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COLUMN ONE

Slowly Stalking an Afghan 'Lion'

The assassins of Northern Alliance chief faced weeks of delays until finally he met with them.

June 12, 2002|CRAIG PYES and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KABUL, Afghanistan — When Sept. 11 dawned here, charismatic Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masoud was stashed in a refrigerator at a Tajikistan morgue--killed 48 hours earlier by Al Qaeda assassins. His death was a desperate secret.

A cadre of close aides and officers hid his body--and the truth--while his outnumbered resistance fighters clung to tenuous positions under relentless attack by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.

Fearing collapse of alliance defenses if word got out, the aides manufactured a fog of disinformation. Hardly anyone was informed--not the field commanders, not even the dead leader's family.

He suffered an accident--only minor injuries, they said. And for days, those lies kept the resistance intact.

"When I heard about the assassination, I was 100% sure that the resistance would be over in a matter of days," recalled one of Masoud's closest advisors, Foreign Minister Abdullah, in a recent interview.

The defeat of the Northern Alliance was much closer than authorities have previously acknowledged. Had Masoud's forces been dispersed, as Abdullah feared, the U.S. military would have lost a surrogate ground force--even before its need was evident. And American troops almost certainly would have been required sooner in Afghanistan and would have been deployed at much greater risk.

Al Qaeda targeted Masoud to eliminate the last obstacle to Taliban control of all of Afghanistan. Masoud was also an impediment to Osama bin Laden's grand plan to create an Islamic empire beyond Afghanistan's northern borders in Central Asia. Some American officials believe that the killing was a personal gift to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar from Bin Laden--in gratitude for the sanctuary provided to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

A four-month Times investigation found that Masoud, 48, was assassinated nearly three weeks later than planned. The killers posed as journalists, living and traveling among Masoud's top aides, including his intelligence and military chiefs--apparently without raising serious suspicions. But they repeatedly failed to gain access to him.

The killers were welcomed into Northern Alliance territory by a high-ranking resistance official with old ties to Bin Laden and Taliban leaders who said that they came recommended by a friend.

The plot was carried out by a Europe-based Tunisian terrorist cell, likely as repayment to Al Qaeda for training at its Afghan terrorist camps.

CIA officials were among the handful of insiders informed of Masoud's death. After Sept. 11, the CIA rushed to save the Northern Alliance. Agents helped wire its shaken elements back together and turned resistance fighters into an offensive force that helped sweep the Taliban from power.

The story behind Masoud's assassination is a tale of a patient and calculated plot that nearly undermined America's first steps in its new war on terrorism. It was pieced together from records and scores of interviews on three continents with witnesses, law enforcement officials, intelligence agents and military leaders.

*

The two men with Moroccan passports carried camera equipment aboard the aging Russian-made helicopter, one of the few working machines in what was then a pathetic little air force serving the Northern Alliance. They braced for the usual rough ride that late summer day in 2001.

They carried letters of introduction. They were television journalists from a London Islamic center concerned with "human rights issues for Muslims all over the world." One was noted to be the center's best journalist. The other hid explosives in his battery pack.

In his rear base camp, Masoud was eager to meet journalists--especially from the Muslim world. He was frustrated by perceptions in the Middle East that his resistance fighters were in league with the Russians and other foreigners against the interests of fellow Muslims. Masoud seized every opportunity to argue that the Taliban was oppressing Afghanistan with the assistance of foreign Arabs and Pakistanis.

There were other journalists on board. During the flight, one of them videotaped the helicopter passenger compartment. It was typical B-roll material. Filler. Atmospherics.

The Moroccans ducked their heads, tucking their faces into scarves and sleeves. One of the other journalists says he wondered why the two Moroccans seemed to be hiding.

*

The crisis facing Northern Alliance forces on Sept. 11 had been months in the making.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, as many as 16,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had massed in Takhar province in the north, a particular menace to Masoud's stronghold in the Panjshir Valley. Intelligence confirmed that the Taliban planned a "final offensive" to wrest complete control of the country, then infiltrate the mountainous regions of Central Asia.

Masoud dispatched Abdullah, his trusted aide, to Washington in July. He had been there before as an emissary for Masoud, seldom getting beyond low-level State Department employees and think-tank analysts. He was frustrated.

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