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Reports: U.S. Drone Strike Targeted Aid Worker Carrying Water, Not Explosives

The aftermath of a U.S. drone strike on a car allegedly driven by Zemari Ahmadi.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
The aftermath of a U.S. drone strike on a car allegedly driven by Zemari Ahmadi.

Independent investigations by The New York Times and The Washington Post are calling into question the U.S. military claims that its Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul destroyed a car operated by an ISIS-K sympathizer, which allegedly contained explosives destined for the Kabul airport.

The U.S. Central Command initial statement described the strike as a "self-defense" operation that eliminated an "imminent ISIS-K threat" to the airport. "Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material." In a press conference Sept. 1, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called it a "righteous strike" that correctly followed procedures.

But the Times and Post investigations were unable to find evidence of any explosives in the car, which they say was driven by 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi, an engineer working for the U.S. aid group Nutrition and Education International, which aims to eliminate malnutrition in Afghanistan. Family members told the Times that Ahmadi had applied for refugee resettlement in the United States.

Ahmadi was not the only person killed by the drone strike. Ahmadi's relatives told the Times that 10 members of their family were killed, including seven children.

U.S. Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban declined to comment on the allegations, citing an ongoing investigation. But a senior U.S. official tells NPR that Central Command continues to believe it was a legitimate target. What is uncertain, the source said, is whether the driver was part of the supposed terrorist effort or was forced into it.

The Centcom group that gathered the intelligence is reviewing all the information it had, although it's uncertain when or if any results will be made public.

Military officials had said the driver seemed to have loaded explosives into the car that day, but security camera footage obtained by the Times shows the alleged explosives were likely containers used to carry water home to his family. "I filled the containers myself, and helped him load them into the trunk," a guard told the Times.

The Times and Post analyses also called into question military assertions of "secondary explosions" in the courtyard. Times reporters could find no evidence of a second explosion at the scene. Experts pointed 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," security consultant Chris Cobb-Smith told the Times.

Explosives experts told the Post that the damage was mostly caused by the Hellfire missile fired by the drone. If there was a secondary explosion, two experts said, it was likely caused by ignited fuel vapors.

"My theory is: The [Hellfire] explosives themselves ruptured the gas tank, released the vapor, and because of the fire that happened a short time afterward, it detonated and caused something that may have been explosion-like," said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Steven Kwon, president of California-based Nutrition and Education International, told the Post that the white sedan belonged to the organization. After Ahmadi met at the NEI compound to discuss an emergency food aid program for displaced people, he spent the rest of the day running errands, Kwon said.

Kwon denied that NEI has any association with ISIS-K. "We're trying to help people," he told the Post. "Why would we have explosives to kill people?"

NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").