Bin Laden’s Errand Boy
Walid bin Attash, or Khallad, was as close to being al-Qaeda royalty as possible. His father was friends with bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and Omar Abdul Rahman, the Blind Sheikh. His older brother, Muhannad, had been a trusted bin Laden lieutenant and pivotal in the recruitment of the Northern Group. Khallad himself had joined al-Qaeda in 1994, when he was only fifteen.
A defining moment in Khallad’s life had come in 1997, when he and Muhannad, along with other al-Qaeda fighters, had fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance at Murad Beg, north of Kabul. Muhannad had been killed in the battle, and Khallad had lost his left leg when a howitzer misfired, releasing shrapnel into it. He had been rushed from the battlefield to a hospital, but the leg could not be saved and was amputated below the knee.
He had received a prosthesis from an NGO, but it hadn’t fit properly and had left him in severe pain. Khallad had already been plunged into a state of depression over the death of Muhannad, and his leg pain had caused even more anguish. Al-Qaeda had sent him to Karachi for therapy, accompanied by his younger brother, al-Bara, who had fought with him at Murad Beg. They had spent the afternoons at the beach in Karachi, with al-Bara pushing Khallad in a wheelchair.
Khallad’s misery had been relieved by the arrival of a personal letter from bin Laden, praising both his dedication to the cause and Muhannad’s martyrdom. Khallad had resolved to take his brother’s place as a central al-Qaeda figure. He was inordinately proud of having received a personal letter from the emir, and he treasured it.
On his return to Afghanistan, Khallad had dedicated himself to al-Qaeda, picking up another alias, Silver, after Long John Silver, the infamous one-legged pirate. He had first worked as a bodyguard and had carried out administrative duties for bin Laden, Saif al-Adel, and other senior al-Qaeda leaders. Over time, he had been given more responsibilities, including personal missions for bin Laden, sometimes requiring months of travel. Bin Laden had come to value him; he was Muhannad’s brother in every way.
Khallad became known in al-Qaeda circles as a trusted bin Laden aide. When other members wanted to see the leader, they would often approach Khallad and ask him to arrange a meeting. Among those he helped secure a private audience was Nibras. Khallad was always pleasant to others and was well liked by the brothers, who appreciated his sense of humor. Their only criticism was that he didn’t offer much guidance to his own younger siblings, al-Bara and Omayer.
The two younger siblings were very close. As boys, they had been put on a plane by their father and sent to Afghanistan. Their father had not told them where they were going. Al-Bara had been involved in gangs in Saudi Arabia and had been sent to reform school. His family had worried that he would get into drugs and make life even worse for himself, and this had been their justification for shipping him off to Afghanistan to join bin Laden. They had feared the same would happen to Omayer.
When the young men had arrived in Afghanistan and had discovered where they were, they had become very upset. Al-Bara, especially, preferred to be in Saudi Arabia with his friends rather than within the strict confines of an al-Qaeda camp. In the guesthouse to which they were first taken, al-Bara had run to the bathroom and cried. Khallad and Muhannad had soon joined them in Afghanistan, however, and had helped convert them to the al-Qaeda way of life. And, like Muhannad and Khallad, al-Bara and Omayer had been accepted into the inner circles.
At Murad Beg, al-Bara had gone missing behind enemy lines, and the Taliban had been forced to send a helicopter to the area to rescue him.
It was in early 1998 that bin Laden first seriously started thinking about launching a big operation targeting U.S. interests in the Arabia Peninsula. His first idea was to do four simultaneous bombings, targeting anything with a U.S. flag—oil tanker, cruise ship, military vessel—at four ports in Yemen. The ports of al-Hudaydah, Aden, Ash Shihr, and al-Mukalla would be suitable, bin Laden told al-Qaeda’s shura council. He explained that the most important part was that the four actions take place simultaneously. That is what would grab the world’s attention.
Yemen was chosen because its weak central government, loose borders, and easy access to weapons and explosives made it the easiest place in the region to target U.S. ships. Al-Qaeda had been using Yemen increasingly for operations. As a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, it provided a convenient place from which to smuggle Saudis out of Saudi Arabia to conduct operations elsewhere. Yemeni passports were also easily obtained and were used as cover, especially for Saudis, who would then go to Pakistan and Afghanistan. They didn’t want those stamps on their real passports, as they would arouse Saudi authorities’ suspicions. To get a passport in Yemen, all you had to do was show up at a local government office with two witnesses who confirmed your identity.
