To the United States military, he was an ISIS-K facilitator they feared was involved in a plot to attack Kabul’s international airport.
To his family and colleagues at a US nonprofit, 43-year-old Zamarai Ahmadi was an aid worker applying for a US visa to get his family out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
In the two weeks since US drone operatives fired a Hellfire missile at a car in a residential Kabul compound, two vastly different narratives have emerged about the man who his family say died alongside nine relatives.
The Pentagon maintains at least one ISIS-K facilitator was killed in what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley called a “righteous strike” on the compound on August 29.
In a statement, US Central Command pointed to “significant secondary explosions” as evidence of a “substantial amount of explosive material” in the vehicle. A US official with knowledge of the operation told CNN Thursday that operatives tracked the car for about eight hours before initiating the strike.
But CNN interviews with two explosive experts and more than two dozen of Ahmadi’s relatives, colleagues and neighbors raise questions about whether an ISIS-K facilitator was killed in the attack and whether the car contained explosives.
Their accounts also prompt doubts over whether the military had sufficient intelligence to launch a strike that, according to family, would ultimately kill three men with visa pathways to the US and seven children aged 15 and under.
In the days leading up to the strike, tensions in the Afghan capital were high.
An ISIS-K suicide attacker had detonated his vest outside a gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport three days before, killing at least 170 people and 13 US service members. And an August 31 deadline was fast approaching for the US and its allies to complete their evacuation of increasingly desperate people from the airport.
After the attack, US President Joe Biden was firm: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.
“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at a place we choose and at a moment of our choosing.”
On August 28, Biden said US commanders had warned another terrorist attack on the airport was “highly likely” in the next 24 to 36 hours. “I directed them to take every possible measure to prioritize force protection,” he said in a statement.
The US official told CNN that intelligence sources led the US military to a compound about 5 kilometers (3 miles) northwest of Kabul’s airport, where they believed the August 26 airport attack had either been planned or directed. As the compound was within a few hundred meters of an old ISIS safehouse, the location didn’t surprise them, the official added.
The US began monitoring the house and sent an unmanned aircraft overhead, the official said.
August 29, about 8.30 a.m.
That morning, Ahmadi’s day started in a similar way to many others, according to his workmates.
He often acted as their driver, they said, using a Toyota Corolla owned by the US nonprofit Nutrition and Education International (NEI), where Ahmadi had worked for 15 years.
At 8.44 a.m., Ahmadi received a call from NEI’s country director asking him to pick up a laptop from the colleague’s house, according to the colleague and phone records of the call.
But first, Ahmadi drove to pick up a former colleague, who asked to be called Khan for this story for security reasons. Khan wanted to go to the office to get information about US visa applications.
Khan said Ahmadi arrived at his house at about 8.45 a.m., and phone records confirmed he phoned as he pulled up outside.
Ahmadi and Khan then picked up the laptop from the country director’s house. Ahmadi got out of the car to get the laptop from his colleague’s father, Khan said. Ahmadi arrived at the house just before 9 a.m., according to Khan.
At about the same time, the unmanned aircraft overhead detected a vehicle pulling out of a suspected ISIS safehouse, the US official told CNN. There wasn’t much coming and going from the house, so when a vehicle did leave, “it was significant,” the official said.
The US began following that vehicle.
The country director said his house – where he lives with his parents, three sisters, wife and three children – has never been an ISIS safehouse. His family has lived at the residential address for more than 40 years, he said. In a statement, NEI said the implication Ahmadi was sympathetic to a terrorist group was “incredulous” and said the accusation that NEI was indirectly or directly co-operating with the group threatened the lives of its employees.
Just after 9 a.m. Ahmadi and Khan collected another colleague from his home, according to Khan, who corroborated the timing with phone records.
The trio stopped at a roadside stall to buy a takeaway breakfast of chips and naan before driving to the office, according to Khan.
