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As a Favor for His Taliban Hosts, Osama bin Laden Had Their Rival Assassinated

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the so-called Northern Alliance, was assassinated September 9 during a media interview in the Panshir Valley of northern Afghanistan. Two al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as TV interviewers for Belgian television were taken to Massoud's camp. They were thoroughly searched and screened—but the bomb was hidden in their video camera. The Northern Alliance did not officially confirm Massoud's death until September 15.

It is thought that Osama bin Laden undertook the assassination as a favor to his Taliban hosts and to make it easier to survive the retaliatory strikes that he expected after the 9/11 attack on the U.S. Bin Laden also understood the value of Massoud, not just because of the insurgent infrastructure he had built to fight the Taliban but also because of his charisma as a leader.

Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer who would lead the first team into Afghanistan after 9/11, wrote that the news "made me feel sick to my stomach ... I figured this was the end of the Northern Alliance." CIA director George Tenet was less pessimistic, writing "Masood's [sic] brutal murder by al-Qaeda on the eve of the 9/11 attacks might have undone our plan before it got under way if we hadn't maintained contact with other warlords in the north." Tenet says the CIA also had long-standing, if not weaker, relationships with Pashtun opposition tribes in the south, where the Taliban were most powerful.

9/11 hijackers terrorism WTC Ahmad Shah Massoud
Afghan men carry the coffin of commander Ahmad Shah Masood in the village of Jangalak some 160km from Kabul, during the funeral ceremony, 16 September 2001. The assassinated Northern Alliance leader, the "Lion of Panjshir", was buried at a funeral attended by thousands of emotional villagers in the Panjshir Valley. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

On the day that Massoud was killed, Tenet was having lunch with Pakistani Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, head of their main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Tenet says that he tried to press him about al Qaeda and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Mahmood assured Tenet that Omar only wanted what was best for the Afghan people. He suggested that the CIA try bribing key Taliban officials to get them to turn over bin Ladin. "As gracious as he could be over the lunch table, the guy was immovable when it came to the Taliban and al Qaeda," Tenet later wrote.

A videotape released by Al-Jazeera TV featuring Osama bin Laden, in which the Al-Qaeda leader described the 9/11 attacks as "commendable," broadcast in Britain on December 27, 2001. Getty

On the day of the attacks, Mahmood was at a breakfast meeting with the chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) and Rep. Porter Goss (R-FL), as well as Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). In the next few days he would meet with U.S. officials regarding U.S.-Pakistan cooperation in the new war on terrorism. By then, the administration had the political will to threaten Pakistan over cooperation, and quickly U.S. military forces were clandestinely deployed to Pakistani territory.

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Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.