Slowly Stalking an Afghan 'Lion'

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Sept. 11 dawned here, charismatic Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masoud was stashed in a refrigerator at a Tajikistan morgue--killed 48 hours earlier by Al Qaeda assassins. His death was a desperate secret.

A cadre of close aides and officers hid his body--and the truth--while his outnumbered resistance fighters clung to tenuous positions under relentless attack by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.

Fearing collapse of alliance defenses if word got out, the aides manufactured a fog of disinformation. Hardly anyone was informed--not the field commanders, not even the dead leader's family.

He suffered an accident--only minor injuries, they said. And for days, those lies kept the resistance intact.

"When I heard about the assassination, I was 100% sure that the resistance would be over in a matter of days," recalled one of Masoud's closest advisors, Foreign Minister Abdullah, in a recent interview.

The defeat of the Northern Alliance was much closer than authorities have previously acknowledged. Had Masoud's forces been dispersed, as Abdullah feared, the U.S. military would have lost a surrogate ground force--even before its need was evident. And American troops almost certainly would have been required sooner in Afghanistan and would have been deployed at much greater risk.

Al Qaeda targeted Masoud to eliminate the last obstacle to Taliban control of all of Afghanistan. Masoud was also an impediment to Osama bin Laden's grand plan to create an Islamic empire beyond Afghanistan's northern borders in Central Asia. Some American officials believe that the killing was a personal gift to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar from Bin Laden--in gratitude for the sanctuary provided to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

A four-month Times investigation found that Masoud, 48, was assassinated nearly three weeks later than planned. The killers posed as journalists, living and traveling among Masoud's top aides, including his intelligence and military chiefs--apparently without raising serious suspicions. But they repeatedly failed to gain access to him.

The killers were welcomed into Northern Alliance territory by a high-ranking resistance official with old ties to Bin Laden and Taliban leaders who said that they came recommended by a friend.

The plot was carried out by a Europe-based Tunisian terrorist cell, likely as repayment to Al Qaeda for training at its Afghan terrorist camps.

CIA officials were among the handful of insiders informed of Masoud's death. After Sept. 11, the CIA rushed to save the Northern Alliance. Agents helped wire its shaken elements back together and turned resistance fighters into an offensive force that helped sweep the Taliban from power.

The story behind Masoud's assassination is a tale of a patient and calculated plot that nearly undermined America's first steps in its new war on terrorism. It was pieced together from records and scores of interviews on three continents with witnesses, law enforcement officials, intelligence agents and military leaders.

*

The two men with Moroccan passports carried camera equipment aboard the aging Russian-made helicopter, one of the few working machines in what was then a pathetic little air force serving the Northern Alliance. They braced for the usual rough ride that late summer day in 2001.

They carried letters of introduction. They were television journalists from a London Islamic center concerned with "human rights issues for Muslims all over the world." One was noted to be the center's best journalist. The other hid explosives in his battery pack.

In his rear base camp, Masoud was eager to meet journalists--especially from the Muslim world. He was frustrated by perceptions in the Middle East that his resistance fighters were in league with the Russians and other foreigners against the interests of fellow Muslims. Masoud seized every opportunity to argue that the Taliban was oppressing Afghanistan with the assistance of foreign Arabs and Pakistanis.

There were other journalists on board. During the flight, one of them videotaped the helicopter passenger compartment. It was typical B-roll material. Filler. Atmospherics.

The Moroccans ducked their heads, tucking their faces into scarves and sleeves. One of the other journalists says he wondered why the two Moroccans seemed to be hiding.

*

The crisis facing Northern Alliance forces on Sept. 11 had been months in the making.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, as many as 16,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had massed in Takhar province in the north, a particular menace to Masoud's stronghold in the Panjshir Valley. Intelligence confirmed that the Taliban planned a "final offensive" to wrest complete control of the country, then infiltrate the mountainous regions of Central Asia.

Masoud dispatched Abdullah, his trusted aide, to Washington in July. He had been there before as an emissary for Masoud, seldom getting beyond low-level State Department employees and think-tank analysts. He was frustrated.

"They were having debates about moderate and non-moderate Taliban," Abdullah said. "It was ridiculous. There are those who can speak softly, but they are not moderate people."

This time, Abdullah carried maps and reports on Taliban and Al Qaeda troop concentrations. A Northern Alliance defeat would be harmful to regional security and to U.S. interests, he argued. He pressed the U.S. to intervene in two areas: by pressuring Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban and by providing arms and money to the resistance.

