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May 15, 2009

Love in the Time of Terror

She was a single mom; he was divorced and searching. Together they kindled an epic passion for each other — and jihad.

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malika el aroud

Photo Credit: Herman Ricour/AP Images

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In August 2001, Abdessattar headed for northern Afghanistan, telling Malika that he was taking a trip to film a report on the exploits of jihadists on the northern front. It was a lie. Bin Laden had personally selected Abdessattar to carry out one of his most vital missions. Al Qaeda's catastrophic strike against the U.S. — five years in the making — was now only weeks away. Bin Laden knew the 9/11 attack would make him the world's most wanted man and that there would be enormous pressure on the Taliban to give him up. How better to ingratiate himself with the Taliban than by killing their greatest foe, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance? The plan was for Abdessattar and a colleague to pose as TV journalists to gain access to Massoud, then assassinate him.

When Abdessattar set off on his trip, he knew it would likely be the last time he saw the woman he loved, but his passion for jihad was greater. When I asked Malika why she was kept in the dark, she snapped, "Since when does a secret agent, entrusted with a mission, tell his wife?"

On September 9, the al Qaeda hit men went to meet Massoud at his field headquarters. According to survivors of the attack, Abdessattar's first question to Massoud was: "If you capture Osama bin Laden, what will you do with him?" There was no second question. His colleague, the fake cameraman, who had been filming Massoud at close range, triggered his suicide vest, fatally wounding the Northern Alliance leader. Abdessattar, who had been standing a few feet away, survived the bomb blast and was captured by Massoud's guards and locked in a nearby room. But after they left, Abdessattar escaped through a window, then sprinted. Just as he started to gain ground, he came to a river blocking his path. He tried to wade across, but the guards caught up with him and shot him dead.

By September 12, the suicide mission was an open secret in Jalalabad, where people in the streets were celebrating the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the death of Massoud. Malika learned of her husband's death when she stepped outside and a woman warmly congratulated her on being the wife of a martyr. Malika recalled in her memoir, "My heart jumped."

A succession of visitors came to congratulate her over the next few days, seemingly unaware of how stricken she was with grief. Eventually a courier, sent by bin Laden, dropped off a videotape that her husband had made in the hope that she would hear the news from him first. "Abdessattar gently prepared me for the fact he was no longer there," Malika said, as if speaking of the most tender kind of love token. "He told me he loved me, but he was already on the other side." The courier also gave her $500 in cash from bin Laden to settle her husband's debts. "It's the pinnacle in Islam to be the widow of a martyr," Malika told me proudly. "For a woman, it's extraordinary."

Weeks later, still gripped by sorrow, Malika watched with detachment as the night sky above Jalalabad lit up with explosions from American bombs. In mid-November, she heard on the radio that the Taliban had abandoned their positions around the city. Worse, word came to her that Massoud's men knew where she was — and planned to hunt her down in order to avenge the death of their commander.

Before she could escape, Massoud's men stormed her compound. Trapped inside and terrified, Malika heard only the deafening sound of explosions, gunfire, and shattering glass. The al Qaeda fighters told the women and children to run for their lives, while the men provided cover, launching grenades and bazooka rounds on their assailants. Assisted by one of the al Qaeda men, Malika ran to the back of the compound and climbed a ladder to the top of a 7-foot wall. Then she jumped — burka and all — down onto the muddy bank of the river below. She waded across the icy waters with other fleeing women and children, to what they hoped would be safety.

However, after bedding down with an Afghan family overnight, the fugitives ran into a group of Northern Alliance fighters on a road leading out of the city, and the women were taken prisoner. Malika remembered the words of her husband: "Don't let them take you alive." But lucky for her, Malika's captors didn't know the prize they'd caught, given that she was wrapped in her burka. She and the others were held in several locations in the mountains above Jalalabad before being taken back into the city.

After a couple of weeks, a band of al Qaeda fighters discovered where the women were being held and launched a daring raid at dawn to set them free. Shouting "Don't be afraid, sisters! We are your brothers in Islam!" they loaded Malika and the others into vans and sped off into the Jalalabad morning.

NEXT PAGE: Tora Bora, al Qaeda's infamous mountain redoubt


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