Bin Laden discussed his ideas with Khallad, repeatedly changing his mind about the nature of the operation as he read new information about the U.S. military. When he read that U.S. aircraft carriers carried four thousand soldiers and were nuclear-powered, he told Khallad that attacking one of them would be even more sensational than his first plan, and they started planning this operation.
They decided that al-Qaeda would need four boats to attack the four boats that bin Laden had read protected each carrier. Then they’d need a big boat to attack the carrier itself. Khallad started researching the best type of boats for the operation, and he learned what boats locals used in Yemeni ports so that al-Qaeda’s attack boats would blend in and not attract attention.
By their next discussion, bin Laden had changed his mind again. He had read that U.S. destroyers on their way to Iraq refueled in Yemen. The symbolism of hitting one of those ships would be even greater, he had decided. Khallad liked the idea and told bin Laden that he wanted to be one of the suicide bombers for the operation. Bin Laden said that he would see. In the meantime, he sent Khallad to Yemen to study the ports in the south of the country—Aden, Ash Shihr, and al-Mukalla. He sent Nashiri to do the same type of research in the northern port of al-Hudaydah. Bin Laden didn’t tell Khallad and Nashiri that they were casing for the same type of operation.
Khallad and Nashiri had become two of bin Laden’s top operatives, and so it was natural that he tasked them with the casing. Both were born in Saudi Arabia and were of Yemeni descent. Khallad’s father had been thrown out of Yemen because of trouble he had caused with the then-communist South. He had been born into the bin Yusifi, a prestigious tribe. Bin Laden calculated that if Khallad got into trouble with Yemen, he could rely on the family name to help him. The al-Qaeda leader was savvy in manipulating tribal advantages.
Independently of each other, Nashiri and Khallad busied themselves researching the ports that bin Laden had sent them to. They noted the types of local boats used, the security in the area, and whether any U.S vessels docked there. They also traveled around, looking into purchasing boats and explosives. When they passed through Sanaa, they stayed at Bayt Habra, the al-Qaeda guesthouse. Eventually their stops there overlapped.
They knew each other well. Both were part of the Northern Group, and both had become al-Qaeda special operations people. In any case, with fewer than four hundred members, al-Qaeda was a small organization—everyone knew everyone else. During their conversation they learned that they were working on the same operation. It didn’t surprise them that bin Laden hadn’t told each of them about the other. Al-Qaeda operated that way: if one cell was broken, the others wouldn’t be compromised, and the mission could still be carried out.
They parted ways and completed their initial research, and then both returned to Afghanistan and reported to bin Laden. They had reached the same conclusion: no ports other than Aden hosted U.S. ships. Bin Laden told them to focus together on an operation in Aden.
Bayt Habra was also frequented by al-Qaeda operatives who were in Yemen to get fraudulent passports. Two of the operatives in residence with Nashiri and Khallad were Hassan al-Khamiri and failed Nairobi bomber Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali. When Owhali’s father needed to contact him in Yemen, he reached him at the guesthouse. Khamiri’s application for a Yemeni passport used the telephone number of the guesthouse as its contact number.
Nashiri helped Owhali get the fraudulent passport that he used for the 1998 East African embassy bombing operation. Owhali later said that while he was in the guesthouse, he overheard Nashiri discussing a plot to attack an American ship in Yemen with Katyusha missiles while it was in port.
In the summer of 1998, as the date of the East African embassy operation was nearing, bin Laden ordered Nashiri and Khallad to return to Afghanistan. He wasn’t sure what America’s response to the attacks would be, and he didn’t know if the United States would pressure Yemen and other countries that al-Qaeda operated from to crack down on its operatives; and he didn’t want to take any chances. Nashiri and Khallad did as they were told.
When they arrived in Afghanistan, bin Laden instructed them to help prepare Owhali and Jihad Ali (Nashiri’s cousin) for the bombings. Khallad secured plane tickets and made travel arrangements and worked with the young men on their martyr videos. On bin Laden’s instructions, he told them to say that they were members of “the Islamic army to liberate the holy places.” They hadn’t heard that before; it was something new, made up by bin Laden. Their first few practice recordings had to be discarded because each time they attempted to say the phrase, they started laughing. They had to redo the video a few times until they were able to get through the script with a straight face.
In January 1999, after U.S retaliation for the 1998 embassy bombings appeared to have ended, bin Laden told Khallad and Nashiri to return to Yemen. Now Khallad set up his base in Sadah, a rugged area near the Red Sea and the Saudi border. It is viewed as no-man’s-land and, with weapons and explosives readily available, is a major Yemeni connection to the Saudi smuggling market. Nashiri, in the meantime, worked with Taha al-Ahdal.