August 29, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
As US drone operators monitored the car from above, the US military was picking up chatter from suspected ISIS militants plotting more suicide attacks, the US official told CNN.
Intelligence indicated the cell would pick up materials and meet up with someone on a motorcycle, the US official said, without specifying the time and locations for those events.
Over the next eight hours, the US observed the vehicle stop and unload objects, and appear to meet up with someone on a motorcycle.
“So it seems to correlate or did correlate with what the intelligence was suggesting was going to happen,” the official said.
Ahmadi’s workmates, however, described a relatively typical day for them.
The mood in the car was jovial, said Khan, his former workmate.
“(Ahmadi) was the same, like the past – just joking, talking with each other, laughing,” he said.
Recently, NEI – a nonprofit dedicated to addressing malnutrition in Afghanistan – had been delivering rice and soybeans to camps in Kabul full of people who had fled the Taliban as militants claimed more regional territory.
At about 9.30 a.m., Ahmadi and his two passengers arrived at the NEI office where they ate their takeaway breakfast, according to Khan and the country director.
After breakfast, Ahmadi and three other men – including Khan – headed to a Taliban security station in a nearby district to request permission for the food distribution program. It was one of two security stations they visited that day, according to NEI’s founder Steven Kwon and two of the people in the car.
Two of the people in the car said they also visited a bank in the center of the city before the car returned to the office at about 2 p.m.
Khan said he did not remember stopping to talk to a motorbike rider during their travels that day. CCTV footage shows the security guard at the office wheeling a motorbike.
Both Khan and another passenger said they did not see anything suspicious.
About 4 p.m.
By late afternoon, the US military observed something else that alarmed them: people loading what they believed to be explosives into the back of the vehicle.
The people were seen “delicately” handling objects that appeared to be “somewhat heavy” and loading them into the car, the US official said. Those objects were assessed to be some sort of explosive material due to the way they were being handled, the official said, without detailing what the objects looked like.
For the past few weeks, Ahmadi had no running water at his house, so he filled plastic containers with water at work and took them home to his family, according to colleagues.
A NEI watchman who asked not to be named said that at about 3 p.m., Ahmadi asked him to help fill the containers with a hose as he didn’t have water at home.
Closed-circuit television footage from the NEI office obtained by CNN shows Ahmadi filling up plastic containers with a hose that afternoon. The timestamp on the video said it was 12.48 a.m. on August 28, but it was light outside, indicating the timestamp was wrong. A CNN journalist visited the office and confirmed the timestamp was nearly 38 hours behind, suggesting the men filled up the plastic containers at about 2.30 p.m on Sunday.
The men then put the water canisters into the boot of the car, the NEI watchman said.
At about 4 p.m., Ahmadi gave two of his workmates a lift home, following the same route in reverse to drop them off before heading to his family’s compound, according to Khan, the former workmate.
It would be Ahmadi’s final drive home.
About 5 p.m.
Excited children ran out to meet Ahmadi as he pulled up in the courtyard of the home he shared with his three brothers and their wives and children, relatives and neighbors said.
Ahmadi often let his 9-year-old son Farzad park the car, and other children often clambered into the vehicle, family said.
But as the children raced toward him, a Hellfire missile carrying a 15 to 20-pound warhead hit its target.
It took less than one minute from the moment it was fired to explode, according to the New York Times. CNN asked the US official for comment on the timing of the missile, but the official declined to comment.
The car was swallowed in flames, according to witness accounts and video from the scene.
In total, 10 people were killed, including seven children – four of whom were in the car at the time of the strike, according to family. The US disputes these numbers.
Ahmadi’s future son-in-law Naser Haidari, a former US army security guard who until recently served with Afghan forces, was killed as he washed himself in the courtyard ahead of evening prayers, the family said. Ahmadi’s 19-year-old son Zamir, who his friends described as a fashion lover, was also killed.
“There was screaming from everyone, not just myself,” said Samia, Ahmadi’s daughter who was due to marry Haidari in the coming days. “At first I thought this is an attack on the whole of Afghanistan and everywhere must be taken by terrorists. I did not know that the attack was only on our house.”
