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A failed drone strike in Kabul started with the wrong car

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[explosion] In one of the last 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 courtyard of a house and the explosion killed 10 people, according to his family, including 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi and seven children. The Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a broker for the Islamic State and that his car was loaded with explosives, posing an immediate threat to US forces guarding the evacuation at the Kabul airport. “Procedures were followed correctly and it was a justified strike.” What the military apparently didn’t know was that Ahmadi was a long-time aid worker, who, according to colleagues and relatives, spent the hours before he died shopping for groceries, and ended his day by driving to his home. Shortly after, his Toyota was hit by a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as a terrorist’s suspicious movements may have been just an average day in his life. And it’s possible that what the military saw Ahmadi loading into his car were water bottles he took home to his family — not explosives. Using never-before-seen CCTV footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, colleagues and witnesses, we will summarize his movements for the first time in the hours before he was killed. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. He worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International for 14 years. “NEI has established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It is a California-based NGO that fights malnutrition. Most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work, and distributing the NGO’s food to Afghans displaced by the war. Just three days before Ahmadi was killed, 13 US troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide bombing at the airport. The military had empowered lower-level commanders to order air strikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared would be another imminent attack. To reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on August 29, in the hours before he was assassinated, The Times merged footage from his office’s security cameras with interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and relatives. Ahmadi seems to have left his house around 9 am. Then he grabbed a colleague and his boss’s laptop at his house. It is around this time that the US military claimed to have seen a white sedan exiting an alleged Islamic State hideout about three miles northwest of the airport. That’s why the US military said they were tracking Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the safe house and ordered 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 arrived at the NGO’s office at 9:35 AM. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his colleagues to a Taliban-occupied police station to obtain permission for future food distribution in a new refugee camp. At around 2 pm, Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The CCTV footage we obtained from the office is crucial to understanding what happens next. The camera timestamp is off, but we went to the office and checked the time. We also linked an exact scene from the footage to a satellite image with a timestamp to confirm it was accurate. At 2:35 pm, Ahmadi pulls out a hose, and then he and a colleague fill empty containers with water. Earlier that morning, we saw Ahmadi bring the 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 about 3:38 p.m., a fellow Ahmadi’s car drives further up the driveway. A senior US official told us that at about the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car drive into uncharted territory 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. That overlaps with the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe has been called an unknown compound by the military. At the end of the workday, an employee turned off the office generator and the feed from the camera stops. We have no footage of the moments that followed. But it is right now, the military said, that its drone feed showed four men carefully loading packed packages into the car. Officials said they couldn’t see what was inside. These images from earlier in the day show what the men said they were carrying: their laptops in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the suitcase, Ahmadi’s colleagues said, were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped them all off and then drove 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. A US official said the military feared the car would leave again and go into an even busier street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t looked at Ahmadi’s house all day that day, quickly scanned the courtyard and said they saw only one adult man talking to the driver and no children. They decided now was the time to strike. A US official told us that the attack 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 remains of the missile, which experts say matched a Hellfire at the site of the attack. In the days following the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the rocket attack caused other explosions and that these likely killed civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a significant amount of explosive material.” “Since there were secondary explosions, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn that explosives were in that vehicle.” But a senior military official later told us that it was only likely that explosives in the car caused another explosion. We collected photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and visited the courtyard several times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage matched the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater under Ahmadi’s car and the damage from the metal fragments of the warhead. This plastic melted as a result of a car fire caused by the rocket attack. All three experts also pointed out what was missing: some evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown-out walls, not even next to the trunk with the alleged explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the courtyard was toppled by a major explosion. No destroyed vegetation. This is all consistent with what eyewitnesses told us, that a single rocket exploded and set off a huge 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 suitcase before heading home. Although the military said the drone team watched the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they were not aware of water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle, nor has it shared what they believe is information linking him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the US killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State launched missiles at the airport from a residential area that Ahmadi had driven through the previous day. And the vehicle they used … … was a white Toyota. The US military has so far acknowledged only three civilian deaths from his attack and says an investigation is underway. They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of an engineer at a US NGO as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi’s assassination, his employer had applied for his family to be resettled in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still waiting for approval. When they looked to the US for protection, they instead became some of the last casualties in America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers of this story. Our latest visual investigation started with a social media post about an explosion near the Kabul airport. It turned out to be a US drone strike, one of the last acts in Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive footage from security cameras and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the aftermath of the strike. You can see more of our studies by subscribing to our newsletter.”

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