WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military officer claimed last week that a drone strike on a sedan near the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, was a “just attack” that thwarted an Islamic State plot in the waning hours of the war. immense evacuation effort.
The officer, General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that secondary explosions after the drone strike last Sunday supported the military’s conclusion that the car contained explosives — either suicide vests or a large bomb. General Milley said military planners have taken appropriate precautions in advance to mitigate risks to civilians in the vicinity.
But the army’s preliminary analysis of the strike and the circumstances surrounding it provide much less convincing evidence to support those claims, military officials acknowledge. It also raises questions about an attack that, according to friends and relatives of the driver of the car, killed 10 people, including seven children.
So far there is no hard evidence that explosives were in the car. The preliminary analysis says it was “possible to probable,” according to officials briefed on the assessment. Drone operators and analysts scanned the cramped courtyard where the sedan had been parked for just a few seconds. Seeing no civilians, officials said, a commander ordered the attack, only for a grainy live video feed to show other figures approaching the vehicle seconds later as the Hellfire missile raced closer to its target.
But military officials say the initial analysis also backs up a very strong circumstantial case of an immediate and serious threat to the airport, a case that US planners built over eight hours last Sunday, monitoring the sedan’s movements, and the communications from the suspected conspirators.
With each passing hour, US analysts watched in terror as successive parts of a plot to carry out a complex attack “seemed to get in line,” as a senior military official told the investigation. Chatter that the airport would be targeted again grew, with President Biden publicly warning that another attack was “highly likely”.
The commander overseeing the drone strike was faced with a tough decision: take the photo while the sedan was parked in a relatively isolated courtyard, or wait for the sedan to drive even closer to the airport – and the crowds were even bigger – causing the risk to civilians increased.
According to four United States officials who were briefed on the preliminary military analysis or parts of it, this is how the strike went.
Last Sunday at about 9 a.m., a white sedan, likely a Toyota Corolla, pulled out of a property about three miles northwest of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Based on information from informants, electronic wiretapping and images from US surveillance aircraft, intelligence analysts believed the compound was a safe house for planners and facilitators for Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s subsidiary in Afghanistan.
It was just three days after a suicide bomber for the affiliated company detonated an unusually large 25-pound explosive vest at the Abbey Gate entrance to the airport, spraying deadly shrapnel within a 70-foot radius and killing 13 American troops and more. than 170 Afghan soldiers were killed. citizens.
US intelligence analysts had intercepted messages from ISIS-K plotters that another major attack on the airport was in the works. An attack was imminent that Sunday, two days before the United States was due to end its evacuation efforts.
So every vehicle that came or went from the compound that morning piqued the interest of the analysts. But operators paid special attention to the white sedan on the black-and-white feed of an MQ-9 Reaper drone hovering over Kabul.
Intercepted communications from the hiding place indicated that the conspirators were sending the car on some grueling mission in the Afghan capital. The driver was instructed to meet a motorcyclist. Moments later, the car did too.
This pattern lasted for several hours as the sedan made several stops in Kabul, sometimes picking up and dropping off passengers.
Just before 4 p.m., the sedan entered a compound unknown to the Americans, about eight to twelve kilometers southwest of the airport. A few minutes later, the driver and three other men loaded several wrapped packages into the trunk of the car. To the analysts watching the video footage, the men appeared to be making an effort to lift and carefully carry heavy packages — as one would with explosives.
The driver and men got into the sedan and drove off, heading north as the driver dropped the men off en route. At about 4:45 p.m., the driver drove, now alone, into a small courtyard about 2.5 kilometers west of the airport, just south of the original safe house. Another man came out to greet him.
At this point, the tactical commander piloting the armed Reaper drones had to make a quick decision. His power to strike was delegated by Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Chief of Army Central Command in Tampa, Florida. Military officials declined to identify the commander’s identity, rank or organization, but said he is an experienced operator who has carried out multiple drone strikes in multiple theaters where the military has fought.
The Rules of Engagement allowed the military to launch an attack if the operators and intelligence analysts had “reasonable certainty” that they had a legitimate ISIS-K target and they judged there was “reasonable certainty” that there was no women, children or other non-combatant civilians would be killed or wounded.
The operators quickly scanned the narrow confines of the courtyard and saw only the one other man talking to the driver. The commander concluded that this was the best time and place to fire. If the Americans waited and the vehicle drove through heavy city traffic or approached the airport, the risk to civilians would be much greater – whether from a drone strike or the detonation of suicide vests or a massive car bomb.
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The Americans took the shot. The Hellfire hit its target in less than a minute. As the missile got closer, the drone operators could see on the video footage other figures approaching the sedan.
The Hellfire, with a warhead containing 20 pounds of explosives, tore into the car, causing the first explosion at 4:50 p.m. Seconds later, an even bigger fireball exploded. Officials say a preliminary assessment by bomb experts concluded that it was “possible to likely” that explosives in the sedan had caused the second explosion, not a gas tank or something else.
The military analysis acknowledged that at least three civilians were killed. General Milley told reporters that at least one other person killed was “an ISIS facilitator”.
But other Pentagon officials also say they have little information about the driver, identified as Zemari Ahmadi by colleagues and relatives. His neighbors, co-workers and relatives said he was a technical engineer at Nutrition and Education International, a charity in Pasadena, California, and had no ties to ISIS-K.
Military officials concluded that Mr. Ahmadi was an ISIS-K facilitator, largely because of his actions as a driver from the time the white sedan pulled out of the safehouse until the strike killed him.
Immediately after the attack, all chatter from ISIS-K was silenced. To protect their operational security, members of the group are going after dark after a drone strike like the one last Sunday, knowing US officials will listen. That silence lasted until Friday, a senior US military official said.
John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said last week that an in-depth investigation into the strike is underway. It will be based on more detailed analysis of the video footage of the strike and its aftermath, and other intelligence. Investigators cannot access the site of the strike, which, like the rest of Kabul, is under Taliban control.
Meanwhile, senior military officials claim the drone strike has prevented more US and Afghan casualties.
In a press conference on Monday, General McKenzie, the head of Central Command, gave no details about the circumstances surrounding the strike, other than dealing a crushing blow to ISIS-K as it attempted one last strike before the attack. American withdrawal.
General Milley repeated those remarks a few days later. “At the moment we believe that procedures were followed correctly and that this was a justified attack,” he told reporters. ‘Were others killed? Yes, others have been killed. We don’t know who they are.”