He sensed a shift with the Bush White House. For a change, he met with senior State Department and National Security Council officials, and he was invited to return in September for more talks. Abdullah was hoping for a possible breakthrough. As early as 1997, the State Department had advised him that its Afghan policy was "under review." It still was "under review" as Abdullah left Washington in summer 2001.

Back in Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance held barely 5% of the country, Abdullah said leaders calculated what little international support they could count on. "But Masoud thought that one day the whole world will come to us. One day this will change. But he said, 'I hope it's not too late.' "

*

A phone call had cleared the Moroccan journalists to enter Northern Alliance territory--a good word from an Egyptian friend of senior alliance official Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

Sayyaf knew the caller as Dr. Hani, an old friend from the jihad against the Russians years earlier. He claimed to be calling from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The resistance leader agreed to extend his hospitality to the journalists for a few days and help arrange a tour of the front lines.

Bismillah Khan, one of Masoud's most trusted generals, led the tour after getting Masoud's approval for the journalists' visit. He was eager to show them that no foreigners, only Afghans, were fighting for the alliance. The journalists seemed uninterested in what they saw.

"They didn't ask many questions like other journalists," the general recalled later. "They were very reserved."

But no one challenged their credentials. They were Sayyaf's guests.

And it would be months before anyone could check the origins of the phone call that persuaded Sayyaf to invite them behind alliance lines. Investigators later would trace the phone number to Taliban country--the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

The visitors were both in their 30s. The reporter was slightly older. He was called Karim Touzani--well-fed, affable and relaxed. The cameraman called himself Kacem Bakkali. He seldom spoke in front of others.

There was one exception, an older brother of Masoud later heard. It was during a bumpy car ride. The otherwise quiet Bakkali urgently insisted that the driver slow down. The severe jostling, he said, could damage his camera.

*

That the Northern Alliance was still intact on the morning of Sept. 11 was a tribute to Masoud's forceful leadership.

Even after a devastating blow the previous year when his former headquarters at Taloqan was overrun, Masoud single-handedly persuaded commanders, ethnic leaders and tribal factions to rally against the Taliban. He persuaded Iran to give more financial support and Russia to keep providing materiel.

None of the country's major warlords--Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Hazara leader Karim Khalili and Tajik Gen. Ismail Khan--was in the country at the start of 2001, but Masoud coaxed them all back by spring. They started carrying out harassing actions against Taliban positions.

Masoud had spent most of his adult life as a rebel. "Ever since I was 20, I've been in hiding," he told a journalist a year before his death.

He made his legend as the "Lion of Panjshir" fighting Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. During that time, personal, ethnic and political rivalries developed in the anti-Russian moujahedeen camp between Masoud, an ethnic Tajik, and the ethnic Pushtun leaders favored by the Pakistanis.

Friction also was evident between Masoud and religious fundamentalists, including Sayyaf and Bin Laden, both favorites of the Saudis. Bin Laden and other future founders of Al Qaeda were among the many Arabs who fought alongside Sayyaf during the war with the Soviets.

After the Soviet defeat, Masoud served in the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani as defense minister. Sayyaf served as a presidential aide. But warlord factionalism and fierce infighting led to thousands of civilian deaths during a period when the U.S. kept its diplomatic distance. In September 1996, Taliban militias swept into Kabul, the capital, and toppled the Rabbani administration.

Masoud withdrew to the north. The Taliban immediately imposed a severe Islamic system--and issued a death decree for the fugitive defense minister. Once again, Masoud was a rebel.

*

Sometime after touring the Northern Alliance battle front, the Moroccan journalists were escorted to another resistance stronghold in the Panjshir Valley.

A gathering of resistance leaders was underway--a shura, or council, convened in a heavily guarded building. Sentries blocked the journalists from entering.

Masoud was inside. So was most of the top echelon of the Northern Alliance--at one moment in one room.

The journalists insisted on access. The sentries were unmoved. The journalists pressed for a brief visit--a few quick camera angles, nothing intrusive. One of the guards disappeared inside to seek permission. It was denied.

"We just need one shot," one of them persisted.

Again a guard trudged back inside to present the visitors' case. Again, it was denied.

*

After the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, CIA agents met with Masoud in Tajikistan. They sought intelligence support and help capturing or assassinating Bin Laden, whom they blamed for the bombings.

