Matthew Leeming describes his unnerving encounter in Afghanistan with the murderers of General Massoud:
This summer that place was Afghanistan, from where I have just crossed, disguised as a woman in a shapeless burqa, over the 16,000ft Shai Salim pass into Pakistan. I met a number of people who, by English standards, were decidedly weird … so the two Moroccan journalists with whom I shared a house in the Panjshir seemed almost normal. It was not until after they had killed themselves and General Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of the Afghan anti-Taleban forces, a week later that I realised I had spent five days living with two of Osama bin Laden’s kamikaze fighters.
Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2001 14:25:20 +0000
From: “Martin Adamson” (spam-protected)
Subject: Breakfast with the killers
Breakfast with the killers
Matthew Leeming describes his unnerving encounter in Afghanistan with the murderers of General Massoud
‘Every year there’s one place in the globe worth going to where things are happening,’ says Basil Seal to his mother, immediately before stealing her jewels to fund such a trip. ‘The secret is to find out where and to be on the spot at the time.’
This summer that place was Afghanistan, from where I have just crossed, disguised as a woman in a shapeless burqa, over the 16,000ft Shai Salim pass into Pakistan. I met a number of people who, by English standards, were decidedly weird — one man asked me if it were true that in England women could marry their dogs — so the two Moroccan journalists with whom I shared a house in the Panjshir seemed almost normal. It was not until after they had killed themselves and General Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of the Afghan anti-Taleban forces, a week later that I realised I had spent five days living with two of Osama bin Laden’s kamikaze fighters.
Foreigners in Afghanistan tread a fairly well-worn path, usually a triangle between the acting capital in Faisalabad, the Panjshir valley and the government’s military base, Khawja Bahauddin, in the north. Transport is either by Jeeps that cost $200 per day, or — for the really reckless — the government’s ropy, Russian-built helicopters.
I had heard that if there is a Shangri-la it is the Panjshir in August, a narrow, fertile valley surrounded by arid mountains from which the Afghans have for centuries shot at their invaders. It ends at Kabul, which is now one of the main battle-fronts between the government and the Taleban. I arrived, after a torturing road journey from Khawja Bahauddin, between the mulberry and grape harvests, and as I walked along the road groups of men and children invited me to join them for lunch. It was a sponger’s paradise.
I was an official guest of the government, and now my guide, Qhudai, took me to the government guest house, opposite the government’s helicopter base, before leaving me to recover. I was woken before dawn every morning by the shriek of helicopter engines starting up, and would take my breakfast watching soldiers embarking for the flight to another front. No expense has been spared on the house itself, nor on the bill for staff, and I was comfortable for the first time in a month. (I had been sleeping in chai khanas, which are a cross between a night shelter for the homeless and a boarding school.) For two days I was served enormous meals of mutton and rice, alone in a dining-room designed to seat 30. This changed when the Moroccan journalists arrived.
I first saw them pacing up and down in front of the house. They did not return my hello. That evening I was served dinner on the floor of my room as the Moroccans made free with the dining-room. They spent all the next day in their bedroom with the door open, lying on their beds and staring at the ceiling.
On Qhudai’s return, I delegated him to make inquiries from the staff. ‘They are Arabs,’ he reported, with some disgust. ‘They are very unfriendly.’
The next day I determined to break the ice. ‘I’m not eating in my room,’ I told the major domo. ‘I shall eat with the journalists.’ At eight p.m. sharp I presented myself in the dining-room. Both journalists had already started on the bread. There was a definite hierarchy between them. The first sat at the head of the table. He was large and dark, but his most curious feature were two blackened indentations on his forehead, which looked like the result of torture with an electric drill.
I asked him where he and his companion came from and he said Morocco, but they lived in Brussels. I tried to have a polite conversation about holiday destinations in Morocco, but he was unforthcoming. There was something about his manner that prevented me from asking exactly where he lived in Brussels. His companion said nothing, but ate his way through the rice and mutton with a hearty appetite.
The next day the senior Moroccan saw me using a satellite phone, and he became a good deal more amiable. Satellite phones are status symbols but also basic necessities for travel in Afghanistan, and mine had got me out of a number of scrapes already. He approached me, and asked if I had the phone number of Bismillah Khan, the military commander of the Panjshir. I did, and volunteered the services of Qhudai to help.
‘We are doing a television documentary about Afghanistan, and we need to get on a helicopter to Khawja Bahauddin,’ he told me.
The person to arrange this was the commander of the Panjshir, Bismillah Khan. As it happened, I had met him several days before and knew his telephone number. But he didn’t answer.
‘Do you have General Massoud’s number?’ asked the senior Moroccan. I was slightly staggered.
‘No. I don’t think he gives it out. You see, the Russians can find out where you are from a satellite phone and send a missile in to kill you. That was how they got Dudaev.’
Qhudai looked slightly menacing.
‘Why do you want to meet Commander Massoud?’ I asked the Moroccans. I remember them exchanging glances.
‘For our TV film,’ he said.
Afterwards Qhudai said to me, ‘I think they are spies.’
‘But everyone’s a spy in Afghanistan,’ I said. ‘You’re a spy.’
‘But they are Arab spies.’ There seems little love lost between Persian speakers and Arabs, so I put this down to racial prejudice.
We left shortly afterwards, and gave no further thought to the Moroccans, except occasionally to speculate that they were probably still waiting in the Panjshir for a helicopter.
A week later we heard that Massoud had been fatally injured in a Taleban attack, but it was only after we had crossed the border into Pakistan and saw a newspaper report that two Moroccans posing as journalists were responsible that we realised the identity our companions. Qhudai reproached himself for his stupidity. I was horrified that we had spent five nights sleeping next to a room full of several kilos of explosives.
After talking on the phone to some of Massoud’s lieutenants we managed to piece together an account of what had happened. While Massoud’s security was tight in many ways, he was always prepared to see journalists. He was a charming, well-educated product of a French lycée and journalists were always happy to see him. Access was controlled by a sidekick we had come to loathe — Engineer Asim — who was obstructive until he was offered money. Asim let the Moroccans into Massoud’s room.
According to our sources, Massoud immediately realised that there was something wrong (the torture marks on the forehead?), and shouted to Asim to get them out. At this, the senior Moroccan exploded the bomb hidden in his camera. He and Asim were pulverised. The second Moroccan (the one who ate more) escaped and jumped into the river Oxus, from which he was fished by guards and shot. Massoud — still living — was flown to Tajikistan for treatment. The Taleban immediately claimed that he had been killed outright, and most press reports supported this, but it seems more likely that he hung on to life for nearly a week and died without regaining consciousness.
In retrospect, one can see that the murder of Massoud was a deliberate first step in a carefully planned series of atrocities. Massoud represented the only credible military threat to the Taleban. Known as the ‘Lion of the Panjshir’, revered by his men, he had defeated the Russians 15 times and almost certainly could not be displaced from his stronghold in western Afghanistan. Many people — including Massoud’s younger brother, Wali, the Afghan ambassador in London — have been urging the West for years to arm the Northern Alliance properly to ensure the Taleban’s defeat, but to no avail. Now the man who may go down in history as one of the great generals of irregular warfare, who, with proper support, could have defeated the Taleban in a year, is dead and the West is desperately looking for credible and committed Muslim allies with whom to fight the Taleban.