Military analysis raises questions about the deadly drone attack in Kabul. on

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WASHINGTON – The US military chief claimed last week that a drone attack on a limousine near the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan was a “just blow” that foiled an Islamic State conspiracy in the waning hours of immense evacuation efforts .

The officer, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that secondary explosions following the drone attack last Sunday supported the military’s conclusion that the car contained explosives – either suicide vests or a large bomb. General Milley said the military planners had taken appropriate precautions in advance to limit the risk to nearby civilians.

But the military’s preliminary analysis of the attack and the circumstances surrounding it offers far less conclusive evidence to support these claims, military officials admit. It also raises questions about an attack in which friends and family members of the motorist say 10 people were killed, including seven children.

So far there is no clear evidence that there was explosives in the car. The preliminary analysis said it was “possible to likely,” according to officials briefed on the assessment. Drone operators and analysts scanned the narrow courtyard in which the limousine was parked for a few seconds. Seeing no civilians, a commander ordered the attack, only to see other figures approach the vehicle seconds later as the Hellfire missile raced closer to its target.

However, military officials say the initial analysis also supports a very strong circumstantial case of an imminent and serious threat to the airport, a case that American planners built over eight hours last Sunday, monitoring the limousine movements and communications from the alleged conspirators.

With every hour that passed, American analysts watched with fear as successive pieces of a conspiracy to carry out a complex attack “string together,” said a senior military official who was briefed on the investigation. The chatter that the airport would be a target again grew, and President Biden publicly warned that another attack was “very likely”.

The commander overseeing the drone attack faced a difficult decision: take the picture while the limo was parked in a relatively secluded courtyard, or wait for the limo to pull even closer to the airport – and the crowds grew denser – which increased the risk to civilians.

This is how the attack proceeded, according to four US officials briefed on the preliminary military analysis or parts of it.

Last Sunday at around 9 a.m., a white limousine, probably a Toyota Corolla, left an area about three miles northwest of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Based on information from informants, electronic eavesdropping and images from US surveillance planes, intelligence analysts believed the site was a safe house for planners and mediators from the Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the offshoot of the terrorist group in Afghanistan.

It was just three days after a subsidiary suicide bomber detonated an unusually large 25-pound explosive vest at the airport’s entrance to Abbey Gate, sprayed deadly shrapnel within a 70-foot radius, and killed 13 U.S. soldiers and more than 170 Afghans civilians .

American intelligence analysts intercepted messages from ISIS-K plotters that another major attack on the airport was in progress. An attack was imminent that Sunday, two days before the United States was due to end its evacuation efforts.

Thus, every vehicle entering or leaving the site that morning aroused the interest of the analysts. However, the operators paid special attention to the white sedan in the black and white feed of an MQ-9 Reaper drone that flies over Kabul.

Messages intercepted by the safe house indicated that the conspirators were turning the car on some sort of detour in the Afghan capital. The driver was instructed to meet a motorcyclist. Moments later, the car did just that.

Updated

9/2/2021, 5:49 p.m. ET

This pattern lasted for several hours as the sedan made various stops in Kabul, sometimes picking up and dropping off passengers.

Shortly before 4 p.m. the limousine drove into an area 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 feed, the men seemed to struggle to lift heavy packages and carefully carry them – as one would do with explosives.

The driver and the men got into the limo and drove off, heading north, when the driver dropped the men on the way. At around 4:45 p.m., the driver drove, now alone, into a small courtyard about 2.5 kilometers west of the airport, south of the original safe house. Another man came out to greet him.

At this point, the tactical commander who controlled the armed Reaper drones had to make a quick decision. His power to strike was delegated by General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the military’s central command in Tampa, Florida, who carried out several drone strikes in several theaters where the military fought.

The rules of engagement allowed the military to launch an attack when the operators and intelligence analysts had “reasonable assurance” that they had a legitimate target for ISIS-K, and concluded that there was “reasonable assurance” that no women, children or other civilians who would not fight, be killed or injured.

The drivers quickly searched the narrow courtyard and saw only the one other man who was talking to the driver. The commander concluded that this was the best time and place for the shot. If the Americans waited and the vehicle snaked through heavy city traffic or approached the airport, the danger to civilians would be much greater – either from a drone attack or the detonation of suicide vests or a giant car bomb.

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The Americans fired the shot. Hellfire hit its target in less than a minute. As the missile approached, the drone drivers could see in the video that other figures were approaching the limousine.

Hellfire with a warhead containing 20 pounds of explosives crashed into the car and caused the first explosion at 4:50 p.m. A few seconds later, an even larger ball of fire blossomed. Officials say a preliminary assessment by bombing experts concluded that it was “possible to likely” that explosives in the sedan caused the second explosion, not a gas tank or something else.

The military analysis confirmed that at least three civilians were killed. General Milley told reporters that at least one other person killed was “an ISIS broker.”

But other Pentagon officials also say they have little information about the driver, who has been identified as Zemari Ahmadi by colleagues and family members. His neighbors, colleagues, and relatives said he was a technical engineer with Nutrition and Education International, a charity based in Pasadena, California, and had no ties with ISIS-K.

Military officials concluded that Mr. Ahmadi was an intermediary for ISIS-K, mainly because of his actions as a driver from the moment the white limousine drove out of the safe house until he was killed by the strike.

Immediately after the attack, all ISIS-K talk ceased. To protect their operational security, members of the group darken after a drone attack like last Sunday, knowing that American officials will be listening. That silence lasted until Friday, a senior U.S. military official said.

Pentagon chief spokesman John F. Kirby said last week that an in-depth investigation into the attack was ongoing. It will be based on more detailed analysis of the video feeds of the strike and its aftermath, as well as other findings. Investigators have no access to the attack site, which, like the rest of Kabul, is under the control of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, senior military officials insist the drone attack prevented more American and Afghan casualties.

In a press conference Monday, General McKenzie, the head of Central Command, did not reveal any details of the circumstances of the attack other than that he dealt a crushing blow to ISIS-K when it attempted a final attack before the US withdrawal.

General Milley repeated these comments a few days later. “At this point, we think the procedures were being followed correctly and this was a fair strike,” he told reporters. “Have others been killed? Yes, others are being killed. We don’t know who they are. “

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