[explosion] In one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul. It was parked in the courtyard of a home, and the explosion killed 10 people, including 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi and seven children, according to his family. The Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State, and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to U.S. troops guarding the evacuation at the Kabul airport. “The procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.” What the military apparently didn’t know was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker, who colleagues and family members said spent the hours before he died running office errands, and ended his day by pulling up to his house. Soon after, his Toyota was hit with a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as the suspicious moves of a terrorist may have just been an average day in his life. And it’s possible that what the military saw Ahmadi loading into his car were water canisters he was bringing home to his family — not explosives. Using never-before seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, co-workers and witnesses, we will piece together for the first time his movements in the hours before he was killed. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. For 14 years, he had worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International. “NEI established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It’s a California based NGO that fights malnutrition. On most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work and distributing the NGO’s food to Afghans displaced by the war. Only three days before Ahmadi was killed, 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide attack at the airport. The military had given lower-level commanders the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared was another imminent attack. To reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on Aug. 29, in the hours before he was killed, The Times pieced together the security camera footage from his office, with interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and family members. Ahmadi appears to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop near his house. It’s around this time that the U.S. military claimed it observed a white sedan leaving an alleged Islamic State safehouse, around five kilometers northwest of the airport. That’s why the U.S. military said they tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the safehouse, instructing the car to make several stops. But every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day said what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was just a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped to get breakfast, and at 9:35 a.m., they arrived at the N.G.O.’s office. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his co-workers to a Taliban-occupied police station to get permission for future food distribution at a new displacement camp. At around 2 p.m., Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The security camera footage we obtained from the office is crucial to understanding what happens next. The camera’s timestamp is off, but we went to the office and verified the time. We also matched an exact scene from the footage with a timestamp satellite image to confirm it was accurate. A 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a hose, and then he and a co-worker fill empty containers with water. Earlier that morning, we saw Ahmadi bring these same empty plastic containers to the office. There was a water shortage in his neighborhood, his family said, so he regularly brought water home from the office. At around 3:38 p.m., a colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further into the driveway. A senior U.S. official told us that at roughly the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull into an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. That overlaps with the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe is what the military called an unknown compound. With the workday ending, an employee switched off the office generator and the feed from the camera ends. We don’t have footage of the moments that followed. But it’s at this time, the military said that its drone feed showed four men gingerly loading wrapped packages into the car. Officials said they couldn’t tell what was inside them. This footage from earlier in the day shows what the men said they were carrying — their laptops one in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the trunk, Ahmadi’s co-workers said, were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped each one of them off, then drove to his home in a dense neighborhood near the airport. He backed into the home’s small courtyard. Children surrounded the car, according to his brother. A U.S. official said the military feared the car would leave again, and go into an even more crowded street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t been watching Ahmadi’s home at all that day, quickly scanned the courtyard and said they saw only one adult male talking to the driver and no children. They decided this was the moment to strike. A U.S. official told us that the strike on Ahmadi’s car was conducted by an MQ-9 Reaper drone that fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. We found remnants of the missile, which experts said matched a Hellfire at the scene of the attack. In the days after the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the missile strike set off other explosions, and that these likely killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “Because there were secondary explosions, there’s a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle.” But a senior military official later told us that it was only possible to probable that explosives in the car caused another blast. We gathered photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and visited the courtyard multiple times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage was consistent with the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater beneath Ahmadi’s car and the damage from the metal fragments of the warhead. This plastic melted as a result of a car fire triggered by the missile strike. All three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown-out walls, including next to the trunk with the alleged explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the courtyard was overturned by a large blast. No destroyed vegetation. All of this matches what eyewitnesses told us, that a single missile exploded and triggered a large fire. There is one final detail visible in the wreckage: containers identical to the ones that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before heading home. Even though the military said the drone team watched the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they weren’t aware of any water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle or shared what they say is the intelligence that linked him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the U.S. killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State did launch rockets at the airport from a residential area Ahmadi had driven through the previous day. And the vehicle they used … … was a white Toyota. The U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian deaths from its strike, and says there is an investigation underway. They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of an engineer at a U.S. NGO as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer had applied for his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still awaiting approval. Looking to the U.S. for protection, they instead became some of the last victims in America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers on this story. Our latest visual investigation began with word on social media of an explosion near Kabul airport. It turned out that this was a U.S. drone strike, one of the final acts in the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive security camera footage, and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the strike aftermath. You can see more of our investigations by signing up for our newsletter.”
Bombs and Explosives
VLACHOVICE-VRBETICE, Czech Republic — For nearly a century, local residents have wondered at the strange comings and goings at a sealed-off camp ringed by barbed wire and dotted with keep out signs on the edge of their village.
The armies of Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic all made use over the decades of the 840-acre property, deterring trespassers with guard dogs and armed patrols.
When the professional soldiers pulled out in 2006, the secretive activities became even more shadowy. Dozens of weapons depots hidden among the trees were taken over by arms dealers, a company reprocessing missile fuel and other private businesses.
Then, in October 2014, came the biggest mystery of all.
An enormous explosion ripped through depot No. 16, knocking farmers in nearby fields to the ground and sending dangerous debris raining down on the surrounding area.
