About that drone strike

The New York Times has just posted this intensely interesting investigative scoop by Matthieu Aikins based on reporting by him as well as Christoph Koettl, Evan Hill, and Eric Schmitt: ” In U.S. Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb.” Subhead: “U.S. officials said a Reaper drone followed a car for hours and then fired based on evidence it was carrying explosives. But in-depth video analysis and interviews at the site cast doubt on that account.”

Datelined Kabul, the story opens as follows:

It was the last known missile fired by the United States in its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the military called it a “righteous strike” — a drone attack after hours of surveillance on Aug. 29 against a vehicle that American officials thought contained an ISIS bomb and posed an imminent threat to troops at Kabul’s airport.

But a New York Times investigation of video evidence, along with interviews with more than a dozen of the driver’s co-workers and family members in Kabul, raises doubts about the U.S. version of events, including whether explosives were present in the vehicle, whether the driver had a connection to ISIS, and whether there was a second explosion after the missile struck the car.

Military officials said they did not know the identity of the car’s driver when the drone fired, but deemed him suspicious because of how they interpreted his activities that day, saying that he possibly visited an ISIS safe house and, at one point, loaded what they thought could be explosives into the car.

Times reporting has identified the driver as Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group. The evidence, including extensive interviews with family members, co-workers and witnesses, suggests that his travels that day actually involved transporting colleagues to and from work. And an analysis of video feeds showed that what the military may have seen was Mr. Ahmadi and a colleague loading canisters of water into his trunk to bring home to his family.

While the U.S. military said the drone strike might have killed three civilians, Times reporting shows that it killed 10, including seven children, in a dense residential block.

Here is the story’s conclusion:

Since the strike, U.S. military officials justified their actions by citing an even larger blast that took place afterward.

“Because there were secondary explosions, there is a reasonable conclusion to be made that there is explosives in that vehicle,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, said last week.

But an examination of the scene of the strike, conducted by the Times visual investigations team and a Times reporter the morning afterward, and followed up with a second visit four days later, found no evidence of a second, more powerful explosion.

Experts who examined photos and videos pointed out that, although there was clear evidence of a missile strike and subsequent vehicle fire, there were no collapsed or blown-out walls, no destroyed vegetation, and only one dent in the entrance gate, indicating a single shock wave.

“It seriously questions the credibility of the intelligence or technology utilized to determine this was a legitimate target,” said Chris Cobb-Smith, a British Army veteran and security consultant.

While the U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian casualties, Mr. Ahmadi’s relatives said that 10 members of their family, including seven children, were killed in the strike: Mr. Ahmadi and three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10; Mr. Ahmadi’s cousin Naser, 30; three of Romal’s children, Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.

Neighbors and an Afghan health official confirmed that bodies of children were removed from the site. They said the blast had shredded most of the victims; fragments of human remains were seen inside and around the compound the next day by a reporter, including blood and flesh splattered on interior walls and ceilings. Mr. Ahmadi’s relatives provided photographs of several badly burned bodies belonging to children.

Family members questioned why Mr. Ahmadi would have a motivation to attack Americans when he had already applied for refugee resettlement in the United States. His adult cousin Naser, a former U.S. military contractor, had also applied for resettlement. He had planned to marry his fiancée, Samia, last Friday so that she could be included in his immigration case.

“All of them were innocent,” said Emal, Mr. Ahmadi’s brother. “You say he was ISIS, but he worked for the Americans.”

The Times story is accompanied by the video below. The video poses the question: “‘Imminent Threat’ or Aid Worker: Did a U.S. Drone Strike in Afghanistan Kill the Wrong Person?” The video caption explains: “The New York Times obtained exclusive security camera footage and witness accounts to show how the military launched a drone strike that killed 10 people in Kabul on Aug. 29 without knowing whom it was hitting.”

I will only add that it has become way too easy to believe the worst.

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