Nashiri and Khallad occupied themselves with collecting explosives, a process Khallad had started on his first trip to Yemen. He had enlisted the help of the well-known dealer Hadi Dilkum, whose Yemeni government connections made him a valuable ally. As Khallad was making these arrangements, bin Laden instructed him to try to acquire a U.S. visa. Another operation—the “planes operation”—was being planned, and al-Qaeda needed to get operatives into the United States for it. In April Khallad applied for a visa using the alias Saleh Saeed Mohammed bin Yousaf.
His cover story for the visa application was that he needed to visit a medical clinic in the United States for a new prosthesis. A fellow al-Qaeda member had connected him with someone in the United States who had helped him find a “suitable” clinic. As he waited for confirmation of an appointment, he continued to run the boats operation, as it had come to be called, with Nashiri.
Khallad also decided to get fraudulent Yemeni identification papers to protect his identity. He applied for the fraudulent ID under the name Tawfiq Muhammad Salih bin Rashid. Dilkum was one of the witnesses who swore to the authorities that the name was valid. It was at this time that Khallad also bought, using the same fraudulent name, the ID that Qamish had handed over to us. Using that, and with Dilkum’s assistance, he rented the space to store the explosives. Khallad also bought a boat in al-Mukalla.
In May, Khallad enlisted the assistance of an al-Qaeda operative based in Aden, Jamal al-Badawi. Khallad and Badawi had met and become close friends in Afghanistan. During their initial training at the Jihad Wal camp, Badawi had become very sick, and Khallad had taken care of him. From then on Badawi had felt a debt of gratitude to Khallad, and he had gone out of his way to help him whenever needed.
Khallad thought that Badawi would be of use in the boats operation. Not only was he an experienced fisherman, but he was a Yemeni and knew the Port of Aden. Khallad was sure that Badawi would readily agree to help him. The only problem was that they had lost touch with each other. Khallad knew to check the al-Jazeera Hotel in Sanaa, a favorite place for operatives to gather and socialize. On any given day, a couple of operatives would be there chatting and drinking coffee or tea. Khallad went to the hotel and greeted the operatives there. They told him that Badawi was working in the tractor business and could be found on the street where all tractor businesses were located; in Sanaa, companies are localized by type.
Khallad went to the street and found Badawi. The two men embraced. Badawi was pleased to see his old friend. Khallad told Badawi that he was working on an operation and needed his help, and Badawi of course agreed. Khallad told him that he needed a boat for the operation. It had to be approximately nine meters long, and it needed to look like the other boats in Aden so that it would blend in and go unnoticed. Badawi said he’d go to Jizan, Saudi Arabia, to get it. He explained to Khallad that among Yemenis Jizan was known to be an easier and cheaper place to find a boat of that size than Aden. It was a place where one could buy and sell repossessed and used boats. In addition, Badawi felt that from a security point of view, Jizan was safer. Aden was a relatively small community, and if Badawi turned up with a large sum of money to buy a boat, people would start talking, and the authorities might get suspicious.
Khallad also instructed Badawi—along with Badawi’s brother, Hussein al-Badawi, and another operative, Mu’awiya al-Madani, who together formed his initial cell in Aden—to go to the port and watch U.S. ships. They went out in a fishing boat and recorded how much time ships spent in the area. Nashiri and Ahdal did the same in al-Hudaydah. The two groups later compared information, calculating how long it took ships to travel from one part of Yemen to another.
At one point during these exercises, the Yemeni authorities picked up Nashiri, Mu’awiya al-Madani, and Hussein al-Badawi. The three were far out at sea and looked suspicious. They claimed that they were just fishermen who had gotten lost. The Yemeni authorities accepted their story and released them.
Khallad and Nashiri continued to work on accumulating explosives. When they had about five hundred to seven hundred pounds of matériel, they decided to move some of it from Sadah to al-Hudaydah. To effect the transfer, Khallad asked to borrow Dilkum’s car one night. It was the action that would lead to his arrest. After packing the car, he pulled over at a bank of pay phones to make some calls. When he returned to the car he found himself surrounded by Yemeni PSO officials, who brought him in for questioning.
