As It Happens·Q&A

He tried to warn the world about al-Qaeda. Then he was assassinated 2 days before 9/11

It’s been two decades since al-Qaeda militants hijacked four commercial planes and carried out their world-changing attacks against the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. But two days earlier, the same group carried out another shocking act of violence in Afghanistan. 

Cmdr. Ahmad Shah Massoud was killed by militants posting as reporters. His friend Masood Khalili was there

Ahmad Shah Massoud pictured on June 28, 2001, less than three months before his assassination. (Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

It's been two decades since al-Qaeda militants hijacked four commercial planes and carried out their world-changing attacks against the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

But two days earlier, the same group carried out another shocking act of violence in Afghanistan. 

On Sept. 9, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud  — the last major commander of the resistance against the Taliban — was assassinated by two al-Qaeda operatives posing as reporters.

And just like the Sept. 11 attacks, Massoud's assassination is believed to have been ordered by the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In the month leading up to his death, Massoud had tried in vain to warn the world about the threat posed by Bin Laden and his followers.

Afghan diplomat Masood Khalili was there when his friend was killed. He fought alongside Massoud during the Afghan-Soviet War, and later served as his aide. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What are your thoughts and your feelings as you mark the 20th anniversary of your friend's death?

Very hard, madame. Hard because I have lost a friend, who was just beside me sitting [the] night before. We were talking politics, and even poetry. One whom I knew for 23 years, [fighting] side by side for the freedom of Afghanistan. 

Above that, [on] this day I remember that Afghanistan has lost a great man — a hero, and a man who was a leader who led the country towards freedom.

You were right there with them. You were watching this unfold in those minutes before he was killed. Did you have a bad feeling? Were you suspicious of these two men?

No, not at all, madame.

These two just sat there. One had a camera just to show it.... The other one sat besides Cmdr. Massoud.

Commander said, "OK, go on, get the camera and I'll answer."

And the questions were like this: "Why [are you] against Osama bin Laden? Why in France [did you] announce a war to help you against Osama bin Laden? And why you are talking about terrorism? It's Islam; it's not terrorism."

Commander just smiled and said, "OK, go on."

And [then there] was a big blast.

Then Commander was dying right on the spot. And I was injured. I lost my eye, lost my ear. More than 300, 400 or more pieces of shrapnel in my body.

I [was] unconscious until my wife pushed me and I opened my eyes, and I said, "This is again the world? What happened to my friend?"

She told me what happened to Cmdr. Massoud.

Masood Khalili smiles from his wheelchair during a news conference in New Delhi on Oct. 25, 2001, after surviving a suicide bomb attack that killed his friend. (Kamal Kishore/Reuters)

This assassination was two days before September the 11th. Cmdr. Massoud had been trying to warn the Americans and Europe … that Osama bin Laden, with the assistance of the Taliban, [was] planning something big. [He was] trying to warn the United States of the same. Why do you think they didn't listen to him?

That still is the question, ma'am, for me.

I have got guesses that maybe because Pakistan had very good relations with America … and [was] working as kind of a [looking] glass for America to see what's going on in Afghanistan. They might have indeed told them that, "Well, he is Cmdr. Massoud. He's just saying things [so] that you'll pay attention."

When we entered Kabul ... and defeated the Soviets ... we were abandoned totally. No one was paying any attention. Your Canadian embassy was not there. The American embassy was not there. 

They did not listen to us. I was going back and forth to all these countries as a political officer and trying to tell them that: Look, don't, indeed, abandon a nation. Because we are now in Afghanistan, who were called a month before heroes. Don't call us zeros.

That was the second reason that they did not listen. And the third one [was] that [this] was new for everyone.… Cmdr. Massoud didn't know himself also that it would happen there in New York.

The day that was killed, a night before, he told me that more than 3,000 to 4,000 [al-Qaeda fighters] were around [Afghanistan]. Two months before, he told the world: Be careful. 

They did not pay attention. And unfortunately, 9/11 happened and opened the doors.

Khalili, left, and Massoud, right, when they were resistance fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (masoodkhalili.com)

What impact did Cmdr. Massoud's death have in Afghanistan?

One, he was an honest man. He believed in the trust of the people. 

Two, he was a moderate person. He was a Muslim, a strong Muslim, but not Islamist. But not fighting against other religions because he was born Muslim.

No. 3, he believed in freedom. He wanted just to see freedom in this country.

No. 4, he believed much more [in peace] than [war]. Always, he was telling me that, "Oh, my goodness, when that comes, that we have peace, and I sit in my old garden, and we'll just read poetry."

He, indeed, believed very much that he should be helped against those who are invading Afghanistan, or those who are coming into Afghanistan to bother other countries. And so these things happened that people liked him, and this is why he was killed.

An Afghan policeman stands guard next to a picture of Massoud on the monument built in memory of him on Sept. 9, 2012, the 11th anniversary of his death. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

The United States [has left] once again Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting there after 9/11. And now we see your friend's son, Ahmad Shah Massoud's son Ahmad, who is attempting to lead some kind of a resistance to the Taliban right now. What advice would you give him?

To follow the path of his father. He is young. He's a smart man. He's 32 years old. His father started when he was 23 years old. Follow this. Be with people. Get the trust of the people. Mobilize people. 

But always think one thing: War should not be your goal. Peace should be your goal. Because no war is good. No peace is bad.

I really appreciate you telling us the story of your friend on this anniversary. And I hope you do see that peace in your country someday. It's so long overdue.

May I just add one thing, about why we failed in 20 years?

Because we all helped Afghanistan — the NATO countries, including Canada.... But as far as security and peace, we fought against the smoke, which was in Afghanistan — Taliban and al-Qaeda, Daesh [ISIS] — not against the fire, which was in Pakistan.

So whenever you want to do something for Afghanistan, read the history and geography both, and then go on, talk with all those neighbours around, and do not allow them to have a proxy war. I hope we will not have it again, ma'am. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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