Newly Declassified Video Shows U.S. Killing of 10 Civilians in Drone Strike
The New York Times obtained footage of the botched strike in Kabul, whose victims included seven children, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
WASHINGTON — Newly declassified surveillance footage provides additional insights about the final minutes and aftermath of a botched U.S. drone strike last year in Kabul, Afghanistan, showing how the military made a life-or-death decision based on imagery that was fuzzy, hard to interpret in real time and prone to confirmation bias.
The strike on Aug. 29 killed 10 innocent people — including seven children — in a tragic blunder that punctuated the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The disclosure of the videos was a rare step by the U.S. military in any case of an airstrike that caused civilian casualties, and is the first time any footage from the Kabul strike has been seen publicly. The videos encompass about 25 minutes of silent footage from two drones — a military official said both were MQ-9 Reapers — showing the minutes before, during and after the strike.
The at-times blurry footage that operators were watching will continue to be scrutinized for new details about how the episode unfolded, while demonstrating the heightened risk of error that accompanies any decision to fire a missile in a densely populated neighborhood.
The military had been working that day under extreme pressure to head off another attack on troops and civilians in the middle of the chaotic withdrawal. It has said it believed it was tracking an ISIS-K terrorist who might imminently detonate a bomb near the Kabul airport. Three days earlier, a suicide bombing at the airport had killed at least 182 people, including 13 American troops.
The New York Times obtained the footage of the strike through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against United States Central Command, which oversaw military operations in Afghanistan. The disclosure is likely to add fuel to a debate about the rules for airstrikes and protections for civilians in the era of drone warfare.
The videos — one of which is in grainy imagery, apparently from a camera designed to detect heat — show a car arriving at and backing into a courtyard on a residential street blocked by walls. Blurry figures are seen moving around the courtyard, and children are walking on the street outside the walls in the moments before a fireball from a Hellfire missile engulfs the interior. Neighbors can then be seen desperately dumping water onto the courtyard from rooftops.
The scenes unfolding on the video are murky. In retrospect, it is clear that the images were misinterpreted by those who decided to fire.
American operators on Aug. 29 had been tracking the driver of a white Toyota Corolla for about eight hours before targeting him in the mistaken belief that he was an ISIS-K member moving bombs. But the man was instead Zemari Ahmadi, a worker employed by Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid organization.
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In November, a Pentagon official said blurry images in the videos revealed the presence of at least one child in the blast zone about two minutes before the missile was launched, but stressed that spotting that was obvious only in hindsight and with “the luxury of time.”
The footage from one of the drones briefly shows what appears to be a blurry shorter figure in white next to a taller figure in black inside the courtyard as the car is backing in, about two and a half minutes before the explosion. Shuddering on the other drone’s footage, about 21 seconds before the explosion, suggests that might have been when it launched a missile.
Relatives have told The Times that some children rushed to greet Mr. Ahmadi — one getting into his car — when he got home to a compound where four interrelated families lived, and that others were fatally wounded in rooms alongside the courtyard.
The footage shows other figures of indeterminate height moving around the courtyard over several minutes as Mr. Ahmadi’s sedan backed into the compound, including one person opening the passenger door of the car just before the blast.
In the days after the strike, the military described a secondary explosion that it insisted supported the suspicion the car contained a bomb but later said was probably a propane tank. The footage shows a fireball from the blast, which expands about two seconds later, but it is tough to make out what is happening in the flare.
The heights of most figures inside the courtyard are difficult to determine because the footage was shot from overhead, making it harder to identify whether they might be children. The video with the better angle into the courtyard is in black-and-white and has lower resolution. The other video, which is in color, begins after the car was already backing in, but briefly shifts into black-and-white — apparently a thermal lens — at the moment of the strike.
Reached by phone, Emal Ahmadi, the brother of Mr. Ahmadi, whose daughter Malika was also killed in the strike, told The Times that he wanted to view the video himself, after having only heard descriptions from the military. “It will be difficult for me,” he said, “but I want to see it.”
Responding to a description, Hina Shamsi, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is representing the families of the victims and Nutrition and Education International, which employed Mr. Ahmadi, said the footage highlighted “a painful, devastating loss of 10 deeply beloved people.”
Capt. Bill Urban, the spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, reiterated the Pentagon’s apology.
“While the strike was intended for what was believed to be an imminent threat to our troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport, none of the family members killed are now believed to have been connected to ISIS-K or threats to our troops,” he said. “We deeply regret the loss of life that resulted from this strike.”
