How they killed the Afghan lion
The Times UK
The killers called for Ahmed Masood, the man in Bin Laden's way, on the eve of the US attacks, writes Matthew Campbell
They seemed harmless enough, one a tall, gangly, bespectacled figure in his thirties, the other a younger man in jeans and a T-shirt. They said they were journalists from Morocco. They spoke fluent French. They were quiet, polite - the sort of young Arabs you might see in any Parisian cafe.
There was something strange, however, about the way the younger man clutched his little camera so tightly to his chest, recalled Françoise Causse, a French journalist who met them earlier this month on a reporting trip in Afghanistan's northern Panjshir valley. "It was like the camera you see tourists using everywhere," she said. "I never saw him take any pictures, though. And he turned his head away when I tried to take a picture of him."
She soon discovered the reason. This was no camera: the men were "human bombs" sent to kill General Ahmed Shah Masood, the Afghan leader in opposition to the Taliban regime in Kabul. Their assassination of this legendary military commander two weeks ago deprived the West of a potentially crucial ally in the effort to seize Osama Bin Laden.
One of the killers died in the blast from the booby-trapped camera or explosives strapped to his waist. The other was shot dead as he fled; and although their true identities may never be known, details gleaned from those who met them suggest worrying evidence of a new, more sophisticated suicide bomber, behind whom the followers of Masood see the blood-soaked hand of Bin Laden.
"I have no doubt this was his work," said Masstan Mehrabodin, the anti-Taliban Afghan chargé d'affaires in Paris. "Such well planned operations are rare in Afghanistan and in our country there is no tradition of suicide bombings."
Revered in the West, which found him a useful asset during the cold war, Masood was perhaps the most widely recognised Afghan in the world with his trademark "pacol" hat, designer boots and romantic nickname - "the Lion of Panjshir".
He had no shortage of enemies, however. In the decade in which they failed to subdue Afghan guerrilla fighters, the Russians tried at least 17 times to kill Masood, once in 1987 by kidnapping the family of one of his friends and threatening to kill them unless he agreed to assassinate Masood. The friend, according to one version, was given a KGB-designed weapon to fire a poisonous dart at Masood. Instead, he revealed the plot to the general, who feigned death for several days while the family was spirited out of the country. The Taliban had also plotted their rival's demise without success.
Enter Bin Laden. Did he decide to remove Masood prior to the terror attacks in America as a gesture of goodwill to his Kabul hosts, knowing they would come under pressure from America to expel him? The evidence suggests so.
Like the attacks in America, the planning for Masood's assassination appears to have begun some time ago - perhaps with the theft of two Belgian passports in Strasbourg and the Hague in 1999. These were presented at the Pakistani high commission in London in July by Karim Touzani, 34, and Kacem Bakkali, 26, to obtain journalist visas to visit that country.
The men arrived in Islamabad on July 25 and went to the Taliban embassy, where they presented a letter of introduction from the "Islamic Observation Centre". The group in Maida Vale, west London, described itself as a "worldwide organisation concerned with human rights issues for Muslims all over the world" and said the men were journalists for "Arabic News International". The letter was signed by Yasser al-Siori, an Egyptian dissident living in London, and requested help for its bearers, ending with the flourish: "May Allah reward you!"
Equipped with the necessary papers to work in the Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan, the assassins travelled to Kabul, where it is believed they collected explosives, then received permission to pass into the stronghold of Masood in the Panjshir valley.
Causse met them when she and other journalists were about to board a helicopter to visit a refugee camp. It seemed odd to bump into Arabs in Afghanistan. "The only Arabs you tend to hear about are the ones training in the terror camps of Bin Laden," she said. "I wondered if they were who they said they were. But there was nothing fanatical about them. They had notebooks. They seemed interested in everything they saw."
The group was taken to Kwajja Baha-Uddin, a dusty town Masood had made his headquarters. Installed in a guesthouse, the journalists awaited his arrival. The Arabs seemed particularly interested in securing the interview. "They said their journey would be in vain if they didn't get to speak to Masood," recalled Causse.
When Eddie Girardet, a Swiss American reporter, joined the group, he too was curious about the Arabs. But, he said, "they were pretty quiet, there was no hint of fundamentalism. They were in jeans and seemed westernised".
Causse, Girardet and a Russian journalist soon tired of waiting for Masood, who never slept more than one night in the same place and whose movements were as unpredictable as his military planning. Heavy dust meant his helicopter would not be able to fly in. Believing this could mean a delay of several days, the westerners went home. The Arabs waited.
From his days as the mujaheddin commander who ran rings around the Russians, to his ill-fated incarnation as defence minister in Kabul in the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Masood, 49, had a habit of welcoming journalists into his lair. This only intensified after the Taliban pushed him and Rabbani out of Kabul in 1996: since then Masood had remained in control of his territories in the mainly Tajik northeast of the country.
Western leaders were wary of aiding Masood's opposition, not least because of the record of internecine feuding among mujaheddin commanders before the Taliban stormed into power. In April, on his first visit to the West, he courted members of the European parliament who were outraged by reports of the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddhist statues. After the loss last year of Taloqan, his main garrison town, which forced him to move his headquarters north to Kwajja Baha-Uddin, Masood needed the press more than ever.
A Paris-based photographer who liked to play chess with Masood warned him last year that he should be more cautious. "He was always very welcoming to the press. There were never any security checks. When I raised this with him, he just laughed and said, 'When my time comes to die it will come and nobody can do anything about it.' "
That moment came on the morning of September 9 - two days before the murderous rampage in America. The assassins were ushered into a modest house, where the commander was apparently talking on his satellite phone. Also present were Asim Soheil, Masood's press attaché, Fahim Dashty, a local journalist and friend of Masood, and Masood Khalili, the anti-Taliban Afghan ambassador to India.
The younger of the Arabs placed his camera on a table in front of Masood. According to one report, he then lay down by the table, at which point an explosion ripped through the room. One of the Arabs was killed, as was Soheil. Masood lay bleeding, his head pierced by shrapnel, and never emerged from a coma. He died four hours after the attack, survived by his wife and six children.
In an apparent attempt to prevent panic among the ranks, his followers covered up news of the death, announcing it six days later, along with the appointment of General Muhammad Fahim as Masood's successor. American intelligence officials are already believed to have made contact with him: yet the loss of Masood does not bode well.
The divided heirs to Masood, whose charisma and military triumphs commanded total devotion from his men, may be reluctant to become the tool for a campaign against Bin Laden. "They are a fiercely independent bunch," said one expert. "Masood alone seemed to know how to control them."
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