Russian and Czech diplomats from Prague and Moscow and pushed relations between the two countries to their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.
The villagers, more focused on local property values than geopolitics, just want things to stop blowing up.
Holding a chunk of shrapnel that landed in his garden in 2014, Vojtech Simonik said he “felt no relief, only shock and amazement” when he watched the Czech prime minister talk on television about Russia’s role.
The announcement “created a real buzz around here,” said Mr. Simonik, who worked for a time at the camp dismantling artillery shells. “After seven years of silence, all the arguments are starting up again.”
The fenced-off property in which the explosions took place loops around the edge of two small adjacent villages with about 1,500 residents — Vlachovice (pronounced VLAKH-o-vee-tseh), the larger settlement, and Vrbetice (pronounced VR-byet-tee-tseh), just a few houses and a side road leading to the former military camp’s main entrance.
The mayor of Vlachovice, Zdenek Hovezak, said he had long wanted to know what was going on in the camp but got nowhere because everyone working there, including villagers hired to clean and perform other tasks, had to sign agreements swearing them to secrecy.
“I had no idea there was such a massive quantity of explosives so near our village,” said Mr. Hovezak, who had just been elected and was about to take office when the October blast happened.
The Military Technical Institute, a state entity that has managed the site since the Czech army pulled out, says it is now reviewing what to do with the property but insists that it will not be used again to store explosive materials for either the military or private companies.
Rostislav Kassa, a local builder, said he did not really care whether Russia is to blame for blowing up the place — although he firmly believes that it is — but he is angry that the Czech authorities ignored his efforts to sound the alarm years before the explosions.
Disturbed by reports that a rocket fuel company had rented premises in the camp, he started a petition in 2009 warning of a potential environmental disaster. Most residents signed it, he said, but his complaints to the Defense Ministry went unheeded.
“It doesn’t really matter who blew it up,” he said. “The main issue is that our government let this happen.” His own theory is that Russia wanted to disrupt supplies of rocket fuel to NATO forces, not, as is widely believed, to blow up weapons destined for Ukraine.
Ales Lysacek, the chief of the village’s volunteer fire force, recalled being called to the camp that day in October 2014 after a fire broke out there. He was ordered to get back by police officers guarding the entrance, and a few minutes later, after a series of small explosions, a gigantic blast sent a shock wave that knocked him and his men off their feet.
“We had no idea what was in all the depots,” Mr. Lysacek said. Nobody had ever thought to tell local fire fighters of the potential danger. Officials later assured villagers that the explosions had been an accident but, Mr. Lysacek said, “nobody here really believed them.”
After the 2014 blasts, it took six years for pyrotechnical experts to search the camp and village land around it for unexploded munitions and other hazardous debris.
The laborious cleanup operation, during which roads were often closed and villagers repeatedly evacuated from their homes for safety reasons, ended just last October.
Mr. Hovezak, the mayor, was astonished, like most villagers, to hear Prime Minister Andrej Babis say last month in a late night news conference that the huge 2014 blast on their doorstep had been the work of Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the G.R.U.
“I was in complete shock,” the mayor said. “Nobody here ever imagined that Russian agents could be involved.”
That they were, at least according to a yearslong investigation by the Czech police and security services, has only stoked more questions about what was really going on in the camp and suspicions among locals that they have been told only half the story.
Mr. Simonik, who found the shrapnel chunk in his yard, said that he was not entirely convinced Russia was to blame but that he had never believed the blast was just an accident either. “I definitely think it did not explode on its own,” he said. “It was triggered by somebody.”
Who that might be is a question that has reopened old fissures across the country over the past and current role of Russia, whose troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to depose its reform-minded communist leadership but is still credited by some Czechs for defeating Nazi Germany.
“The older generation remembers how Russians freed us from Hitler, while others remember 1968 when they invaded us,” said Ladislav Obadal, the deputy mayor of Vlachovice. “But hardly anyone has a good word for the Russians now.”
Except, that is, for President Milos Zeman, a frequent visitor to Moscow, who went on television recently to contradict the government’s account of the blasts. The explosions, he said, could have been an accident — sabotage by Russian spies was just one of two plausible theories.
Mr. Zeman’s statement prompted protests in Prague among Czechs who have long considered him far too Russia-friendly. It was also met with fury among residents of Vlachovice-Vrbetice who believe that Moscow should compensate the villages for all the physical and psychological damage caused, a demand the mayor said he supported if Russia’s role is proved.
Yaroslav Kassa, 70, the father of the local builder who said his disaster warnings had been ignored, has no doubt the Kremlin is to blame. “Of course the Russians did it,” Mr. Kassa said, noting that the Russian military would have detailed plans of the sprawling facility from the time when the Soviet army used it after the 1968 invasion.
His views have led to arguments with his neighbor, Jozef Svelhak, 74. Mr. Svelhak recalled how he knew and liked a former Soviet commander at the camp and said he had never heard of Russian spies in the area, only Western ones in the 1970s during the Cold War.
Half a century later, that spies are again said to be roaming around is a measure of how the Cold War suspicions rumble on in this remote eastern corner of the Czech Republic.
“It is fun to watch James Bond in films,” said another of Mr. Kassa’s sons, Yaroslav. “But we don’t want him hiding behind our hill.”