Masoud listened thoughtfully, according to alliance sources familiar with the secret sessions in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. But he considered the Americans shortsighted. The Clinton administration had made catching Bin Laden and destroying Al Qaeda the centerpiece of its Afghan policy.

"The main issue for me is the Taliban," Masoud said at the time. "Without the Taliban, Osama can't do anything." Furthermore, Masoud regarded Al Qaeda, the Taliban and its main backer, Pakistan, as "an evil triangle" and a common threat.

But "all of our talking points were bringing down Osama," said one U.S. diplomat, noting that American policy until Sept. 11 was influenced by the Pakistani idea of reforming the Taliban and working with the regime.

Yet evidence mounted that Bin Laden was steadily increasing his influence over Omar and the Taliban regime.

"We kept warning about the growing 'Arabization' of Afghanistan," said a senior U.S. diplomat in Pakistan. "But no one was listening."

About a year after the Masoud-CIA meeting, a powerful truck bomb exploded just outside Omar's compound in Kandahar. Masoud agents were responsible, U.S. and alliance officials now acknowledge. The explosion reportedly killed 10, including three of Omar's bodyguards. It left a crater the size of a tennis court. Omar narrowly escaped injury.

Alliance operatives also attacked other Taliban targets but were unable to penetrate Al Qaeda's security to mount attacks against Bin Laden. "There wasn't any possibility to find him," an Afghan intelligence officer said.

*

For much of their visit, the journalists stayed in a guesthouse of the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley. They rarely went on interviews. They asked few questions. They took little video footage.

One day, Masoud arrived unexpectedly at the journalists' door.

By chance, the two men were away and returned too late. They missed the commander and a chance for their on-camera interview.

Masoud then invited the journalists to accompany him aboard his helicopter back to Khodja Bahauddin, Masoud's isolated headquarters on the Tajik border. The journalists packed camera and battery pack for the trip.

They were ready to depart when Masoud's bodyguards confronted them.

The rickety old Russian MI-17 was overloaded. They would have to stay behind.

*

Masoud may have inflamed animosities in spring 2001 when he accepted an invitation to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, his first official trip to the West. Supporters said it was part of a plan to transform his image from local military hero to national opposition political leader--and to attract Western support for the resistance.

The high-profile visit caused friction within Masoud's alliance. The old fundamentalist leaders such as Rabbani and Sayyaf were being eclipsed by Masoud's rising international profile. Some Masoud loyalists assert privately that seeds of betrayal might have sprung from that April trip to France.

French investigators believe that this is when the assassination plot began as well. Evidence shows that fake documents for the killers were prepared in the following weeks and that one of the letters of introduction was composed on an IBM desktop computer, later discovered in Kabul.

When Masoud held a news conference outside the European Parliament, a reporter asked if he had a message for the White House. According to published accounts, Masoud responded:

"If President Bush doesn't help us, then these terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon--and it will be too late."

The wife of one of Masoud's assassins later told European law enforcement officials that Masoud's comments were taken as a threat to the Taliban and Bin Laden supporters. In a recent book, she told Belgian author-journalist Marie-Rose Armesto:

Masoud "went to ask for help against us. He wanted weapons to kill us. He had to be stopped."

*

The two journalists bumped from Masoud's helicopter ended up stuck in Panjshir for several days. A second helicopter never arrived. Bad weather.

The number of near-misses was beginning to pile up--almost getting into the shura, almost getting Masoud alone at the guesthouse, almost getting aboard the resistance leader's helicopter.

Finally, the skies cleared. Another helicopter arrived to ferry the men to Khodja Bahauddin. They were introduced as journalist guests of Sayyaf.

But, again, the promised interview was delayed. The long-anticipated Taliban-Al Qaeda offensive had begun. Masoud was preoccupied. The journalists had to wait.

They were given a room next door to Gen. Mohammed Arif. They were neighbors of Masoud's chief of internal security.

*

As early as 1999, European investigators detected increased Al Qaeda recruiting among Tunisian emigres in the West.

By fall 2000, Abdelsattar Dahmane, 39--a Tunisian residing in Belgium--was one of the scores of Arab and North African Muslims from Europe studying terrorism in one of Al Qaeda's Afghan camps. He lived in a house near the camps with his Moroccan wife, Malika, surrounded by elite Al Qaeda fighters.

Sometime in spring or early summer 2001, Dahmane was selected for a suicide mission. He had studied journalism in Tunisia and Belgium and would pose as a television interviewer. His faux cameraman would be another Tunisian, Rachid Bourawi Alwaer--an illegal immigrant to Belgium who worked odd jobs in construction.

