that ushered in another era of uncertainty and bloodshed, and that continue to resonate after the return of the Taliban.

The charismatic Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir for his native valley, built his name during the 1980s as a brilliant guerrilla commander repelling Soviet forces.

In the late 1990s, he was fighting the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies.

They both wanted him to leave.

The audacious coup was ordered by Osama bin Laden himself.

The killers pretended to be filming a documentary and secured Massoud’s interview by featuring a fabricated backstory printed on a letterhead from an Islamic center in Britain. They used stolen Belgian passports to travel.

Then they hit a wall: Massoud was too busy to sit with them when they arrived in August 2001 at their base in the village of Khwaja Bahauddin.

“They spent 10 days with us waiting calmly and patiently, and never unnecessarily pressing the interview,” Fahim Dashti, a journalist and close associate of Massoud, told AFP a few weeks after the murder.

Dashti was setting up his own camera to record the interview while the two Al-Qaeda agents relayed their questions in Arabic to the commander’s closest aide, Masood Khalili, for translation.

“We were not comfortable,” Khalili told AFP in October 2001, especially since they had asked questions about bin Laden.

“The ‘cameraman’ had a nasty smile. The ‘journalist’ was very calm,” he said.

Just when Massoud heard the translation, the explosives went off.

‘Your leader is dead’

The carnage sent shockwaves across Afghanistan and the world.

Massoud was seen as the last great hope by anti-Taliban Afghans at the time, and by Western governments as a powerful ally against even harder-line Islamists.

With his Northern Alliance resistance already on the defensive against the Taliban, his aides concealed his death for days.

A week after his death, Massoud was buried in his home district of Bazarak, his body draped in the colors of the Afghan flag and with thousands of followers in the funeral procession.

A marble tomb was built which attracted a large number of devotees.

“When (Massoud) was killed, I was in Panjshir. The resistance forces were … surrounded on all sides,” a 47-year-old resident of the area, who requested anonymity out of fear of safety, told AFP. .

“The Taliban even announced on the radio: their leader is dead and you are finished. But … the leader’s death gave the people another reason to fight harder.”

The tables turned in a few weeks when the United States, seeking to punish the Taliban for harboring the perpetrators of 9/11, invaded Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime fell in late 2001, hit by US bombers led by Northern Alliance fighters.

Al-Qaeda, hoping to take the lead against both the United States and Afghanistan with its two major attacks, was on the run.

Panjshir Falls

The Taliban launched a blitzkrieg offensive as the last US-led troops left Afghanistan this year, culminating their 20-year insurgency with the capture of Kabul on August 15.

Once again, the main opposition emerged in Panjshir, led this time by Ahmad Massoud, who was 12 when Al-Qaeda killed his father.

But the Taliban quickly sent fighters to surround the area, finally claiming on Monday that they had captured Panjshir.

Among the resistance killed in the heavy fighting was Fahim Dashti, the journalist who survived the Massoud bombing 20 years ago.

A Taliban account posted a photo of fighters in Panjshir standing in front of a vandalized Ahmad Shah Massoud poster.

Ahmad Shah Massoud’s brother, Ahmad Wali, said in Geneva on Tuesday that while his National Resistance Front was “wounded”, thousands of fighters may return at any time.

It’s a difficult scenario for Mohammad Sana Safa, a 63-year-old man who worked with Massoud in the 1980s when there were daily attacks by the Soviets.

“Ahmad Massoud is a young, patriotic man, but he has no military experience like his father,” Safa said Monday.

“If (his father) had been alive today, we would not have witnessed this … Panjshir’s fall to the Taliban.”


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