The Afghan man who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last month was an enthusiastic and beloved longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization, his colleagues say, painting a stark contrast to the Pentagon's claims that he was an Islamic State group militant about to carry out an attack on American troops.
Signs have been mounting that the U.S. military may have targeted the wrong man in the Aug. 29 strike in Kabul, with devastating consequences, killing seven children and two other adults from his family. The Pentagon says it is further investigating the strike, but it has no way to do so on the ground in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, severely limiting its ability to gather evidence.
Accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The Associated Press, and the scene at the family home — where Zemerai Ahmadi's car was struck by a Hellfire missile just as he pulled into the driveway — all seem to sharply contradict the accounts by the U.S. military. Instead, they paint the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the United States, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
At the home, the mangled, incinerated Toyota Corolla remains in the driveway. But there are no signs of large secondary blasts the Pentagon said were caused by explosives hidden in the car trunk. In the tightly cramped, walled compound, the house is undamaged except for broken glass, even a badly built wooden balcony remains in place. A brick wall immediately adjacent to the car stands intact. Trees and foliage close to the car are not burned or torn.
The family wants the United States to hear their side of the story and see the facts on the ground.
"We just want that they come here. See what they did. Talk to us. Give us the proof," Emal Ahmadi, Zemerai's younger brother, said of the U.S. military. Near tears, he opened a photo on his phone of his 3-year-old daughter, Malika, in her favorite dress. Another photo showed her charred remains after she was killed in the strike.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged he did not know if the man targeted in the strike was an IS operative or an aid worker. "I don't know because we're reviewing it," he said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
The strike was carried out in the final days of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, as American troops were carrying out evacuations at Kabul's airport. Only days earlier, an IS suicide bombers at the airport killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. servicemembers.
The Pentagon says the strike prevented another IS attack at the airport. Officials said the U.S. military had been observing the car for hours as it drove and saw people loading explosives into the back. Days after amid reports of the children killed, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a "righteous strike," and said "at least one of the people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator."
The U.S. acknowledged reports of civilian casualties and said they may have been caused by secondary explosions. The family said when the 37-year-old Zemerai, alone in his car, pulled up to the house, he honked his horn. His 11-year-old son ran out, and Zemerai let the boy get in and drive the car into the driveway. The other kids ran out to watch, and the missile incinerated the car, killing seven children and an adult son and nephew of Zemerai.
"That was my last memory, the sound of his horn," said another of Zemerai's brothers, Romal Ahmadi, who was inside the house at the time. His three children, aged two to seven, were killed.
Zemerai worked for 15 years for Nutrition & Education International, a California-based non-profit aimed at countering malnutrition in Afghanistan. Romal also worked briefly for NEI.
Only days before the strike, Zemerai and Romal applied for special visas to the U.S. for those who had worked with U.S. companies. His brother, Emal and the nephew who was killed, Ahmad Naser Haideri, had also applied for special visas because of their work for the U.S. military.
Emal provided the AP with documents including their visa applications, letters of recommendation and even a medal Haideri had received for his service with a special U.S. trained elite special force. Haideri also had a letter of reference from the U.S.-based Multi Country Security Solutions Group, where he worked as a contractor, calling him "an important part of our commitment to provide the best faithful service to the U.S. Special Forces."
"He was an excellent employee," the firm's president, Timothy Williams, who wrote the letter of reference, told the AP. "I'm not going to change from that just because of the incident that happened. I'm going to stand behind my guys."
Zemerai's colleagues at NEI described him as a talented worker who worked his way up from a handyman to a skilled engineer and an essential employee.
Last year, when the company was unable to pay employees at full salary because of the coronavirus pandemic, employees were given the opportunity to leave their positions for better paying work elsewhere.
But Ahmadi declined, saying, "I am NEI. From beginning to end, until we accomplish our goal," the company's founder and president, Steven Kwon, told the AP.
Colleagues recalled him as a doting father and enthusiastic dancer who kept an optimistic spirit amid the chaos of his surroundings and was quick to comfort those around him with a joke. He had grown up poor in Kabul and maintained "such a heart for the poor," said a co-worker who asked to be identified only as Sonia for safety reasons.
"He was definitely the best of us. Absolutely," she said.
He also always supported the company's efforts to hire more women and create women's programs, which is one of many reasons that colleagues said the suggestion that he was connected to any sort of extremism seems preposterous to them.
"Everything we're hearing about him is just so disturbing and so absurd because he had such love for his people," said Sonia. "How would he overnight turn around and start wanting to kill his own people. It makes absolutely no sense at all whatsoever."
It seems unlikely the U.S. will send anyone to the Ahmadi home to investigate. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he's "not aware of any option that would put investigators on the ground in Kabul." The U.S. Central Command said it would rely on "other means," without elaborating but apparently meaning surveillance video and intercepts that led to the strike.
The family, grieving and furious, still wants refuge in the United States. On top of their already existing worries over their past work with the U.S., they now fear the new Taliban rulers will suspect them of being ISIS, which is a violent rival of the Taliban.
"The U.S. has accused us. They haven't cleared our name and they won't even talk to us, and now the suspicion is on us," Emal said. "We are angry, but we don't know what to do. For our safety we would go to America, but it must be all our families, not just me."
Much to their dismay, Ahmadi's colleagues say they haven't been contacted by anyone from the Biden administration about what happened.
"Just talk to us because our teams are now terrified," Sonia said. "I mean, in addition to being afraid of the Taliban and ISIS, they're now even more afraid of the U.S. government."
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.