Final U.S. Drone Strike in Kabul May Have Been Deadly Mistake

A September 2 photograph of the white vehicle targeted by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul on August 29. Photo: Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. drone strike that military officials said targeted a suspected ISIS-K car bomb in Kabul during the final days of the U.S. evacuation effort may have mistakenly targeted an innocent civilian, according to extensive investigations by the New York Times and Washington Post. Ten civilians, including seven children, were reportedly killed in the August 29 airstrike. All were members of the same extended family.

Following the ISIS-K suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and nearly 200 Afghan civilians outside Kabul’s airport on August 26, U.S. officials repeatedly warned that additional terrorist attacks were anticipated at the airport. On August 29, U.S. Central Command announced that it had conducted a drone strike on a suspected terrorist driving a car that seemed to be filled with explosives and was believed to pose an imminent threat to the airport. Military officials suggested that the driver, whom they were not able to identify, had acted suspiciously in the hours before the strike, including a stop at a possible ISIS-K safe house, and loading the car with heavy packages that may have been explosives. The U.S. said that a larger secondary explosion occurred after the drone strike, which would suggest the presence of explosive cargo and seemingly justified targeting the vehicle.

But the Times investigation found no evidence of a large secondary blast, and the Post’s investigation suggests that if a second blast was seen, the most likely explanation would be that it was from the ignition of the vehicle’s fuel. The Post report includes a detailed visual analysis of the damage caused by the drone strike, including evidence of only one blast wave. The Times report cites similar evidence.

Both publications have identified the driver as Zemari Ahmadi, a 43-year-old electrical engineer who had long worked for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid organization operating in Afghanistan. According to relatives who spoke with the Times, Ahmadi and another member of his extended family in Afghanistan who had once worked as a U.S. military contractor had both applied for refugee resettlement in the U.S. for them and their families.

According to Ahmadi’s family members and colleagues, the white sedan he drove belonged to NEI, and his various stops on the 29th were just a normal day on the job, including picking up his boss’s laptop and transporting co-workers. The heavy packages a surveillance drone saw the driver and three other men loading into the car were apparently containers filled with water, according to the Times, as Ahmadi had been bringing water home from the office since water deliveries stopped following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.

In the late afternoon, when Ahmadi pulled into his home in a dense residential area near the airport, a U.S. tactical commander decided to target the car, and a U.S. drone operator only saw one other man near the vehicle in the moments before the strike. But, per the Times report, “according to his relatives, as Mr. Ahmadi pulled into his courtyard, several of his children and his brothers’ children came out, excited to see him, and sat in the car as he backed it inside.”

This post has been updated to include the Washington Post’s reporting.

Final U.S. Drone Strike In Kabul May Have Been Deadly Error