Ahmadi’s brother Romal lost all three of his children in the strike. Romal’s wife Arezo Ahmadi said shattered glass fell on her face immediately after the explosion, and she ran outside, screaming for her daughters.
“There was blood everywhere,” she said. “We run to everyone, seeing if we could save them.”
“I saw the bodies, they were all burned,” said neighbor Karim Ahmadi, no relation to Zamarai Ahmadi. “The car had been entirely destroyed. Pieces of flesh had flown everywhere.”
According to the US official, those who took the shot observed the driver and one adult male when they fired. No children could be seen in the car – and it was only after the missile was fired that children were spotted on the drone video feed approaching the car, according to the US official.
Immediately after the strike, a US Central Command spokesman said initial indications suggested there were no civilian casualties.
Later that day, the spokesman said Central Command was aware of reports of civilian casualties, although it suggested those could have been caused by “subsequent explosions.”
“We’re investigating this. I’m not going to get ahead of it. But if we have verifiable information that we did in fact take innocent life here, then we will be transparent about that, too. Nobody wants to see that happen,” Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said on August 31.
Three days after the strike, the US Defense Department acknowledged for the first time that others had been killed in the strike. Milley said the US had very good intelligence, and had gone through the “same level of rigor that we’ve done for years.”
“At least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator,” Milley said at a press conference on September 1. “So were there others killed? Yes, there are others killed. Who they are, we don’t know. We’ll try to sort through all of that.”
Speaking to Congress Monday during a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the strike was being looked at “very carefully” by others in the administration.
“No country on earth, no government, takes more precautions to try to ensure that anyone other than the terrorist target is struck using a drone or by any other means,” he said. “But certainly we know that in the past, civilians have been hurt and have been killed in these strikes.”
CNN visited Ahmadi’s house within hours of the attack and found the charred skeleton of his car sitting twisted in the courtyard.
Broken glass and rubble lay around the concrete yard. The windows of a nearby maroon SUV were smashed and the trunk was blackened.
But the rough clay walls around the courtyard were still standing.
In the aftermath of the strike, the US pointed to “significant secondary explosions” as key evidence the car contained explosives. Two officials who saw US surveillance imagery in the aftermath of the strike confirmed to CNN that there were large secondary explosions.
“It was loaded up and ready to go,” an official said shortly after the strike.
But the US official told CNN on Thursday there had been one “secondary explosion” – rather than multiple explosions other US officials described immediately after the strike – and said initial investigations confirmed there were at least three suspected civilian casualties.
Two experts who reviewed extensive footage filmed on the scene by CNN say the scene is consistent with the aftermath of a Hellfire strike, but both say there is no evidence of one “significant secondary explosion” – let alone multiple blasts. They point to the limited damage to a car parked nearby and to the surrounding walls of the courtyard, which remain largely intact.
One of those experts, Brian Castner, a former explosive ordnance disposal officer for the US military in Iraq who now works as a war crimes investigator for Amnesty International, said the site showed evidence of an initial blast followed by a car fire. He did not see any evidence of a significant secondary blast.
“If there really was a ‘significant secondary explosion,’ that wall should be knocked over, the tree should be gone from the middle, the SUV should be flipped on its side,” he said of the car parked nearby.
He said the damage could be consistent with the detonation of a single, five-pound suicide vest – something that would not be considered a significant secondary explosion – but determining that conclusively would require a forensic investigation of the site. In a press conference Monday, Kirby said he was not aware of any option that would put investigators on the ground in Kabul to complete their assessment.
The cause of the secondary explosion is still under review, said the US official, who claimed the secondary blast was four to five times larger than the initial explosion.
While the official conceded the vehicle wasn’t “packed to the gills with explosive material,” he said the explosion was consistent with a couple of 15-pound suicide vests, a large number of 3 to 5-pound suicide vests or loose explosive material that had been put into the back of the vehicle.
