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The U.S. targeted a humanitarian worker with a drone strike, mistakenly believing that he was an ISIS-K militant preparing for a terrorist attack.
A pair of media investigations are casting doubt about the official narrative of a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan's capital Kabul late last month, which the military alleged had targeted a vehicle carrying a large amount of explosives, amid a military withdrawal from the country.
U.S. military forces conducted on Aug. 29 what the Central Command described as "a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike" that eliminated an "imminent" threat posed by ISIS-K, an Afghanistan-based offshoot of the Islamic State, to the Hamad Karzai International airport in Kabul, where evacuations of U.S. service members and personnel were underway.
"We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material," the command said in a statement that day. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called it a "righteous strike" with procedures correctly followed.
But separate investigations by The New York Times and The Washington Post question the official account of what happened, including whether the driver of the vehicle had been associated with ISIS-K and whether the car contained explosives.
The investigations have identified the driver as Zemarai Ahmadi, a 43-year-old electrical engineer working for Nutrition and Education International (NEI), a U.S. aid group based in California. Family members told The Times that Ahmadi, who had worked for NEI since 2006, had applied for refugee resettlement in the U.S.
The car Ahmadi was driving had been tracked for about eight hours beginning on the morning of Aug. 29 before an MQ-9 Reaper drone launched the strike, according to a senior U.S. military official. That day, his vehicle is said to have made several stops in Kabul, including an alleged ISIS-K safe house linked to an earlier suicide bombing attack that killed more than a dozen U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians at a gate of the Kabul airport. He was also alleged to have loaded what U.S. military officials thought could be explosives into his car.
The United States, the Post wrote, allegedly "had credible intelligence pointing to a likely second assault on the airport and believed the car would be used for that purpose." When Ahmadi pulled into the courtyard of his home in a neighborhood in northwestern Kabul in the afternoon, a U.S. tactical commander greenlighted the strike with the drone operator launching a Hellfire missile, a precision air-to-ground, subsonic weapon with anti-tank capacity.
NEI's president Steven Kwon told The Post that the sedan belonged to the charity organization while disputing the assertions made by the U.S. military that there were explosives inside the car. The Times said after an analysis of security camera footage it obtained showed that what U.S. military officials may have seen was Ahmadi and a colleague "loading canisters of water into his trunk to bring home to his family."
While the U.S. military has so far acknowledged three civilian casualties, Ahmadi's relatives said 10 members of their family, including seven children, were killed in the U.S. drone strike.
The Times and Post analyses have also called into question the U.S. Central Command's allegation of "secondary explosions" in the courtyard. The Times said an examination of the scene of the strike "found no evidence of a second, more powerful explosion," with experts pointing to the lack of collapsed walls or destroyed vegetation. "It seriously questions the credibility of the intelligence or technology utilized to determine this was a legitimate target," Chris Cobb-Smith, a British Army veteran and security consultant, told the Times.
Two explosives experts The Post interviewed said that they believe the damage was mostly caused by the Hellfire missile. If there was a secondary blast, it was likely caused by an ignition of fuel tank vapors, they said. The experts also cautioned that the analysis might have been limited because the research was not done based on an investigation at the scene.
Ahmadi's younger brother, Emal, who lost his three-year-old daughter in the drone assault, told Euronews that he thinks the United States "made a big mistake."
"They should have first found information about my family, about my brother, what is his job, what is he doing, what are the members of the family doing," Emal said.
U.S. Central Command spokesperson Bill Urban had previously said in a statement that they are "still assessing the results of this strike," adding that they "would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life."
"We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties," Urban said. "It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further."
The U.S. Central Command continues to believe it was a legitimate target, a senior U.S. official told NPR, noting that what is uncertain is whether the driver was part of the supposed terrorist effort or forced into it. In an op-ed released on Sunday, The Wall Street Journal urged the U.S. Congress to look into the matter.
"One question is whether anyone in the White House signed off on the strike against Ahmadi. Another is whether Mr. Biden demanded some show of force against ISIS-K," it wrote. "The goal is to get those at the top of the Administration to start telling the truth, and taking responsibility, for the calamitous Afghan withdrawal."