The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How an Instagram star’s $7 million mission to rescue Afghan civilians struggled to get off the ground

Tommy Marcus in November in Brooklyn. (Courtesy of @JujuShotMe)

On Aug. 17, Tommy Marcus, an Instagram star who posts as “Quentin Quarantino,” asked his 690,000 followers to help fund evacuation flights for Afghan civilians fleeing Taliban rule.

The donations poured in. A target of $550,000 — an amount that Marcus said would pay for two flights and rescue at least 300 people — was hit in just 80 minutes. In less than two weeks, the total exceeded $7.2 million, a sum that startled Marcus and the nonprofit leaders with whom he had partnered in the effort, which they called “Operation Flyaway.”

“We want to be clear: EVERY SINGLE NICKEL of everything raised will go to either pay for flights, or support these humans through various non-profits,” Marcus wrote on the Flyaway GoFundMe page after the campaign launched, pledging that the operation “will be running flights until they tell us we can’t anymore.”

Yet no Afghans have been evacuated on flights chartered by Flyaway, an examination by The Washington Post found. The examination found that Flyaway spent $3.3 million on flights that were canceled for which it has not received refunds. Organizers are trying to reschedule those flights.

In some cases, Flyaway has helped pay for flights organized by other groups or lent money to make flights possible. In others, Flyaway says it has helped Afghans reach airports. Though Marcus, 26, has said Flyaway helped evacuate hundreds of people, organizers acknowledged to The Post that most of them departed on flights paid for by U.S. taxpayers or other organizations.

The Post’s examination is based on financial records, emails, text messages, recordings of calls and interviews with 10 people who worked on or with Flyaway. It offers a rare look inside the finances of a short-term viral fundraising campaign, an increasingly common type of philanthropic effort in which a quickly assembled team — often aided by a social media influencer — can raise a fortune in hours using GoFundMe and similar sites.

Because many of these efforts are not incorporated as nonprofits, groups such as Flyaway are not required to publish tax records detailing their activities. Nor are they required to follow guidelines governing nonprofits, meaning that their activities — though often well-intentioned — receive little scrutiny. Donors often cannot see how their money was spent.

Laurie Styron, executive director of the American Institute of Philanthropy, described crowdfunding campaigns as the “Wild West of charity fundraising” and said that influencers should instead urge their followers to support nonprofits with experience and expertise. “Good intentions mixed with hubris is a dangerous combination,” Styron said.

The examination also illuminates what was a sometimes chaotic effort by civilians and nonprofit organizations — with varying degrees of expertise — to help vulnerable Afghans as their country fell to the Taliban. The U.S. government itself was caught off-guard and unprepared. By marshaling resources under extreme circumstances, the nongovernmental groups worked to alleviate an enormously complex humanitarian crisis and save lives. Even veteran aid groups struggled to get people out. But Flyaway is an example of how a group with less experience in such operations quickly raised enormous amounts of cash and then struggled to use it to maximum effect.

In August, Marcus said if the civilians were not soon evacuated, “neither they nor their family will make it through the month.” Marcus said that the operation would run multiple flights out of Kabul if it raised enough money and “every $1,500 raised represents a seat on one of the planes.”

In all, Flyaway has spent more than $5.2 million on flights and ground operations and has rescued or helped rescue 435 Afghans, according to figures it provided to The Post. The largest chunk of that, $2.8 million, was paid to a charter company led by a New Zealand businessman who, according to court records, has recently been under investigation by U.S. authorities on suspicion of fraud in matters unrelated to Afghanistan.

Flyaway pledged early on to give any excess funding to the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which has received $1.2 million as a result.

On Aug. 25, Marcus publicly described Flyaway’s efforts as a “miracle.” Yet in a rancorous conference call between Flyaway’s leaders and allied advocacy groups two days later, Marcus said he was “losing faith” in the operation as it struggled to get civilians and planes to Kabul’s airport. Marcus complained that, based on erroneous information he received, he had unwittingly “shared fake news” by posting a photograph of an Afghan girls robotics team that was in fact rescued by others.

“All I’m seeing is failures,” Marcus said in a recording of the call obtained by The Post, later adding, “All I have gotten is lies.”