The blurrier main video begins as the white car was approaching the courtyard, following the vehicle through several streets. It shows people moving in the courtyard several minutes before the strike, as the car stops and then backs in. A laser range-finder briefly appears about 70 seconds before the strike, and then returns and stays for the final half minute. Additional blurry figures are visible just before they are engulfed in flames.
The clearer video, which is mostly in color, starts as the car is backing in and reveals little about who was in the courtyard because of the angle from which it was shot. But it more plainly shows a figure opening the front-right door of the car just before the explosion, as well as children on the street outside the gated courtyard.
Both videos show people rushing to the site and throwing water onto the fire from nearby roofs. About 90 seconds after the strike, the higher-resolution color camera abruptly swivels away from the carnage to point at an unremarkable street scene nearby for the next five minutes.
The footage also underscores how drone operators may jump to the conclusion that any unknown people interacting with a terrorism suspect are likely fellow militants. In this case, even their suspicions about the suspect were wrong.
In November, the Air Force’s inspector general, Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, released findings of his investigation into the strike, which found no violations of law and did not recommend any disciplinary action. The general blamed “confirmation bias” for warping operators’ interpretation of what they were seeing.
Officials have said that intelligence had indicated that an ISIS-K attacker would be driving a white Toyota Corolla, and that a certain building was a terrorist safe house. In fact, the building was the residence of the director of Mr. Ahmadi’s aid organization. But operators did not realize that error when Mr. Ahmadi headed to that building in his white Corolla — and from that premise over the next eight hours, they interpreted other mundane actions as threatening, too.
When someone in his car retrieved a black bag from that building, the operators interpreted the bag as an explosive since the airport bomber had used a black backpack; in fact, it was his boss’s laptop. When several people later placed canisters in the trunk of his car, the operators saw more bombs; in fact, the objects were most likely water containers. And when there appeared to be a secondary explosion after the missile blew up the car, they saw evidence of a bomb; in fact, the military later said, it was most likely a propane tank.
A trove of military reviews of reported civilian casualty incidents in the air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria obtained by The Times revealed repeated instances of a similar confirmation bias.
“We know we need to improve situational awareness, communication between strike cells and nodes, and introduce a more robust process by which the analysis of intelligence can be scrutinized in real time,” Captain Urban told The Times in response to questions about confirmation bias.
The military initially announced that it had thwarted another planned attack outside the airport. But nearly everything that senior Pentagon officials claimed in the hours, days and weeks after the drone strike turned out to be wrong. A week after a Times video investigation showed that the man driving the car was Mr. Ahmadi, the Pentagon acknowledged that the strike had been a tragic mistake and no ISIS-K fighters had been killed.
Still, the Pentagon had resisted making the videos public, deeming them classified and exempt from disclosure. But it told a judge this month that officials were “engaged in high-level consultations regarding whether any portions can be declassified and publicly released” in response to The Times’s lawsuit. Under a court order, the government had a deadline of Tuesday to make a final determination.
The Times sued for a copy of the surveillance footage starting five minutes before the drone began tracking the white car to five minutes after the missile strike, which would amount to about eight hours. It is not clear what happened to the remaining footage, a question that may be the subject of further litigation.
The botched strike has helped spur a closer look at the military’s targeting rules and the adequacy of protections for civilians in war zones after two decades in which airstrikes from remote-operated drones became routine — leading to recurring incidents in which civilian bystanders are killed.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Under the law of war, it can be legal to carry out strikes that kill some civilians, as long as they were not the intended target and as long as the anticipated collateral damage is deemed to be necessary and proportionate to the military aim. But the Defense Department has long said that it tries to minimize civilian casualties.
Still, with United States ground forces no longer in theaters like Afghanistan and Somalia and drawing down from Syria and Iraq, strikes on traditional or “hot” battlefields may be less frequent compared with so-called over-the-horizon counterterrorism strikes in poorly governed places where there are no American troops to defend on the ground — but where good intelligence may be even harder to come by.
The Biden administration has also been working on a new policy governing drone warfare away from traditional battlefields. That process was meant to last only a few months, but after a year of drafts, deliberations and high-level meetings, it remains uncompleted.
The U.S. government has offered to resettle the relatives of the victims — and employees of the aid organization — and to make unspecified condolence payments to the families, Ms. Shamsi said, but they have received no compensation and are instead focused on leaving Afghanistan.
“We aren’t even discussing compensation because our clients’ safety comes first,” she said.
Ainara Tiefenthäler contributed reporting. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/19/us/politics/afghanistan-drone-strike-video.html/