The Biden administration’s drone strike targeted an innocent man who worked for a U.S. organization in which several civilians were killed, as suggested by the New York Times. If found to be accurate, it is considered a war crime.
The drone strike took place on August 29; the Biden administration presented it as an attack on a potential ISIS-K terrorist driving a vehicle loaded with explosives to be detonated at the international airport in Kabul. It was the second drone strike, following just one day earlier in Nangarhar providence against a suspected Islamic State terrorist.
The Times report suggests that “the U.S. killed the wrong person” in a report along with video footage from a security camera showing the target, Zemari Ahmadi, was filling water canisters for his family that the U.S. military may have inaccurately thought were explosives.
The Times reports that “[m]ilitary officials said they did not know the identity of the car’s driver when the drone fired.” But in the wake of an August 26 suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members as well as scores of Afghan civilians, they believed that he posed an imminent danger based on “how they interpreted his activities that day.”
The Times reported:
Times reporting has identified the driver as Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group. The evidence, including extensive interviews with family members, co-workers, and witnesses, suggests that his travels that day actually involved transporting colleagues to and from work. And an analysis of video feeds showed that what the military may have seen was Mr. Ahmadi and a colleague loading canisters of water into his trunk to bring home to his family.
Although U.S. officials said that at that point, they still knew little about Mr. Ahmadi’s identity, they had become convinced that the white sedan he was driving posed an imminent threat to troops at the airport.
[A]n examination of the scene of the strike, conducted by the Times visual investigations team and a Times reporter the morning afterward, and followed up with a second visit four days later, found no evidence of a second, more powerful explosion.
Experts who examined photos and videos pointed out that, although there was clear evidence of a missile strike and subsequent vehicle fire, there were no collapsed or blown-out walls, no destroyed vegetation, and only one dent in the entrance gate, indicating a single shock wave.
The Times reported as many as ten civilians may have been killed in the Aug. 29 airstrike, including seven children.
At a Pentagon press conference on August 30, Major General William Taylor told reporters that the vehicle was “known to be an imminent ISIS-K threat.” When a reporter asked questions about whether the military had a “high degree of confidence” that explosives caused the explosion, Taylor insisted there had been explosions of material that “was going to be used in a high profile attack.” He also said that there had been “secondary explosions” that “indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” Taylor also said the U.S. was investigating reports of civilian casualties.
On August 30, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden was not personally authorizing the strikes but delegated responsibility. And she cited CENTCOM on August 31, saying “the vehicle that was the target also had explosives in it,” and that terrorists were killed, even though there were reports of civilian casualties under investigation.
International law permits the use of such targeted killings under restricted circumstances. The target must be an enemy combatant; the target generally must pose an imminent or ongoing threat, and the attack must minimize the risk to non-combatants.
The targeted killings debate has concerns whether a terrorist can be killed when not actively involved in acts of terror and merely going about civilian life. Such killings are generally permissible – within strict parameters, as described above.
Mistaken identity alone is not proof that international law has been violated. However, if no genuine attempt was made to identify the target, such a killing may violate international law.
In the day following the suicide bombing of August 26, the Biden administration faced intense political scrutiny. Critics suggested that Biden was carrying out an airstrike to redeem an otherwise humiliating and deadly retreat.