The two Arab TV journalists who had been hanging around for weeks to secure an interview with the storied Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud finally got their chance to speak with him on Sept. 9, 2001. They set up their gear and asked a question about Osama bin Laden. Then one of them detonated a bomb hidden in a camera, killing himself and mortally wounding Massoud. The journalists were, in fact, al-Qaeda assassins, and it was bin Laden who had ordered the hit just before the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.
Historians will record Massoud's assassination as the curtain raiser for the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. that followed. The Afghan leader was the principal antagonist of the Taliban; by engineering his death bin Laden gave the Taliban something they desperately wanted, and ensured that the Taliban would protect al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11.
More than five years after his assassination Massoud remains a national hero to many Afghans. Passengers at Kabul airport are greeted by a mural of him standing several stories high. Massoud's place in history is assured by the fact that he was arguably the most brilliant practitioner of guerrilla warfare in the late 20th century. In the 1980s, during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he survived six major Soviet operations aimed at defeating him. Then, in 1992, he seized Kabul from the Afghan communist regime that had replaced the occupying Soviets. Afghanistan was subsequently plunged into civil war as competing factions vied for control of the capital. During the fighting I met Massoud at his headquarters north of Kabul and was struck by his intense integrity, charisma and disarming humor.
The struggles between bin Laden and Massoud are emblematic of the divisions in the Muslim world between militants who advocate violence against the West and those who favor peaceful coexistence. Massoud's Islam was a moderate kind of fundamentalism leavened by tolerance for others. The world will be a much safer place if Massoud's vision wins out.