When Nashiri learned that Khallad had been arrested, he panicked, thinking that the Yemenis had learned of the plot. He fled to Afghanistan to inform bin Laden. “To Whom It May Concern of the Brothers in Yemen,” the letter bin Laden sent the Yemeni authorities in response to Khallad’s jailing, was said to have reached General Qamish, who passed it on to President Saleh. Released, Khallad reclaimed Hadi Dilkum’s car, the explosives untouched.
The U.S. visa application that he had submitted before being jailed was rejected—not because of any terrorism connections but because of insufficient information on his form. Nashiri returned to Yemen with instructions from bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader didn’t want Khallad in Yemen anymore because the authorities were now focused on him. He was “too hot,” and bin Laden didn’t want to compromise the boats operation. Khallad was instructed to transfer full control to Nashiri. Having put a lot of work into the operation and grown excited about its potential, Khallad was keenly disappointed, but it was inconveivable that he would ever disobey an order from bin Laden. Using a refrigerated truck, he helped Nashiri move a portion of the explosives from Sadah to Aden. In addition, he provided Nashiri with the names of all of his contacts in Aden, including Jamal al-Badawi and another operative, Salman al-Adani. Word went out that Nashiri was now fully in charge.
After he left Yemen, Khallad remained involved in the boats operation, acting as the liaison between bin Laden and Nashiri. To avoid detection, bin Laden never used e-mail or the phone, instead relying on a network of operatives in the field. Khallad regularly traveled from Kandahar, where bin Laden was based, to Karachi, where he’d speak on the phone to Nashiri.
Beyond acting as a liaison to Nashiri, bin Laden told Khallad that he wanted the rest of his time devoted to helping with the planes operation. Bin Laden said that the mastermind of that operation was a jihadist who had joined al-Qaeda after the East African embassy bombings, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Khallad spent a lot of time in Karachi planning with KSM and also traveled around the Middle East and Asia to help with the plot. In September 1999, he administered a forty-five-day special course in hand-to-hand combat at al-Qaeda’s Loghar camp to select trainees, including Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazimi, and Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi—all viewed as promising recruits.
Al-Qaeda’s decentralized system of management meant that once bin Laden decided who would be in charge, it was left to that person to work out the details. Bin Laden only instructed Nashiri that Salman al-Adani and Taha al-Ahdal would be the suicide bombers for the boats operation; Nashiri was in charge of making all the other decisions. He would relay them through Khallad to bin Laden for his sign-off.
Nashiri had felt, since the end of the summer, that they were ready to attack the next ship that entered Aden harbor. He and Khamiri had carefully surveyed the port for possible launch points. Finally, on January 3, 2000, they saw the USS The Sullivans enter the harbor. Nashiri sent the designated suicide bombers, Taha al-Ahdal and Salman al-Adani, to strike at the ship under cover of night while he waited in a hiding place, ready to view the explosion.
Ahdal and Adani placed the boat in the water, not realizing it was low tide. Because of the weight from the explosives, the boat got stuck in the sand. They tried a few times to move it, but it wouldn’t budge, so they gave up and returned home, leaving the explosive-laden boat. Nashiri was waiting to videotape the operation from an apartment he had rented in Tawahi, and as daybreak approached, he realized that something had gone wrong. He went to the house where the bombers had been living before the operation to see if there were any clues to what had happened and was surprised to see them there, sleeping. He angrily woke them and they explained what had happened. After a firm rebuke he took Salman with him and, with Khamiri also in tow, rushed down to the harbor in a truck. When they saw the boat, they froze. The Beachboy Five were removing the explosives and throwing them casually to one another. Nashiri, Salman, and Khamiri approached cautiously, in case something exploded, and Nashiri negotiated to get the explosives back.
Nashiri, Taha, and Khamiri fled to Afghanistan, Nashiri reporting to bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader said that they should keep out of sight and wait to see what happened in Yemen. No reports of the Yemenis or the United States investigating the incident reached them, however, and they became increasingly confident that, ultimately, their plans had not been compromised.
Nashiri returned to Yemen within a few months and reconnected with Badawi and the local cell. New suicide bombers were chosen, as Ahdal had been killed in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban, and Adani had died after jumping into a sewer to try to save a boy who had fallen in. Although Khallad had regularly petitioned bin Laden to use him as a suicide bomber, the al-Qaeda leader wished to use Mu’awiya al-Madani. In fact, however, by September, when the boats operation was ready to be carried out, Nashiri substituted Nibras and Khamiri.
