09.21.11

The Taliban’s Deadly Ploy

Behind the murder of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani was a cruel trick. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau have exclusive details on how insurgents fooled him with an offer of peace.

Exactly how did yesterday’s assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani unfold? As official investigators continue working on that question, his relatives, friends, and a member of his household staff have given The Daily Beast the clearest account so far. According to them, the Afghan High Peace Council chairman was away on a visit to Tehran when he began getting a series of phone calls. A former Taliban minister who had defected from the insurgency, Rahmatullah Wahidyar, repeatedly phoned Rabbani, advising him to return home immediately. Wahidyar said a Taliban emissary had arrived with an urgent message from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Rabbani could scarcely ignore such an opening. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had formally designated him a year ago to direct the government’s efforts to make peace with the Taliban. And although past Taliban peace overtures had turned out to be hoaxes, this time the messenger seemed to be no impostor. The chairman himself and other Peace Council members had apparently met at least once before with him. Rabbani took off from Tehran on Tuesday morning, transited in Dubai, and landed in Kabul about 3 that afternoon.

As he arrived at his heavily guarded Kabul residence, he was met by Wahidyar and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a Rabbani aide and senior adviser to President Karzai. Sources close to Rabbani say Stanekzai sent his own driver to pick up the Taliban messenger and bring him to meet the Peace Council chairman’s home for a meeting. When the driver returned, he brought the man through the house’s main gate, bypassing the usual thorough security checks. Hajji Nazir, Rabbani’s private secretary, ushered the messenger into the living room to see the former president.

A household servant who was bringing tea for Rabbani and his guests has described Rabbani’s final moments to The Daily Beast. The purported envoy, wearing a large, traditional Afghan turban, walked toward the intended victim, bowed his head to Rabbani’s chest, touching it with his turban. “We thought he bowed in respect,” says the servant. Instead, a huge blast shook the room, instantly killing Rabbani and the suicide bomber and seriously injuring Stanekzai. Wahidyar reportedly survived the attack.

The servant, who was not seriously injured in the explosion, says that as he and others helped remove the dead and injured, a cellphone started ringing in the debris. “When we picked up the phone,” he recalls, “someone said in Pashtu, ‘Congratulations to the martyr.' ” Apparently the phone belonged to the bomber. Police say the call was made from Pakistan. “The Taliban fooled us again,” the badly shaken servant says. “Our leader was killed for seeking peace at the end of his life.”

Plus: Is this the death of the Afghan peace process?