2021-09-21 23:40:23 A Botched Drone Strike in Kabul Started With the Wrong Car
A Botched Drone Strike in Kabul Started With the Wrong Car
The United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul in one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan. It was parked in a home’s courtyard, and the explosion killed ten people, including Zemari Ahmadi, 43, and seven children, according to his family.
According to the Pentagon, Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State, and his car was loaded with explosives, posing an immediate threat to US troops guarding the evacuation at Kabul Airport.
“The procedures were followed correctly, and it was a just strike.” What the military apparently didn’t realize was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker who, according to colleagues and family members, spent the hours before his death running office errands and ending his day by pulling up to his house. Soon after, his Toyota was hit by a Hellfire missile weighing 20 pounds. What was interpreted as suspicious movements by a terrorist could have simply been an ordinary day in his life.
And it’s possible that the military saw Ahmadi loading water canisters into his car on his way home to his family, rather than explosives. Using never-before-seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, as well as interviews with his family, coworkers, and witnesses, we will piece together his movements in the hours leading up to his death for the first time. Zemari Ahmadi was a trained electrical engineer.
He had worked for Nutrition and Education International’s Kabul office for 14 years. “In Afghanistan, NEI established a total of 11 soybean processing plants.” It is a non-profit organization based in California that fights malnutrition. On most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota Corollas, transporting his colleagues to and from work and delivering food from the NGO to Afghans displaced by the war.
Only three days before Ahmadi’s death, an Islamic State suicide attack at the airport killed 13 US troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians. Lower-level commanders had been given the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared was another impending attack.
The Times pieced together security camera footage from Ahmadi’s office, as well as interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and family members, to reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on Aug. 29, in the hours before he was killed. Ahmadi is believed to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then went near his house and picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop.
Around this time, the US military claimed to have seen a white sedan leaving an alleged Islamic State safehouse five kilometers northwest of the airport. That is why the US military claimed to have tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla on that day. They also claimed to have intercepted communications from the safehouse, which instructed the car to make multiple stops.
Every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day, however, stated that what the military perceived as a series of suspicious moves was simply a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped for breakfast before arriving at the N.G.O.’s office at 9:35 a.m. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his coworkers to a Taliban-held police station to obtain permission for future food distribution at a new displacement camp.
Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office around 2 p.m. We need the security camera footage from the office to figure out what happens next. The camera’s timestamp is incorrect, but we went to the office and double-checked the time. We also confirmed the accuracy of the footage by matching an exact scene from it with a timestamp satellite image.
At 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a hose and fills empty containers with water with a coworker. We had seen Ahmadi bring these same empty plastic containers to the office earlier that morning. According to his family, there was a water shortage in his neighborhood, so he brought water home from work on a regular basis.
A colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further into the driveway around 3:38 p.m. According to a senior US official, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull into an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport around the same time. This corresponds to the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe is what the military referred to as an unknown compound.
As the workday came to an end, an employee turned off the office generator, and the camera feed came to an end. We don’t have video of what happened next. However, it was at this point that the military stated that its drone feed showed four men carefully loading wrapped packages into the car. Officials claimed they had no idea what was inside them.
This earlier-in-the-day video shows the men carrying what they said they were carrying: their laptops, one in a plastic shopping bag. According to Ahmadi’s coworkers, the only items in the trunk were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped each of them off before driving to his home in a densely populated area near the airport.
He backed into the small courtyard of the house. According to his brother, children surrounded the car. According to a US official, the military was concerned that the car would leave again and end up in an even more congested street or at the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t been watching Ahmadi’s house at all that day, scanned the courtyard quickly and reported seeing only one adult male talking to the driver and no children. They decided that now was the time to strike.
According to a US official, the attack on Ahmadi’s car was carried out by a MQ-9 Reaper drone, which fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. At the scene of the attack, we discovered missile remnants that experts said matched a Hellfire.
The Pentagon claimed repeatedly in the days following the attack that the missile strike caused other explosions, which killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a significant amount of explosive material,” according to the report.
“Because there were secondary explosions, it is reasonable to conclude that explosives were present in that vehicle.” However, a senior military official later told us that it was only possible that explosives in the car caused another blast. We collected photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and returned to the courtyard several times.
We showed the evidence to three weapons experts, who said the damage was consistent with a Hellfire missile impact. They pointed to the small crater beneath Ahmadi’s car and the damage caused by the warhead’s metal fragments. This plastic melted as a result of the missile strike, which caused a car fire.
All three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the Pentagon’s described large secondary explosions. There were no collapsed or blown-out walls, even next to the trunk containing the alleged explosives. There was no evidence that a second car parked in the courtyard had been blown over by a large explosion. There is no vegetation that has been destroyed.
All of this corroborates what eyewitnesses told us: a single missile exploded, igniting a large fire. One last detail can be seen in the wreckage: containers identical to the ones that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before returning home.
Despite the military’s claim that the drone team monitored the car for eight hours that day, a senior official stated that they were unaware of any water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The New York Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle, nor has it shared what it claims is intelligence linking him to the Islamic State.
However, the Islamic State did launch rockets at the airport the morning after the US killed Ahmadi, from a residential area Ahmadi had driven through the day before. And the car they used…… was a white Toyota. So far, the US military has acknowledged only three civilian deaths as a result of the strike, and an investigation is underway.
They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi prior to his death, leading them to misinterpret the work of an engineer at a non-governmental organization in the United States as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer applied for refugee resettlement in the United States for his family. They were still awaiting approval at the time of the strike. Looking to the United States for protection, they instead became some of America’s last victims in the country’s longest war.
“Hello, my name is Evan, and I’m one of the producers on this story. Our most recent visual investigation began with social media reports of an explosion near Kabul International Airport. It was later revealed that this was a US drone strike, one of the final acts in Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Our mission was to fill in the blanks in the Pentagon’s account of events.
We examined exclusive security camera footage, as well as eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the strike’s aftermath. Sign up for our newsletter to see more of our investigations.”