US military cannot find ISIS safe house that prompted Kabul drone strike

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The United States military has not located a suspected ISIS safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan, that officials initially said led to a US drone strike on Aug 29 that mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

Two days before the drone strike, military officials said they had determined through electronic intercepts, aerial surveillance and informants that ISIS, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, planners were using a compound about 3 miles (4.8km) 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 Sami Said said that was wrong.

“We have not found any particular safe house,” Lieutenant-General said in a telephone interview after making his findings public last week.

He 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 US military official confirmed that the available intelligence on the location was not precise enough.

Nearly everything that senior defence 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 neighbourhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.

Senior Defence Department leaders have conceded that the driver of the car, Mr Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a US aid group, had nothing to do with the ISIS, 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 judgement was also mistaken, after an investigation by The New York Times found that the safe house’s location was actually the residence of Mr Ahmadi’s boss, whom US military officials also say has no ties to the ISIS group.

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 US officials tracked the white Toyota Corolla through Kabul, caused what he called confirmation bias, leading to the drone strike.

His 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.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved General Said’s findings and recommendations, chief Pentagon spokesman John 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 about 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 him, 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.

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Separately, three US officials said on Monday (Nov 8) that the Central Intelligence Agency 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.

General Said and other top military officials, including Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of Central Command, have sought to put the drone strike into the context of the moment, with US officials at a heightened state of alert after a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport three days earlier killed about 170 civilians and 13 US troops.

The military’s first mistake was incorrectly identifying a family home as an ISIS 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 ISIS affiliate.

Another recurring aspect of the intelligence, General McKenzie said, was that the ISIS would use a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack against US troops at the airport.

At 8.52am 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.

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