The US official acknowledged the secondary blast could also have been caused by a gas cylinder.
But an international explosives engineer, who asked not to be named for professional reasons and who viewed CNN video of the scene, said there was no evidence whatsoever of a secondary explosion four or five times larger than the initial explosion. For that, the car would have needed to contain significantly more explosive material, and the blast would have damaged the nearby car, vegetation and wall, he said.
“On the evidence that has been presented, the United States government is grasping at straws,” the engineer said.
Demands for justice
The US official pointed to a final piece of evidence that they had successfully killed an ISIS-K facilitator: immediately after the drone strike, the terrorist chatter stopped.
However, in comments to CNN Saturday, an ISIS-K source denied any of the victims were connected to the terror group. ISIS-K also claimed responsibility for a failed attack on the airport the next day, when at least five rockets were shot down by the airport’s missile defense system. A burnt-out car that had been modified with multiple tubes appeared to confirm a vehicle was used as an improvised missile launch pad.
CNN analysis shows that car was also a Toyota Corolla – a common car in Kabul, and the same make as the car Ahmadi drove.
Kabul is now run by the Taliban, enemies of terrorist organization ISIS-K. A Taliban spokesperson told CNN Friday they did not believe Ahmadi’s family was associated with ISIS-K and were not investigating the incident.
Shoaib Haider, a judge who is also Ahmadi’s second cousin, wants the strike to be investigated as a potential US war crime.
“We hope the United Nations and human rights supporters will carry out an assessment of such incidents, so that tragic incidents like this one, in which innocent children and members of a family were eliminated (do not happen) in the future,” he said.
Emal Ahmadi, one of Ahmadi’s brothers, and the father of Malika, a 2-year-old who died in the attack, called the US “traitors.” Emal previously worked for a US company and had been in the process of applying for a visa to the US, he said.
“(The US) should investigate and then target,” he said. “How did you know from the sky what is here? There were children in and around the car and you targeted them. Isn’t it a crime?”
The law around drone strikes is complicated, and full transparency is not always possible, said Gloria Gaggioli, the director of the Geneva Academy on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. “It does not mean that a complete lack of accountability is acceptable,” she said.
William Boothby, an international humanitarian law expert who wrote a book on the law of targeting, said states are required to do all that was feasible to verify the status of their target as lawful. But failing to take proper precautions isn’t a war crime under the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court – and regardless, the US isn’t a party to the statute, Boothby said.
But while the strike might not be illegal, it raises moral questions. The US has previously shown a “level of negligence” in distinguishing civilians from targets, and was often slow to admit to civilian casualties or pay compensation, Castner said. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, strikes with less intelligence could happen more often, he cautioned.
“In some ways it’s more of the same, and in some ways, it’s going to be even more so lack of oversight, challenges with intelligence, and more of these cases where they may or may not have hit the right thing,” Castner said.
It’s been two weeks since the attack, and Ahmadi’s family is still struggling to comprehend the loss of loved ones. Some also lost a potential pathway out of Afghanistan; the family had made multiple applications for US visas between them, including applications in the names of Zamarai Ahmadi and Naser Haidari. The family now fears any perceived link to ISIS-K could expose them to danger from the Taliban. NEI worries the US has made their colleagues even greater targets, and wants the US to help evacuate and resettle them.
Samia, who lost her fiance, father, and three of her brothers in the blast, feels she has no one left in Afghanistan.
“(My fiance) always said to me that he would get us out of here. Now, the US should get us out of here,” she said.
Written and produced by Julia Hollingsworth
Reporting by Sandi Sidhu, Julia Hollingsworth and Anna Coren in Hong Kong; Abdul Basir Bina in Istanbul, Turkey; Ahmet Mengli in Kabul, Afghanistan
Edited by Hilary Whiteman
Graphics by Henrik Pettersson and Natalie Leung
Video editing by Zane Hosgood