Ahmad Shah Massoud—Lion of the Panjshir

Afghanistan's Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir

Francis Demange, Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

In a mountain military base at Khvajeh Baha od Din, northern Afghanistan, around noon, September 9, 2001, Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud meets with two North African Arab reporters (possibly Tunisians), for an interview about his fight against the Taliban.

Suddenly, the TV camera carried by the "reporters" explodes with terrific force, instantly killing the al-Qaeda-linked faux journalists and seriously injuring Massoud. His men rush the "Lion of Panjshir" to a jeep, hoping to get him to a helicopter for medevac to a hospital, but Massoud dies on the road after just 15 minutes.

In that explosive moment, Afghanistan lost its fiercest force for a more moderate type of Islamic government, and the western world lost a valuable potential ally in the Afghanistan War to come. Afghanistan itself lost a great leader but gained a martyr and national hero.

Massoud's Childhood and Youth

Ahmad Shah Massoud was born on September 2, 1953, to an ethnic Tajik family in Bazarak, in Afghanistan's Panjshir region. His father, Dost Mohammad, was a police commander in Bazarak.

When Ahmad Shah Massoud was in the third grade, his father became the chief of police in Herat, northwest Afghanistan. The boy was a talented student, both in elementary school and in his religious studies. He eventually took to a moderate type of Sunni Islam, with strong Sufi overtones.

Ahmad Shah Massoud attended high school in Kabul after his father transferred to the police force there. A gifted linguist, the young man became fluent in Persian, French, Pashtu, Hindi, and Urdu and was conversant in English and Arabic.

As an engineering student at Kabul University, Massoud joined the Organization of Muslim Youth (Sazman-i Jawanan-i Musulman), which opposed the communist regime of Afghanistan and growing Soviet influence in the country. When the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan deposed and assassinated President Mohammad Daoud Khan and his family in 1978, Ahmad Shah Massoud went into exile in Pakistan, but soon returned to his birthplace in the Panjshir and raised an army.

As the newly installed hard-line communist regime rampaged across Afghanistan, killing an estimated 100,000 of its citizens, Massoud and his poorly-equipped group of rebels fought against them for two months. By September of 1979, however, his soldiers were out of ammunition, and 25-year-old Massoud had been seriously injured in the leg. They were forced to surrender.

Mujahideen Leader Against the USSR

On December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah Massoud immediately devised a strategy for guerrilla warfare against the Soviets (since a frontal attack on the Afghan communists earlier in the year had failed). Massoud's guerrillas blocked the Soviets' vital supply route at Salang Pass, and held it all through the 1980s.

Every year from 1980 to 1985, the Soviets would throw two massive offensives against Massoud's position, each attack larger than the last. Yet Massoud's 1,000-5,000 mujahideen held out against 30,000 Soviet troops armed with tanks, field artillery, and air support, repulsing each attack. This heroic resistance earned Ahmad Shah Massoud the nickname "Lion of the Panshir" (in Persian, Shir-e-Panshir, literally "Lion of the Five Lions").

Personal Life

During this period, Ahmad Shah Massoud married his wife, called Sediqa. They went on to have one son and four daughters, born between 1989 and 1998. Sediqa Massoud published a loving 2005 memoir of her life with the commander, called "Pour l'amour de Massoud."

Defeating the Soviets

In August of 1986, Massoud began his drive to liberate northern Afghanistan from the Soviets. His forces captured the city of Farkhor, including a military airbase, in Soviet Tajikistan. Massoud's troops also defeated the Afghan national army's 20th division at Nahrin in north-central Afghanistan in November of 1986.

Ahmad Shah Massoud studied the military tactics of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. His guerrillas became consummate practitioners of hit-and-run strikes against a superior force and captured significant amounts of Soviet artillery and tanks.

On the 15th of February, 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its last soldier from Afghanistan. This bloody and expensive war would contribute significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself over the following two years—thanks in no small part to Ahmad Shah Massoud's mujahideen faction.

