Military Can’t Find ISIS Safe House That Prompted Kabul Drone Strike
The Pentagon’s latest admission illustrates the botched intelligence behind the strike that mistakenly killed 10 civilians in August.,
The U.S. Military Said It Was an ISIS Safe House. We Found an Afghan Family Home.
Even as the military apologized for killing 10 civilians by mistake in a drone strike in Kabul, it insisted its target had stopped by an ISIS “safe house.” The New York Times found that the building was actually home to an NGO worker and his family.
On Aug. 29, a U.S. drone strike killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and nine other civilians. The military admitted it was a tragic mistake, but doubled down on one claim: that Ahmadi stopped at an alleged Islamic State safe house and that’s why they started tracking him. “So Point 1 on the map, we do assess very definitely associated with ISIS-K.” But when The Times went to that alleged safe house, this is what we found … … the home of Ahmadi’s boss. Eight hours after Ahmadi stopped here, the military launched the deadly drone strike. So how did this go so wrong? The military, under pressure of what they thought was an imminent threat to the airport, made its first mistake by incorrectly identifying a family home as an Islamic State safe house, which set off a string of fatal errors. To this day, the Pentagon is still unsure about the exact location of that safe house. But a senior military official told The Times they are now exploring the possibility that it may have actually been a neighboring house. One week after a Times story refuted the Pentagon’s account of the strike, officials admitted they killed Ahmadi and his family by mistake. “As many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike.” And they provided additional details about Ahmadi’s stop at the alleged safe house. “A white Toyota Corolla arrived at Point No. 1. Two adult males exited the vehicle, met with an adult male in the compound and received a bag from him.” They were confident, a senior military official told The Times, because the information came from the same intelligence sources that had warned about an airport suicide attack days earlier. But The Times interviewed Ahmadi’s boss, Walid, several times. We are only using his first name for his safety. Walid recounted what happened when he got to work the morning of the strike, and showed us the security camera footage from his office. Minutes after Walid called, Ahmadi and a colleague arrived at his house to get the laptop. The military said that as many as six MQ-9 Reaper drones were watching from above. Because of this stop, they tracked Ahmadi for the rest of the day. In security camera footage, we see Zemari Ahmadi arriving at the office 43 minutes later. Back at his home, Walid insisted that his house had nothing to do with the Islamic State. The Times could see no evidence of Islamic State activity. The morning after the drone strike, the Islamic State did fire rockets at the Kabul airport. They used a white Toyota, the same type of car that Ahmadi drove, parked several blocks from Walid’s home. Military officials cited this attack as proof they were watching the right area. “In fact, a little less than 24 hours later rockets will be launched from that point against the airfield.” But the military still can’t account for how it came to connect this specific home to a terrorist group. They started with the wrong house, followed the wrong car and ended up killing the wrong person. A senior military official told The Times that they see no links between Walid and the Islamic State. This and other failures throughout the day raise serious questions about the Pentagon’s intelligence ahead of the strike. And it could add pressure to several ongoing inquiries by the military and lawmakers that will include reviews of the strike and Central Command’s response.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has not located a suspected Islamic State safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan, that officials initially said led to an American drone strike on Aug. 29 that mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, according to two senior military officials.
Two days before the drone strike, military officials said they had determined through electronic intercepts, aerial surveillance and informants that ISIS planners were using a compound about three miles northwest of the Kabul airport to facilitate future attacks involving rockets, suicide explosive vests and car bombs.
But an inquiry into the drone strike by the Air Force’s inspector general, Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, said that was wrong. “We have not found any particular safe house,” he said in a telephone interview after making his findings public last week.
General Said would not discuss the underlying information that led military analysts to focus on the safe house — and even dispatch six Reaper drones to monitor it — other than to say, “It was not faulty intelligence; it was just not specific.” A second U.S. military official confirmed that the available intelligence on the location was not precise enough.
Nearly everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, then days and weeks, after the drone strike has turned out to be false. The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in a densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.
Senior Defense Department leaders have conceded that the driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, had nothing to do with the Islamic State, contrary to what military officials had previously asserted. Mr. Ahmadi’s only connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting and innocuous interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house in Kabul.
But now Pentagon officials say that judgment was also mistaken, after an investigation by The New York Times that the safe house’s location was actually the residence of Mr. Ahmadi’s boss, who American military officials also say has no ties to ISIS.
General Said found no violations of law and did not recommend any disciplinary action. He said a series of assumptions, made over the course of eight hours as U.S. officials tracked the white Toyota Corolla through Kabul, caused what he called “confirmation bias,” leading to the drone strike.
General Said’s investigation made several recommendations for fixing the process through which strikes are ordered, including new measures to cut down the risk of confirmation bias and a review of the procedures used to determine whether civilians are present.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has approved General Said’s findings and recommendations, the chief Pentagon spokesman, John F. Kirby, said last week, and has left it up to the four-star generals leading the military’s Central and Special Operations commands to decide, probably in the next few weeks, whether anyone should be disciplined or rebuked for the strike.
In describing his investigation, General Said said last week that surveillance videos showed at least one child in the area some two minutes before the military launched the drone strike. But the general also said that footage would have been easy to miss in real time.
In the subsequent interview, General Said provided additional details, saying that nine seconds before military operators fired the missile, surveillance video showed the presence of four adults and two children — the largest number of people captured on video before the strike. According to General Said, that group of people — in addition to Mr. Ahmadi and his cousin, whom analysts clearly saw before launching the strike — would have also been easy to miss.
Separately, three U.S. officials said on Monday that the C.I.A. had alerted the military to the presence of a child at the strike site on Aug. 29 but that military officials said the warning came too late — after the missile was launched.
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General Said and other top military officials, including Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Central Command, have sought to put the drone strike into the context of the moment, with American officials at a heightened state of alert after a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport three days earlier killed about 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops.
The military’s first mistake was incorrectly identifying a family home as an Islamic State safe house. “In the 48 hours prior to the strike, sensitive intelligence indicated that the compound at point No. 1 on the map was being used by ISIS-K planners, used to facilitate future attacks,” General McKenzie told reporters at his Sept. 17 briefing, referring to an Islamic State affiliate.
Another recurring aspect of the intelligence, General McKenzie said, was that ISIS would use a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack against American troops at the airport.
At 8:52 a.m. on Aug. 29, a white Toyota Corolla — Mr. Ahmadi’s sedan — arrived at what the military believed was an ISIS safe house.
But witness testimony and visual evidence gathered by The Times indicate that this compound was most likely the home of Mr. Ahmadi’s boss, the country director of Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid group. The director had asked Mr. Ahmadi to stop by his home to pick up his laptop on the way to work that morning.
According to General Said, military analysts suspected on Aug. 29 that the suicide bomber had at some point three days earlier carried explosives in a black bag similar to a laptop bag. Seeing a black bag being exchanged at a suspected ISIS safe house the morning of the attack was yet another data point that generated confirmation bias, the general said.
Adam Goldman and Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.