One participant sobbed on the call, others talked over one another and California-based activist Azadeh Ghafari repeatedly yelled “Stop spending money!” at Flyaway organizers. An attorney for Marcus and other Flyaway leaders later sent Ghafari a cease-and-desist letter demanding that she stop accusing them of mishandling funds.

In a 25-minute interview, Marcus said Flyaway’s efforts to evacuate civilians are ongoing, adding that “I just know that we are working with companies to either get planes off or refunds.”

He said the results so far have justified the effort. “People are alive because of Operation Flyaway,” Marcus told The Post. “So regardless of the chaos that has surrounded it, there’s no regrets.”

Flyaway gave The Post a heavily redacted list of 300 people it said it has helped get on flights funded by others. It provided contact information for three Flyaway evacuees, who confirmed they were Afghans whom Flyway helped leave the country.

One, a former interpreter for U.S. forces who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his family’s safety, said Flyaway “worked hard and did the best job to save me and my family.”

Flyaway's start

The idea for Operation Flyaway did not begin with Marcus.

It grew out of an Aug. 14 phone call between Sheffield Ford, a retired Army major who was awarded a Silver Star for his service in Afghanistan, and Karen Kraft, a former Army Reserve officer and television producer, Ford and Kraft told The Post. Ford is the chief executive of Raven Advisory, a security contractor in Fayetteville, N.C., and Kraft is the chair of Veterans in Media and Entertainment (VME), a Los Angeles-based networking nonprofit.

With the Taliban closing in on the capital and the U.S. military preparing to exit the country on Aug. 31, the two were eager to help civilians in Afghanistan, Ford said. Fearing that traditional fundraising would be too slow, he said, they made contact with Marcus, who had said he was looking to support rescue efforts in Afghanistan.

Marcus studied at the University of Michigan, which he attended on a scholarship awarded based on his academic record and his work as a golf caddie at a country club in his hometown of Tenafly, N.J. While in college, Marcus and a friend created a start-up company to deliver groceries to students on campus. He left in 2017, one class short of graduating, he said. Marcus went on to build an online following by posting memes and jokes during the pandemic. He sometimes used that platform to raise money for liberal causes.

Flyaway’s evacuation plan already “was fully there” by the time he joined, Marcus told The Post. Ford and Kraft were its operational leaders, he said. Ford and Kraft told The Post that their organizations are volunteering time and resources and are not being paid for their efforts.

Raven, founded in 2013 by a retired CIA officer, sells training and security services to companies and law enforcement. It has 51 employees, Ford said. VME, formed in 2012, is run by what it calls an “all-volunteer force.” It reported average annual revenue of $144,000 from 2014 to 2019, state records in California show.

Marcus unveiled Flyaway in online posts on Aug. 17, a day after desperate Afghans were filmed clinging to a U.S. military plane as it left Kabul. Marcus said the operation was aimed at saving people the Taliban might regard as “high-value targets,” including human rights lawyers, LGBTQ activists and Afghan interpreters who had assisted the 20-year American war effort.

A Raven employee told partners on a conference call last month that Flyaway’s “ground facilitation team” consisted of three “operators,” who were Afghanistan experts, and two experienced linguists. Flyaway has paid $440,000 for ground support from companies including security contractors in Texas and Virginia, according to a budget document it provided to The Post.

In those first days, Flyaway leaders sent talking points to foreign officials they hoped would accept evacuees. The document said Flyaway had approval from the U.S. government and was prepared to evacuate up to 2,000 Afghans to the United Arab Emirates in coordination with UAE authorities. Asked whether this was accurate, the State Department said through a spokesperson, “We are not going to detail our involvement with any specific groups at this time.”

The document said Flyaway had already contracted two McDonnell Douglas DC-9 planes from Eastern Europe and had crews on standby.

GoFundMe recommended that Flyaway partner with an established nonprofit, and Flyaway selected IWMF. Together, they brought in experienced activists, including Ghafari, who is co-director the Afghan Women’s Mission, and Jasmin Kozowy-Mouflard, co-founder of Hospitality for Humanity, a Los Angeles consulting firm. Their suggested evacuees, along with names emailed to an address Marcus posted online, were compiled in a Flyaway master list that Ford said eventually ran to more than 5,000 people.

