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Military probe reveals how US botched drone strike in Kabul


[explosion] In one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul. It was parked in the yard of a house, and the explosion killed 10 people, including Zemari Ahmadi, 43, and seven children, according to his family. The Pentagon claimed Ahmadi was an Islamic State enabler and his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to US troops guarding the evacuation at Kabul airport. “Procedures were followed correctly, and it was a fair strike.” What the military apparently did not know was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker, who colleagues and family members say spent the hours before his death running errands to the office and ended his day by stopping at his house. Shortly after, his Toyota was hit by a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as the suspicious actions of a terrorist may have been just an ordinary day in his life. And it’s possible that what the army saw Ahmadi loading into his car were canisters of water he was taking home to his family – not explosives. Using never-before-seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, colleagues and witnesses, we will piece together for the first time his movements in the hours leading up to his death. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. For 14 years he worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International. “NEI has established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It is a California-based NGO that fights against malnutrition. Most of the time, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota Corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work and distributing the NGO’s food to war-displaced Afghans. Just three days before Ahmadi’s death, 13 American soldiers and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide bombing at the airport. The military had given lower-level commanders the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were preparing for what they feared was another imminent attack. To piece together Ahmadi’s movements on August 29, in the hours before his death, The Times pieced together security camera footage from his office, along with interviews with more than a dozen colleagues and members of the Ahmadi’s family. Ahmadi appears to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop near his home. It was around this time that the US military claimed to have observed a white sedan leaving a suspected Islamic State hideout, about three miles northwest of the airport. This is why the US military said it tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the shelter, ordering the car to make several stops. But every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day said what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious movements was just a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped for breakfast and at 9:35 a.m. they arrived at the NGO office. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his colleagues to a Taliban-occupied police station to seek permission for a future food distribution at a new camp for the displaced. Around 2 p.m., Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The security camera footage we got from the office is key to understanding what happens next. The camera timestamp is disabled, but we went to the office and checked the time. We also matched an exact scene from the footage with a timestamp satellite image to confirm it was accurate. At 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a garden hose, then he and a colleague fill empty cans with water. Earlier in the morning, we saw Ahmadi bringing those same empty plastic containers to the office. There was a water shortage in his neighborhood, his family said, so he regularly brought water home from the office. At around 3:38 p.m., a colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further down the driveway. A senior US official told us that around the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull up at an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. This overlaps with the location of the NGO office, which we believe is what the military called an unknown compound. At the end of the working day, an employee has turned off the generator in the office and the power to the camera ends. We have no footage of the moments that followed. But that’s when the military said its drone feed showed four men carefully loading wrapped parcels into the car. Officials said they could not say what was inside. This footage taken earlier today shows what the men said they were carrying – their laptops in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the trunk, Ahmadi’s colleagues said, were the water canisters. Ahmadi dropped each of them off, then drove to his home in a dense neighborhood near the airport. He backed into the small courtyard of the house. Children surrounded the car, according to his brother. A US official said the military feared the car would roll off and go to an even more congested street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who had not monitored Ahmadi’s house at all that day, quickly scanned the yard and said they saw only one adult man talking to the driver and no children. . They decided it was time to strike. A US official told us the strike on Ahmadi’s car was carried out by an MQ-9 Reaper drone that fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. We found remnants of the missile, which experts believe matched a Hellfire at the scene of the attack. In the days following the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the missile strike triggered further explosions, and that these likely killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the target vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “Because there were secondary explosions, there is a reasonable conclusion to be drawn that there were explosives in this vehicle.” But a senior military official told us later that it was only possible that explosives in the car caused another explosion. We collected photos and videos of the scene taken by reporters and visited the yard several times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage was consistent with the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater under Ahmadi’s car and the damage caused by metal fragments from the warhead. This plastic melted following a car fire triggered by the missile strike. The three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown walls, including next to the safe with the suspected explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the yard was overturned by a large explosion. No vegetation destroyed. This is all consistent with what eyewitnesses told us, that a single missile exploded and started a large fire. One last detail is visible in the wreckage: containers identical to those that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before returning home. Although the military said the drone team monitored the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they were not aware of any water tanks. The Pentagon did not provide The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle or share what they say is intelligence that linked him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the United States killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State launched rockets at the airport from a residential area that Ahmadi had passed through the day before. And the vehicle they were using… …was a white Toyota. The US military has so far only acknowledged three civilian deaths from its strike and says an investigation is ongoing. They also admitted knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of a US NGO engineer as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer requested that his family be resettled as refugees in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still awaiting approval. Turning to the United States for protection, they instead became one of the last victims of America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers of this story. Our last visual investigation began with news on social media of an explosion near Kabul airport. It was a US drone strike, one of the final acts of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive security camera footage and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the aftermath of the strike.You can see more of our investigations by signing up to our newsletter.

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