European investigators tracking the histories of Masoud's killers found that Dahmane had been active in Brussels and London with the Tunisian Fighting Group, a terrorist affiliate of Al Qaeda. Authorities believe that the contract to kill Masoud was a classic exchange of services. The Tunisian Fighting Group wanted its recruits trained in Afghan terrorist camps and agreed to take on the Masoud hit "to pay the rent," officials said.

"Tunisians have attained a high level of operational importance and influence" within Al Qaeda, said a French law enforcement official, particularly since Sept. 11. They have been active in recent plots to bomb American embassies in Paris and Rome, investigative documents also show.

In Afghanistan, security officers said that Masoud had been a target of assassination attempts by Bin Laden and the Taliban for more than a year.

Previous plans to blow up his helicopter were thwarted. The Taliban once called in an airstrike on Masoud's office. In 2000, security officials intercepted three infiltrators carrying powerful C-4 plastic explosives. Masoud's security chief said people working close to the resistance leader had been paid to sabotage him.

"Osama was actively trying to recruit spies inside the Panjshir Valley," said Arif, now head of intelligence for the interim Afghan government.

But no one saw the Tunisians coming. Their identities were buried in stolen passports, false Pakistani visas and misleading letters of introduction--a plot with Bin Laden's personal fingerprints all over it, according to Arif and European investigators.

*

The journalists wandered through the village of Khodja Bahauddin, killing time awaiting their audience with Masoud. Days passed.

They became familiar figures to Masoud's bodyguards, made up of his elite commando troops. The guards were never alerted to any special threats.

Masoud's younger brother, Ahmad Wali, would later report that "a source in Pakistan" warned him about Al Qaeda sending killers "disguised as journalists." He says he passed it along.

But reports of assassination intrigues were common. So were foreign journalists.

"They had lots of plans to kill Commander Masoud. Which report was good?" said Arif, shrugging.

Nonetheless, Arif would later claim that he too was growing suspicious. He says he even tried to stop the interview.

"I told Commander Masoud, 'Please don't meet these two Arabs. Let me arrest them.' "

By Arif's account, Masoud thought about it for two minutes, then said:

"Forget it. These people are just journalists."

*

The intensity of a renewed Taliban attack Saturday evening, Sept. 8, caught alliance forces by surprise. Gen. Bismillah Khan feared that his troops might not survive to daylight. At the height of battle, he called Masoud by satellite phone.

Bismillah Khan--a stocky, blue-eyed, workaholic warlord--had fought alongside Masoud for 22 years. He was especially distressed to advise his friend and commander that a Taliban breakthrough seemed imminent. A Masoud aide later said Bismillah Khan was near panic that night.

Over the phone, Masoud offered encouragement and cool advice on troop deployments. Later, Masoud retired to his quarters with a visiting friend--Masood Khalili, the Northern Alliance's ambassador to India. The two men sat cross-legged on floor cushions "talking about many things--poetry, politics, the situation in Afghanistan," recalled Khalili.

Masoud had an ornately bound volume of the works of 14th century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz. He asked Khalili to recite over and over again a favorite verse about friends sitting, talking, enjoying a night like many nights to come, though this night "will never be repeated."

The two friends gazed out at the village of Khodja Bahauddin, the stars, the Amu Darya River--until about 4 a.m. Masoud was barely asleep when his personal secretary delivered news that Bismillah Khan's front line had held.

Masoud made his morning prayer, then slept until daylight.

*

The two journalists learned early the morning of Sept. 9 that finally they would have their audience with Masoud. It was a sunny day in Khodja Bahauddin as they prepared their equipment.

The interview would be conducted next door, in the bungalow of security chief Arif.

Remarkably, though the two Arab men had lived among Masoud's closest and most cautious advisors for more than 20 days, no one knew their real names, ethnic origins or ominous associations.

Affable Touzani was really Dahmane, whose wife still lived with the families of other Al Qaeda agents near Jalalabad. Bakkali was really Alwaer, the taciturn construction worker from Brussels.

The cameraman strapped on his battery pack. He cinched it around his waist.

*

Over his usual breakfast of tea with bread, cheese, almonds and cream, Masoud received more encouraging reports from his field commanders. He was eager to meet the journalists, to make his case that the Taliban was relying on foreigners--Pakistanis and Arabs.