Obstacles mount

Then, according to four people in contact with Flyaway about potential evacuations, progress seemed to slow. The four, and some others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing ongoing efforts to evacuate civilians. Tense days passed with Flyaway leaders not responding to some emails from nonprofit partners and members of the public, they said.

“There was not consistent communication,” Kozowy-Mouflard said in an interview.

Ford told The Post the volume of emails to Flyaway in that period was “nearly impossible to manage.”

A person who fielded inquiries from the public to Flyaway said the operation was swamped. “I felt overwhelmed,” the person said. “There were thousands of requests and no way to respond to all of them. I did as many as possible, but it wasn’t enough.”

It turned out the two planes Flyaway had said were on standby in Europe were not insured to fly into Afghanistan, Ford told The Post. The arrangement fell through without them ever taking off. Efforts led by more-experienced nonprofits and companies to privately charter planes, including efforts that The Post participated in, suffered similar or related setbacks.

Also complicating matters was that Flyaway could not immediately access the funds it had raised, because GoFundMe had not yet released them, according to the budget document, interviews and recordings of calls.

On Aug. 23, IWMF told Flyaway that by pursuing its own leads, it had lined up two flights out of Kabul that would cost $1.6 million, according to an invoice, emails and a person involved in the operation. With no money available, the opportunity slipped away.

“We had two planes and they did not get us the $,” IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz said in the following days in a Signal group chat with fellow organizers. Screenshots of the chat were obtained by The Post.

Leigh Lehman, a GoFundMe spokeswoman, declined to discuss details of when money was released to Flyaway but said GoFundMe, a for-profit company, reviewed all fundraisers related to Afghanistan to protect donors and organizers. “Our top priority was to provide aid to those in need, safely and quickly,” Lehman said.

Around this time, Sayara International, an organization with deep experience in the region, secured a plane and scheduled takeoff from the Kabul airport, a person familiar with the arrangement said. Sayara, however, urgently needed $545,000 to combine with a half-million dollars it had found elsewhere, the person said. Sayara had learned of Flyaway’s fundraising haul and got in contact.

The two groups came to an understanding: Flyaway would help pay for the flight, and Sayara, which had a convoy of its own evacuees turned away before it reached the airport, would give seats on the plane to 200 people Flyaway claimed it had waiting inside the airport, the person said.

With the GoFundMe funds not available and Sayara pressing Flyaway for a wire transfer, former Facebook executive Brandee Barker stepped in after reading about Flyaway’s effort. She lent Flyaway the $545,000, according to three people who worked on the operation. Flyaway later reimbursed her. In an email to The Post, Barker confirmed the arrangement and called Flyaway’s leaders “true heroes.”

To Sayara’s dismay, Flyaway’s evacuees did not materialize, the person familiar with the arrangement said. “The 200 people were not in the airport,” that person said.

The plane took off on Aug. 24 with just 51 evacuees aboard, according to media accounts and a person familiar with the flight details. Almost 300 seats were empty, while hundreds of people clamored outside Kabul’s airport. Some of those outside were people on Flyaway’s list who had been told to travel to the airport prematurely and could not get through, according to people involved.

So far, the $545,000 it gave Sayara is the only money Flyaway has spent outright on charter flights that have evacuated Afghans. It has lent Sayara $900,000 for two other flights, one of which has already left Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Flyaway told The Post the operation had more civilians in a different part of the airport who were unable to make it to the plane before it departed. Other evacuation efforts, including The Post’s, encountered similar challenges.

Ford acknowledged that Flyaway “had failures of getting people through the gates” in some cases. “We focused on windows of opportunity to save human lives,” he said.

Canceled flights

In the days leading up to the scheduled U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31, the pressure was enormous. Marcus told others working on the operation that hundreds of people had sent him online messages demanding to know how donations were being spent.

Marcus answered those critics on the evening of Aug. 25 with a public announcement that several flights had been chartered. The GoFundMe money had been released, and Raven had signed deals for flights from Kabul to Tirana, Albania, invoices show.