Newly married, Salim Hamdan was visiting Yemen when the attack on the USS Cole occurred. He knew nothing about it in advance but recognized the al-Qaeda hallmarks: suicide bombers and a U.S. target. One of his first responses to the attack was fear of arrest because of his well-known connections to bin Laden. But when he heard President Saleh saying on Yemeni television that the attack was an Israeli Mossad operation, he relaxed, as that, too, made sense to him: Israel was an enemy of Yemen and wanted to provoke the United States against Yemen. It would be illogical, on the other hand, for al-Qaeda to risk angering Yemen, which until then had been such a welcoming place for extremists, including al-Qaeda operatives. Hamdan traveled with his in-laws from Sanaa to Saudi Arabia for al-Umra, a minor pilgrimage. From Saudi Arabia he returned to Afghanistan to resume his duties for bin Laden.
When he arrived in Kandahar, bin Laden welcomed him back and asked him if there was “any news from Yemen regarding the attack on the American destroyer.” Hamdan said that he had heard President Saleh blaming Mossad. Bin Laden smiled and walked away. Later that day, Hamdan bumped into Nashiri. Like bin Laden, Nashiri asked what the news was from Yemen. Hamdan repeated what he had told bin Laden. Nashiri started laughing. He then gestured in bin Laden’s direction and said, “It’s all from his head.” Hamdan now understood why bin Laden had smiled earlier in the day—the Cole was an al-Qaeda operation.
It also now made sense to Hamdan why a few months earlier in Kandahar he had seen Nashiri experimenting with explosives in the company of Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir, al-Qaeda’s explosives expert and master bomb maker. He had watched the two men detonating and exploding bombs in the body of an old vehicle. Hamdan knew that Muhajir only instructed people when specifically instructed to do so by bin Laden. If he was involved, one could assume that it was an important operation. He also noticed that Nashiri was spending a lot of time with Khallad, Abu Hafs, and bin Laden, further indication of his involvement in an upcoming operation.
Not everyone in Kandahar agreed with the wisdom of hitting a U.S. target in Yemen. Many al-Qaeda members were either Yemenis or had family ties to Yemen, and they feared the effect an attack would have on their families and their ability to travel home. They also questioned the wisdom of upsetting a country that had been very useful in providing refuge to them.
Hamdan was one of the al-Qaeda members who questioned the wisdom of the attack. His wife was a Yemeni, and he feared that they would be prevented from returning to Yemen after the attack. When he spoke to his brother-in-law in Yemen, Hamdan was told that the PSO was looking for him. Yemen was a no-go country for him for now.
When they were alone, Hamdan asked bin Laden, “Sheikh, why in Yemen, when that was always a safe haven for the brothers?” Bin Laden did not respond directly and changed the subject.
Other al-Qaeda members would not dream of questioning bin Laden, and Nashiri fell into this camp. He believed that bin Laden always knew best. Abu Jandal described Nashiri as someone who would commit a terrorist act “in Mecca, inside the Kaaba itself” if he believed the cause demanded it.
Bin Laden was convinced that the United States would retaliate against al-Qaeda for the bombing of the USS Cole. At a minimum, he expected al-Qaeda’s training camps to be bombed, as had happened after the East African embassy bombings. Before the Cole attack, bin Laden moved to protect himself and his followers.
Training camps were temporarily shut down, and operatives were ordered not to plan or carry out any terrorist acts. Bin Laden himself kept on the move, traveling from one safe house in Afghanistan to another. He first went to the hills around Kabul, then on to Khost and Jalalabad. After that he returned to Kandahar, moving between safe houses there. He also sent Abu Hafs and Ayman al-Zawahiri to separate locations in Kabul. That way, if one of them were killed, the others could continue running al-Qaeda.
Yet there was no retaliation from the United States, to bin Laden’s surprise. They would have to hit harder to get America’s attention, he told his aides. Hamdan later told me, “You [the United States] brought 9/11 on yourselves; you didn’t respond to the Cole, so bin Laden had to hit harder.”
As days and weeks went by, rumors that al-Qaeda was behind the Cole attack reverberated around the Muslim world. The image of the attack on the Cole—a small boat bringing down a mighty destroyer—was a powerful one. Bin Laden would later say that “the destroyer represented the capital of the West and the small boat represented the Prophet Muhammad.” In Kandahar, bin Laden, Abu Hafs, and Saif al-Adel met to discuss how best to further capitalize on the attack to boost al-Qaeda’s fund-raising and recruitment. They decided to make a video about the bombing.