Masoud made a radio call to Bismillah Khan at the front in Jabal os Saraj. He asked the general's communications officer if they "could send up some bodies of dead Arabs by helicopter to show the journalists."

At Arif's bungalow, Masoud was on the phone again when an aide escorted the journalists into the room. Holding the phone to his ear with one hand, Masoud reached out to shake hands.

In addition to the two he still knew as the Moroccans, a third journalist joined them. Fahim Dashty, a Panjshiri, was producing a documentary on the guerrilla hero. He set up his own camera and audio gear in the back of the room.

Masoud apologized that this day had been so long in coming. Dahmane and Alwaer said they were pleased to meet the legendary leader. They presented their letters of introduction from the Islamic Observation Center in London and its Arabic News International affiliate--the letters ending with: "May Allah reward you" for any cooperation.

Before the questioning began, Masoud asked Arif to try again to get Bismillah Khan, still hoping to fly some Arab bodies to his camp.

Under any circumstance, such a request would have been difficult. Masoud commanders said one of their fellow officers had set up a lucrative trade in selling bodies back to the enemy. It helped finance their war effort. And Arabs, the commanders said in interviews, fetched higher prices than the Talibs because Bin Laden was willing to pay dearly for the corpses of his men.

Masoud sat in a large stuffed chair. Smiling, he slipped off his trademark pakul, a sort of Afghan beret, and ordered green tea for everyone. They made small talk. What had the men found coming through Taliban territory?

The people are unhappy, Dahmane responded, chatting easily. Arab and Pakistani military men roam Kabul. Omar refused them an interview because television "is haram"--forbidden under Islamic law. And Taliban ministers were not forthcoming.

Masoud was amused.

"I saw for the last time Mr. Masoud's smile," said Ahmad Jamshid, Masoud's personal secretary.

Cameraman Alwaer calmly set up his equipment in the middle of the room. He seemed impassive, uninvolved with the conversation around him. He adjusted his tripod, set to its lowest level so the camera lens was chest-high opposite Masoud. He asked to remove a small table between them.

Ambassador Khalili, seated on a couch to Masoud's right to help translate, recalled trying to loosen up the commander before the questions started.

"The cameraman was quite burly," Khalili said, "and to get the commander in the mood for the interview, I quipped in Persian, 'Is he a wrestler or a photographer?' "

Masoud asked to see the interview questions--a list that Khalili then translated for the commander from English into Persian. With that, the Lion of Panjshir turned to the camera and said: "You can start filming now."

Jamshid, the secretary, stepped out of the room to avoid being in the frame. Dashty, the documentary maker, still was adjusting his camera, trying to compensate for back-lighting from a window behind Masoud.

Dahmane started to ask the first question. Alwaer switched on the camera.

Khalili said "blue, thick fire" rushed at him--and he heard a "poof." His teeth clenched.

He said he heard a voice inside telling him that this was his final moment. "Then I started screaming, 'God is great!' " And he lost consciousness.

Dashty jumped in surprise at the flash of light, thinking that his camera had malfunctioned. "Then I felt a burning all over my hands, legs and face. I rushed out of the room," he said.

Jamshid ran up, wide-eyed. What happened to Commander Masoud? he gasped.

That's when Dashty looked back at the room for the first time. He saw fire, smoke, dust, smashed windows, broken furniture. The room was destroyed. He smelled gunpowder.

The bomb in the battery pack had blown the body of cameraman Alwaer in half. But Dahmane had only minor cuts from flying glass. He tried to run from the scene, muttering that he didn't know what happened. Security officers locked him in a room. When he escaped through a window, he was killed.

Haji Mohammad Omar, Masoud's bodyguard for 12 years, rushed inside. Everything was on fire. He found Masoud still seated in the armchair, surrounded by devastation, his face and body covered in blood.

Masoud whispered: "Pick me up."

At Jabal os Saraj, the resistance fighters of Bismillah Khan had prepared a large meal for Masoud and his entourage. They were expected for lunch after the interview. No one arrived. No one called to explain. The general picked up his satellite phone and called Khodja Bahauddin. No one answered.

At Masoud's camp, it was a four-minute drive from the bungalow to the airstrip. Omar, the bodyguard, held Masoud in the backseat, the commander's head on his lap. He was still breathing as they bounced toward the helicopter pad, but blood poured from his thigh. And as they pulled up to the aircraft, the bodyguard knew that it was hopeless.

"Amir Sahib had stopped breathing," he said, a familiar reference to "the big boss."