Flyaway paid $1 million to Global Supply and Logistics of Columbia, S.C., for two flights — one with 170 seats and the other with 162 — that were to arrive in Kabul over the following four days. The planes never made it to Kabul. Reached by phone, Global Supply chief executive Robert G. Suber said he was not permitted to discuss the contract. Flyaway told The Post the $1 million was later refunded by Global Supply.

Ford told The Post that Flyaway’s efforts to arrange flights met hurdles in trying to secure clearances from U.S. authorities and from destination countries willing to allow Afghan refugees to land. “The biggest struggle through the whole process was the destinations,” he said, echoing the experience of many other groups seeking to evacuate people from Afghanistan.

Ford said the charter operators were not required to refund money spent on flights that were canceled but said Flyaway may be given credit toward future flights. “We’re in discussions with NGOs on how we could still use those planes to help Afghans,” he said.

Also among the contracts was a $513,000 deal for a flight with Dubai-based Mayfair Jets. That flight was also canceled. Ahmed Mahmoud, Mayfair’s owner, said in an interview that $170,000 had been used on insurance and cannot be refunded but that he expects to reach an agreement with Flyaway if the contract is not fulfilled.

For its largest contract, Flyaway wired $2.84 million to Kiwijet of Beverly Hills for four flights of a 280-seat Boeing 767, the invoices show. Kiwijet’s website and incorporation filings do not identify who owns or runs the company. But a July 2020 search-warrant application filed in federal court in Los Angeles said Nicolas Steele, the New Zealand businessman, opened bank accounts in Kiwijet’s name and sent emails identifying himself as its founder, president and chief executive.

Steele did not respond to emails, calls and text messages seeking comment. His attorney, Eric Bensamochan, said Kiwijet is “waiting for approvals from Operation Flyaway, but aircraft and pilots are at the ready to depart and Kiwijet expects a departure very soon.”

The search-warrant application said Steele, who previously ran a company named Steele Aviation, was under investigation by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles and the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General on suspicion of wire fraud, identification fraud and other offenses. A special agent from that office alleged in a 27-page affidavit that Steele defrauded other aviation companies of more than $154,000 by canceling a flight after receiving payment and creating a bogus wire transfer record. He also allegedly opened a bank account using a false Social Security number and carried out unlicensed flights, according to the application.

Investigators searched Steele’s home and seized equipment including 22 cellphones, according to court documents. A judge granted investigators more time to examine Steele’s devices in April, an order that is the last public update in the matter. The inspector general’s office declined to comment on what a spokesman called an “ongoing investigative matter.”

In March 2018, a state judge in Los Angeles ordered Steele and his wife, Lilia Stepanova Steele, a Soviet-born contortionist who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” to pay $7.2 million to a former business partner who had sued them. The judge ruled against Steele and his wife on multiple counts, finding that Steele fraudulently induced the partner to invest by falsely promising him a share of future profits. Steele and his wife declared bankruptcy six months later.

Kiwijet and Nicolas Steele are currently being sued by two clients and a lender who allege they are owed $318,000 in total. Steele and Kiwijet have not responded to the lawsuits, filed in California and Florida. Between 2017 and 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration revoked Steele’s pilot certification twice and fined Steele Aviation $1.3 million for allegedly performing dozens of unauthorized flights.

In an August 2013 deposition, Steele said he was previously known as Milton Cross but changed his name. He has also used the name Nicholas Freeman, he said in the deposition. Steele served eight months in a California prison in 1999 after he was convicted of stealing a car from Hertz. Court records show Steele was caught speeding in the car about six weeks after it was rented with a fraudulent credit card number. He separately pleaded guilty to stealing $400 worth of items from a store while on probation for the car theft.

In a statement attributed to Kiwijet, Bensamochan said, “We have no comment regarding any ongoing litigation and will address the allegations at the appropriate time.”

Ford told The Post he was not concerned about Kiwijet or Steele’s background. Ford said Kiwijet was recommended by a trusted contractor, which Ford declined to identify.

Frustrations boil over

On Aug. 26, after a suicide bombing in Kabul killed scores of people, including 13 U.S. troops, Flyaway leaders and allied nonprofits held a roughly hour-long conference call in which simmering frustrations boiled over. Ford complained that Afghans had been arriving at the airport gates prematurely and citing his name with officials. Rebecca Murga, VME’s communications director, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan, ordered the nonprofits not to “flood” the airport gates with their evacuees and to slow down, “before we start putting people in danger.”

