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What Defined Ahmad Shah Masud

  • Frud Bezhan

Ahmad Shah Masud, pictured in 2000

Ahmad Shah Masud, pictured in 2000

Resistance fighter and anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Masud was killed by Al-Qaeda assassins on September 9, 2001, ushering in a chain of events that would place Afghanistan at the center of the global war on terrorism.

Two days after his death, Al-Qaeda operatives would carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Within a month, the United States military was leading a bombing campaign and invasion of Afghanistan with the intention of overthrowing the Taliban and capturing Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 orchestrator Osama Bin Laden.

In life and as in death, the military strategist who had made his name as a commander of anti-Taliban forces would have a significant impact on life in Afghanistan. Here are some stories behind the man whose battlefield exploits earned him the moniker "The Lion of Panjshir."

Northern Alliance Founder

He was a key leader of the Northern Alliance, a combination of Afghanistan-based forces that aligned in 1996 to counter the Taliban's takeover of Kabul. After the U.S-led invasion in October, 2001, those forces would play a key role as a coalition partner until a new government could be formed.

Larger-Than-Life Figure

Numerous books, films, and articles have been written about Masud, and to this day he is revered as a national hero in Afghanistan. Posters of the 48-year-old -- wearing his trademark woolen hat, the pakol -- still dot the capital, Kabul, where monuments have been erected and streets named in his honor.

Camera Bomb

Masud was killed in Khwaja Bahauddin, a far-flung area in northeast Afghanistan near the Tajikistan border that served as his base of operations.

His assassins were identified as Abdessater Dahmane and Bouraoui el-Ouaer -- two men of Tunisian descent who posed as journalists and traveled on Belgian passports. They killed Masud by setting off a camera bomb as they interviewed Masud in his office.

One of the attackers died immediately, while the second was shot dead after he attempted to escape. Masud was mortally wounded and died while he was being flown by helicopter to Tajikistan for treatment.

Assassins Spent Time In Molenbeek

The Al-Qaeda militants who killed him were believed to have transited through the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which has since become notorious for being home to several suspects linked to recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris.

In 2005, a court in Paris found four men guilty of offering logistical support to Masud's killers. The four Islamic militants were sentenced to between two and seven years. Those convicted were captured by French authorities, who traced passports found on Masud's killers to a Brussels-based militant cell run by Tarek Maaroufi, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2003.

Revered In Neighboring Tajikistan

Masud, an ethnic Tajik, is widely revered in neighboring Tajikistan. In a sign of his enduring popularity, Masud has become a popular name for boys.

Masud received arms and financial backing from the Tajik government during the Taliban's rule from 1996-2001. Some of his wounded fighters were taken to hospitals in Tajikistan. Masud's own stronghold in northeast Afghanistan bordered Tajik territory and he often visited Tajikistan.

After his death, Masud's family briefly moved to Dushanbe, where the family still owns a home. His family eventually moved to Iran.

Warned Of Attack On U.S.

"If President Bush doesn't help us, these terrorists will damage the U.S. and Europe very soon."

Masud gave this warning in an address at the European Parliament in Brussels in April, 2001. He also told EU leaders that he had gathered evidence about an imminent terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda on the U.S. homeland.

His words proved prophetic. Months later, Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four passenger planes with the intention of flying them into U.S. targets. Two brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A third hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth went down in a field in Pennsylvania. Altogether, the attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, and injured more than 6,000.

Cold Warrior

A 1992 editorial in the Wall Street Journal described Masud as the "Afghan who won the Cold War."

Panjshir was a bastion of resistance to the 1979-89 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the last stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

Masud's Jamiat-e-Islami political party and military wing was the most successful Mujahedin group fighting against the invading Red Army. From his base in the Panjshir Valley, Masud's men led a successful guerrilla fight against the Soviet forces, which launched several failed operations to claim control of the valley.

Panjshir still bears the scars of Masud's fight against the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Hundreds of destroyed Soviet tanks are littered throughout the valley, as are weapons left by the Taliban in their failed attempts to conquer the area. Vast tunnel networks are carved into the mountains that the Mujahedin used to escape Soviet and Taliban bombardments, and dozens of mine-clearing operations continue on the rocky hilltops surrounding the picturesque valley.

French Connection

Masud spoke some French, having studied at the French-language Lycee Esteqlal school in Kabul, and was admired in France. In 2001, European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine invited Masud to address the parliament.

Masud was also friends with French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who visited Masud in the Panjshir Valley in the 1990s. Masud was known to have said that French President Charles De Gaulle was one of his political heroes.

French audiences got to know Masud after the release of a documentary -- The Valley Against An Empire -- by French journalist Christophe de Ponfilly in 1981, just two years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Reza Deghati, an Iranian-French photojournalist, traveled to Afghanistan and followed Masud from the 1980s until his death. His iconic photographs helped build the legend of Masud.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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