Ambassador Khalili faded in and out of consciousness. Once airborne, he revived briefly, he recalled.

"I saw my commander's face and thought to myself, 'He's dying and I'm dying.' "

The injured Dashty remembered that "everyone was quiet." The only sound was the helicopter rotors.

They reached a Tajikistan medical clinic within 10 minutes. Masoud needed no medical treatment. Two pieces of shrapnel had pierced his heart. His body was moved to an operating room and laid on a table, covered with a sheet of white paper.

Jamshid called the inner circle of advisors to the clinic, telling them that Masoud was slightly injured. One by one they arrived, waiting outside the operating room. A doctor appeared. "It's too late," he said. "We can't do anything. He's already martyred."

Jamshid fainted. He awoke later with IVs in his arms, surrounded by doctors. Another young Masoud assistant arrived to find the bloody white paper sheet draped over the body on the operating table. In a fury, he tore away the sheet and burst into tears.

"This was the lowest point in the history of our movement," said one resistance official. "We felt lost."

Finally, there were seven aides gathered at the clinic. They agreed to a pact of secrecy and lies.

The biggest fear was that once news of Masoud's death was known, their troops would lose heart and Taliban troops would quickly overrun them.

"We needed time," said a member of that group. "Masoud was head of a cause. He was heading a nation. We did not want that cause, that nation, to collapse--so, we had to lie."

Gen. Mohammed Qassim Fahim was picked to succeed the fallen leader. Today, he is defense minister of the interim government and one of the most powerful political figures in the country. That afternoon, he was a reluctant successor, accepting only after the others insisted.

When night fell, Masoud's body was spirited to a nearby town. It was hidden in a refrigerated vault at the local morgue.

Back out on the battlefields in Takhar province and in the Panjshir Valley, Taliban and Al Qaeda forces unleashed wave after wave of new assaults. Three heavy offensives were repulsed Sept. 9 to 11.

Mohammed Ghani, who was commanding the forces holding the front line north of Kabul, said many of his troops were killed or wounded. "They expected to sweep through our lines," he said. "They thought this would be the final battle for Afghanistan."

Rumors that Masoud was dead swept the Taliban side of the front. In lulls between battles, the fighters used satellite phones and walkie-talkies to call their resistance counterparts to taunt and threaten. Despite the battlefield standoff, their messages brimmed with confidence.

They demanded: Surrender or die.

Days later, Masoud's body still was refrigerated, his death still unconfirmed. Fighters of the Northern Alliance still clung to their defensive positions--from the Panjshir to the Tajik border. But the rest of the world had changed.

Immediately after Sept. 11, leaders of the resistance began to realize that they might have a new ally in a vengeful United States. And the Taliban fighters must have realized the same. They acted confused. Their offensive abruptly stopped. Their forces dug into defensive positions.

In the days that followed, the messages over Taliban satellite phones and walkie-talkies changed too. Taliban commanders started calling on their resistance counterparts to unite against the threat of foreign invasion.

A few days after Sept. 11, in the skies over the Panjshir Valley, a dark green helicopter appeared out of the north.

The MI-17 had a familiar look. It was the same aircraft making up that pathetic little Northern Alliance fleet. But this one was new--freshly painted, a handsome machine.

Observed a wistful alliance official at the sight: "We never managed to acquire even one new helicopter from the Americans to take Commander Masoud back and forth."

The Russian helicopter landed outside a compound where alliance leaders waited. It carried CIA officers with a proposal.

For years, Masoud had urged the U.S. to take on the Taliban in order to stop Bin Laden. Now, the U.S. was seeking alliance help to take on the Taliban in order to stop Bin Laden. For years, Masoud had thrown his forces against the Taliban, vainly asking the West for guns, money and supplies. Now, the U.S. promised guns, money and supplies.

The head of the CIA team said he was disappointed at having missed so many previous opportunities.

For the alliance, there remained internal rivalries and lingering concerns about a pact with foreigners. "For us this was a whole new thing," acknowledged an Afghan official close to the negotiations.

But in a matter of days, the resistance had gone from the brink of collapse to rejuvenation. It was as if "suddenly something fell out of the sky," said alliance leaders. In the secret meeting, Fahim, Arif and Abdullah agreed to full cooperation.

By then, Masoud's body had been moved from its secret refrigerated vault. Today, he is buried on an Afghan mountaintop.

Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris; Josh Meyer, Bob Drogin, Doyle McManus and Robin Wright in Washington; and Times researcher Nona Yates in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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