Ghafari countered angrily that the activists had sent evacuees to the gates only because Flyaway told them to. IWMF’s Lees Muñoz said Raven had failed to communicate its plan and procedures for delivering Afghans to the airport, calling it a “big pain point for everybody.”

Barker, the former Facebook executive who lent the operation money, warned that Flyaway would come under growing scrutiny. “As less and less is happening on the ground, eyes are going to come right back to this organization and people are going to be asking in detail what happened to the $7 million,” Barker said on the call.

The arguments intensified in a heated conference call lasting around 75 minutes the next day, when Marcus made his remark about having shared fake news. Marcus said he posted the photograph of the robotics team to Instagram after Sayara gave it to him and other Flyaway leaders encouraged him to share it. He said that he mistakenly thought the team had been rescued thanks to Flyaway’s efforts and that he removed the post soon after realizing the error.

Separate claims of responsibility for the evacuation of the robotics team had already fallen under scrutiny. An attorney for the team had recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to an Oklahoma woman, telling her to stop taking credit for the girls’ escape from Kabul and warning that her numerous media appearances endangered their organization’s remaining members in Afghanistan.

On the Aug. 27 call, Raven representative Jordan Blake said the company now expected Kabul airport to become “an untenable option” in the next 24 to 36 hours, jeopardizing the millions of dollars’ worth of flights Flyaway had contracted.

Participants yelled over one another. Marcus told Murga to “be quiet,” and Ghafari made her demand that leaders stop spending money on chartering planes. Ghafari asked for copies of the flight contracts and invoices so her attorneys could work on recouping the money already spent.

“You will have, and your lawyers, every damn scrap of piece of paper,” Kraft said. Murga, her VME colleague and fellow veteran, sobbed and said, “It disgusts me that since this money was raised, the civilian organizations here have been fighting over this money.”

The activists, some of whom said they had been muted from talking on the call, reacted in their group Signal chat.

“Outrageous,” Lees Muñoz said.

“It’s emotional blackmail,” said Ghafari.

An IWMF security adviser who is a decorated veteran told Murga she did not speak for all veterans. “Take ownership for your mistake,” the adviser wrote. The Post agreed not to identify the adviser, because of the sensitivity of his work relating to Afghanistan.

Murga confirmed in an email that she had been angered by the discussion on spending and felt frustrated by the many obstacles Flyaway faced. “This entire experience triggered my anger about the war,” Murga said. She added that Flyaway’s leaders “did the best we could under unbelievable circumstances.”

Kraft declined to comment on the recordings but said Flyaway had achieved “humbling success” among its many challenges. “It has been a complex, often chaotic, sometimes frustrating and very exhausting five weeks in which we have all dedicated our lives to this mission of saving others,” Kraft said.

After the call, the activists voted to demand that Flyaway immediately transfer all its funds to IWMF. Emails show Flyaway agreed later that day to send $700,000 to IWMF in addition to $500,000 it had transferred earlier, and to direct future GoFundMe donations to IWMF rather than Raven. Marcus closed Flyaway’s GoFundMe page to new donors on Aug. 29.

The following evening, a lawyer representing Flyaway’s leaders sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ghafari, demanding that she stop making “false and defamatory allegations” that Flyaway had solicited money for nonexistent flights.

Despite the urgency felt last month to evacuate before the Taliban takeover, Flyaway recently has aided in two such efforts. Flyaway told The Post it provided transportation, accommodation and other support that helped 57 people get on a flight of 400 passengers that was arranged by an Alaska-based defense contractor and landed in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 17. Flyaway said it provided similar support to 27 people on a Sayara flight of 398 passengers that was partly funded by Flyaway’s $900,000 loan and reached Doha on Sept. 21.

In the interview, Marcus said he remained confident that “everything’s going to work out in a good way” and that more Afghans would be helped.

“Obviously, there’s frustrations with not saving as many people as we’d hoped to by now,” Marcus said. But, he said, “how can you put a price tag on the people we have saved?”

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