Ahmad Massood's Assassination Remains a Mystery: As Feuding Warlords Compete for Dominance in Post-Taliban Afghanistan, a Belgian Court Prepares to Put Suspected Al Qaeda Members on Trial. (Afghanistan)

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Belgian judicial authorities have announced they will put suspected Al Qaeda activists on trial in December on charges of planning the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massood, the legendary Afghan Mujahedin commander, murdered two days before Osama bin Laden's suicide hijackers struck the United States on 11 September 2001. The trial could unravel the mystery of the Massood assassination, which US intelligence officials believe was a pre-emptive attack by Bin Laden to eliminate a CIA-backed opponent who would have been a crucial ally for the Americans in their anticipated retaliation for the carnage of 11 September. It might even shed some light on the political violence, including the assassination of several leading figures associated with Massood, currently gripping post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Indeed, Massood's colleagues in the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, the umbrella for Afghanistan's anti-Taliban factions, believe there was a plot to blow up the entire top echelon of the alliance's leaders and that Massood was killed when that plan went awry. Had Massood's associates perished with him, the outcome of the US campaign against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts that followed the slaughter in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania might have been very different.

The trial will be the first judicial move to link Al Qaeda with the suicide bombing carried out at Massood's headquarters at Khodja Bahauddin in the Panjshir Valley, the charismatic Tajik warrior's stronghold in north eastern Afghanistan, on 9 September 2001. Massood was fatally wounded when two Arabs, one identified as Tunisian, posing as representatives of an Islamic research organisation in Britain, detonated a bomb hidden in a television camera and another strapped around the chest of a supposed interviewer sitting at Massood's side.

In November 2001, Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, Deputy Chairman of the Northern Alliance's leadership council, alleged that the bombers had planned to wipe out the entire council which was meeting at that time at his home in Dalan Sang, just inside the mouth of the Panjshir Valley. Most of the council's 42 members--they included Massood, the Defence Chief; his deputy, General Mohammed Qassim Fahim; former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the alliance's political chief; and key Pashtun tribal leader Wahidullah Sabawoon, the alliance's financial director--had gathered there 12 days before the assassination. Sayyaf and other alliance officials have said that the two Arabs, clean-shaven and well groomed who had turned up 15 days before the assassination took place, had repeatedly asked permission to video the council as a body, claiming that pictures of the group's top political and military leaders sitting together would do much to rebuff reports of deep divisions within the council. Sayyaf said that these requests were turned down because the council did not want to be disturbed in their deliberations.

Massood, however, was a different matter; he had a great appetite for media exposure and agreed to talk to the visitors at his HQ. Whether he had been the target all along, or simply the closest the assassins could get to the leadership will probably never be known. According to Massood Khalili, the ambassador to India of the then Afghan government-in-exile and a survivor of the suicide bombing at Dalan Sang, when the two Arabs were ushered into the room where Massood, "the Lion of Panjshir", was seated on a couch, one set up a video camera on a tripod level with his intended victim's chest. The "interviewer" sat close to his subject discussing the questions he would ask.

Khalili, a trusted aide who had served as Massood's political adviser for two decades and was acting as interpreter, said he was not suspicious and that Massood himself was "not very much thinking of his safety". He said that as he translated the first question from English for Massood, "there was a blast. …