Outside observers expected the communist regime in Kabul to fall as soon as its Soviet sponsors withdrew, but in fact it held on for three more years. With the final fall of the Soviet Union in early 1992, however, the communists lost power. A new coalition of northern military commanders, the Northern Alliance, forced President Najibullah from power on April 17, 1992.

Minister of Defense

In the new Islamic State of Afghanistan, created upon the fall of the communists, Ahmad Shah Massoud became Minister of Defense. However, his rival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with Pakistani support, began to bombard Kabul just one month after the installation of the new government. When the Uzbekistan-backed Abdul Rashid Dostum formed an anti-government coalition with Hekmatyar at the beginning of 1994, Afghanistan descended into a full-scale civil war.

Fighters under the different warlords rampaged across the country, looting, raping, and killing civilians. The atrocities were so widespread that a group of Islamic students in Kandahar formed to oppose the out-of-control guerrilla fighters, and to protect the honor and security of Afghan civilians. That group called themselves the Taliban, meaning "Students."

Northern Alliance Commander

As Minister of Defense, Ahmad Shah Massoud tried to engage the Taliban in talks about democratic elections. Taliban leaders were not interested, however. With military and financial support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban seized Kabul and ousted the government on September 27, 1996. Massoud and his followers retreated to northeastern Afghanistan, where they formed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

Although most former government leaders and Northern Alliance commanders had fled into exile by 1998, Ahmad Shah Massoud remained in Afghanistan. The Taliban tried to tempt him to give up his resistance by offering him the position of Prime Minister in their government, but he refused.

Proposal for Peace

Early in 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud proposed again that the Taliban join him in supporting democratic elections. They refused once more. Nonetheless, their position within Afghanistan was growing weaker and weaker; such Taliban measures as requiring women to wear the burqa, banning music and kites, and summarily cutting off limbs or even publicly executing suspected criminals did little to endear them to ordinary people. Not only the other ethnic groups, but even their own Pashtun people were turning against Taliban rule.

Nonetheless, the Taliban hung on to power. They received support not only from Pakistan, but also from elements in Saudi Arabia, and offered shelter to the Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers.

Massoud's Assassination and the Aftermath

Thus it was that the al-Qaeda operatives made their way to Ahmad Shah Massoud's base, disguised as reporters, and killed him with their suicide bomb on September 9, 2001. The extremist coalition of al-Qaeda and the Taliban wanted to remove Massoud and undermine the Northern Alliance before making their strike against the United States on September 11.

Since his death, Ahmad Shah Massoud has become a national hero in Afghanistan. A fierce fighter, yet a moderate and thoughtful man, he was the only leader who never fled the country through all its ups and downs. He was awarded the title "Hero of the Afghan Nation" by President Hamid Karzai immediately after his death, and many Afghans consider him to have almost saintly status.

In the west, too, Massoud is held in high esteem. Although he is not as widely remembered as he should be, those in the know consider him to be the single person most responsible for bringing down the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War—more so than Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, the Panjshir region that Ahmad Shah Massoud controlled is one of the most peaceful, tolerant, and stable areas in war-ravaged Afghanistan.


  • AFP, "Afghan Hero Massoud's Assassination a Prelude to 9/11"
  • Clark, Kate. "Profile: The Lion of Panjshir," BBC News online.
  • Grad, Marcela. Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader, St. Louis: Webster University Press, 2009.
  • Junger, Sebastian. "Sebastian Junger on Afghanistan's Slain Rebel Leader," National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
  • Miller, Frederic P. et al. Ahmad Shah Massoud, Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Publishing House, 2009.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Ahmad Shah Massoud—Lion of the Panjshir." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/ahmad-shah-massoud-195106. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Ahmad Shah Massoud—Lion of the Panjshir. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ahmad-shah-massoud-195106 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Ahmad Shah Massoud—Lion of the Panjshir." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ahmad-shah-massoud-195106 (accessed June 5, 2023).