Bin Laden instructed Ali al-Bahlul to produce the video. He and other members of al-Qaeda’s media office spent six months on the project, which included a reenactment of the Cole bombing, along with images of al-Qaeda camps and training sessions. It opened with the voice of Abu Hajer al-Iraqi, reading passages from the Quran—he was in jail in the United States for his role in the East African embassy bombings. The touch was significant: before the Cole bombing, bin Laden had issued a warning to the United States to release prisoners, among them Abu Hajer. Operatives later noted that the voiceover was bin Laden’s creative flourish—one of many improvements and revisions insisted upon by the al-Qaeda leader.
Al-Qaeda distributed the video internationally, and it aired around the world. Money and recruits started pouring in, and in appreciation bin Laden promoted Bahlul; it was at this point that he attained the dual position of al-Qaeda’s public relations secretary and bin Laden’s personal propagandist.
At the al-Farouq camp, bin Laden addressed new recruits who came in following the Cole attack. He thanked God for the success of the Cole operation, promised future attacks, praised the martyrs Khamiri and Nibras for their heroic actions, and asked God to receive them as martyrs and “provide us with more like them.” He also encouraged the trainees to prepare for jihad themselves. The Yemenis in the camps were proud that Yemeni al-Qaeda operatives were behind the Cole. They marched and chanted in unison during training: “We, the Yemenis, are the ones who blew up the Cole.” Bin Laden also named two of al-Qaeda’s main guesthouses after Hassan and Nibras—honoring them and hoping to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Many new recruits volunteered for suicide missions.
In January 2001, in Kandahar, bin Laden celebrated al-Qaeda’s successes at the wedding of Hamza, his seventeen-year-old son. The young man married the fourteen-year-old daughter of Abu Hafs al-Masri. To commemorate the occasion, bin Laden read a poem:
A destroyer: even the brave fear its might.
It inspires horror in the harbor and in the open sea.
She sails into the waves
Flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and false power.
To her doom she moves slowly
A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves.
In June 2001, Hamdan and Nashiri were sitting together in a guesthouse in Kandahar, and their conversation turned to the Cole. Nashiri, laughing, told Hamdan that while transporting the boat to be used for the operation, he had been stopped by a Yemeni policeman, who had asked to see the requisite papers for the craft. He didn’t have any papers, so instead he had convinced the officer to turn a blind eye to the incident with “qat money.” How easy it was to bribe a policeman in Yemen, Nashiri thought to himself, flushed with this success.
Hamdan was struck by how Nashiri gloried in his own role in the operation, failing to credit even Khamiri and Nibras, who were heavily involved in the planning and, of course, had lost their lives. This especially upset Hamdan, as the men had been friends of his. He and Khamiri had fought together in the front lines against the Northern Alliance. Nibras had been a witness at his wedding in Yemen. It was the last time Hamdan had seen him.
After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, an office used by al-Qaeda’s military committee was raided. One of the documents found, in a plastic sleeve, was Hasan al-Khamiri’s martyrdom letter. It was his farewell to his brothers. In the letter he spoke about jihad and al-Qaeda, and said his good-byes. On the side of the letter were doodles, with flowers on them.
September 9, 2001. After a long day working in Sanaa, George, Bob, and I were preparing to head to sleep in the room we were sharing in the Sheraton Hotel when the news came through that Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, had been assassinated.
Two men claiming to be Belgian journalists of Moroccan origin had met with him for an interview and had blown up their camera’s battery pack, which was filled with explosives, killing him. We later learned that their letter of introduction had been forged by Zawahiri and that they were Tunisian members of al-Qaeda.
Massoud was a committed Muslim and had been endorsed by many Islamic leaders, including Abdullah Azzam, who declared, after meeting him, “I have seen the true Islamic jihad, and it is Massoud.” But he opposed the Taliban and al-Qaeda, seeking a moderate alternative.
Massoud was a national hero, and his death meant the splintering of the Northern Alliance. His reputation and charisma were instrumental in keeping his group united, and he was one of the few unifying figures who could command the respect of most of the country.
I confided to George and Bob my fear that the assassination was not strictly about Massoud and the Taliban; that it was an action with wider meaning and resonance. “This is bigger. Al-Qaeda is trying to do something huge, and needs the Taliban’s support—so they killed Massoud, something the Taliban would be forever grateful for.”
“Dude, you scare me when you say this stuff,” George said. He brought up the memos I had written before the East African embassy bombings and before the Cole attack. “And look what happened. I hope you’re wrong.”
“I hope I’m wrong, too.”
The next day, September 10, the Taliban began a major offensive against the shaken Northern Alliance—one that had been clearly prepared for months in advance.