Examining a ‘righteous’ strike

Expert analysis of deadly U.S. drone strike’s aftermath in Kabul suggests no evidence of explosives in targeted vehicle

When a Hellfire missile was launched on Aug. 29 at a target in a Kabul neighborhood — a parked car suspected of containing explosives for use in a suicide attack — U.S. military officials said they were confident the driver and another man at the location had suspected militant ties and were the only people nearby.

The missile took about half a minute to reach the white sedan. In that time, three children approached the car just before it was destroyed, according to a senior U.S. military official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing military investigation. The children were killed, the official said, and families of the victims said another seven people also died in the strike, including the driver and the second man.

U.S. Central Command’s initial description of the drone strike in a statement said that the operation targeted a vehicle linked to the Islamic State-Khorasan and produced “significant secondary explosions” from the vehicle, indicating a “substantial amount of explosive material.”

The Washington Post provided imagery of the damage caused by the strike and U.S. military assessments of the operation to experts, including a physicist and former bomb technicians, and spoke to the nonprofit that employed the driver targeted in the operation. Taken together, their assessments suggest there is no evidence the car contained explosives; two experts said evidence pointed to an ignition of fuel tank vapors as the potential cause of the second blast.

The driver’s employer, a California-based group, said his movements around the city were part of his duties for the nonprofit and said the military may have misinterpreted what he was doing as he moved from place to place and loaded packages into the vehicle.

The experts cautioned that their analysis is reliant on photos and video obtained by The Post, witness accounts and limited information provided by the Pentagon; some experts said it was possible the vehicle contained a small amount of explosives.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, defended the operation, calling it a “righteous strike” that foiled a planned attack by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan just days after a suicide bombing by the group at a Kabul international airport gate had killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans.

“Were there others killed? Yes, there are others killed,” Milley said a few days afterward. “Who they are, we don’t know.”

U.S. Central Command, which is conducting an investigation into the strike, did not provide a response to questions raised by analysts.

The strike

The car was tracked for about eight hours, beginning on the morning of Aug. 29, according to the senior military official. Military analysts had zeroed in on a building they said was an ISIS-K safe house linked to the earlier suicide attack on the airport gate. The car left that location a little after 9 a.m., making stops along the way, picking up and dropping off various passengers.

About an hour before the strike, several men loaded more than 10 packages into the car, which appear to be heavy and handled “gingerly,” the military official said. Intercepted communications among suspected militants said the car would meet a motorcyclist shortly before the driver of the white sedan had such an interaction, the official said.

Military officials said the U.S. had credible intelligence pointing to a likely second assault on the airport and believed the car would be used for that purpose. They said they decided to strike the vehicle after it pulled into the courtyard because they had “reasonable certainty” that harm to civilians could be avoided or minimized.

Despite Milley’s confidence that the strike was justified, military officials say their review of the incident is not yet conclusive on the matter. The home where the parked car was struck — about four miles from the airport — was not previously known to military and intelligence analysts, the senior military official said.

“The quick-look analysis … said that it is likely there were some degree of explosives in the vehicle,” the official said, describing a confidence level of more than 50 percent after an initial review.

“But ‘likely’ doesn’t ‘mean for sure,’” the official said. The Defense Department declined to publicly release video of the strike, citing the ongoing investigation.

The location of the strike was a courtyard with a tree surrounded by four walls.

A red Toyota SUV was parked along the west side of the space and the white sedan backed into the courtyard.

Steven Kwon, the president of California-based Nutrition and Education International (NEI), said the white sedan belonged to the U.S. charity.

On the day of the strike, Kwon said Zamarai Ahmadi — who worked as a technical engineer and was killed in the strike — and other employees arrived at the NEI compound in Kabul early in the morning to discuss an emergency food aid program for displaced people. Ahmadi and others left the compound later in the morning to run errands with the car, Kwon said.

Ahmadi loaded packages into the car before heading home, Kwon said, but disputed the military’s allegations that they contained explosives, calling it a “misidentification.” He said the group is still investigating the contents of the packages but believed Ahmadi was bringing them home.

Kwon denied the NEI compound had any links to ISIS-K. “We’re trying to help people,” he said. “Why would we have explosives to kill people?”

The aftermath

In order of appearance: Nagieb Khaja/TV2, Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images, Marcus Yam/ Los Angeles Times

A Hellfire missile armed with 20-pounds of explosives, according to the military official, struck the white sedan.

The Hellfire missile is a "multipurpose weapon” capable of carrying different explosive payloads for precision strikes on both moving and stationary targets according to Janes, an open-source defense intelligence provider.

This burnt orange object may be an important component of the missile known as the pneumatic accumulator, according to Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, an explosives expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Visuals of the aftermath suggest the path traveled by the missile. In the center of the black conical-shaped mark is a white streak that indicates where the Hellfire’s warhead detonated after striking the vehicle, according to Van Romero, an explosives expert at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

According to Dalnoki-Veress, the imprint on the wall behind the white sedan means the explosion probably occurred in the driver’s seat area.

A bend in the car frame shows the damage caused by the blast wave, which typically travels in an outward sphere from the missile’s point of impact, Dalnoki-Veress said.

The Pentagon has argued “significant secondary explosions” observed on a drone video feed that recorded the strike indicate explosives were present in the car, confirming the military’s calculation that it was a threat.

Dalnoki-Veress, who prepared a 19-page blast analysis for The Post, said it was highly unlikely there was a substantial amount of explosives in the car and theorized fuel vapors may have played a role in a subsequent blast that appeared more destructive than it was.

If there had been a significant and large explosion, he said, the walls in the courtyard would have sustained catastrophic damage from the blast wave and it would have shattered windows in the immediate area. But, he noted, only the wall closest to the Hellfire strike experienced significant structural damage, and some windows just a few meters away were intact.

Dalnoki-Veress estimated the equivalent of about 22 pounds of TNT detonated in the strike. The explosive material in the Hellfire used in the strike was 20 pounds, the defense official said. The difference could be from any fuel vapors that ignited in the sedan’s tank, he said.

“My theory is: The [Hellfire] explosives themselves ruptured the gas tank, released the vapor, and because of the fire that happened a short time afterward, it detonated and caused something that may have been explosion-like,” he said.

[Read Dalnoki-Veress's full report: Preliminary estimate of the size of the explosion in the August 29 Kabul incident]

Brian Castner, a former Air Force bomb technician experienced in post-blast assessments, separately came to the conclusion of a gas tank rupture and fire after reviewing photos and video from the scene.

Other signs of a big explosion appear to be missing, said Castner, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International. A tree next to the destroyed vehicle kept its leaves and did not appear burned, Castner said, and fragmentation found in the SUV and a nearby wall show a typical fragment pattern for a missile, with no clear pattern of shrapnel from an additional explosive weapon. This video shows in detail the spread of the damage caused by the shrapnel puncturing the nearby car and walls:

Castner cautioned his analysis is limited because he cannot collect explosive residue at the scene or analyze fragments from the Hellfire or other potential weapons.

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021.

(Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021.

(Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

(WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

The damage is consistent with a Hellfire missile strike, said Romero, because the damage is contained to the cars. It is possible the car contained a small amount of explosives, he said, but not a “significant” amount.

Several experts noted that the surrounding area, including a storage tank on the roof, the tree and the walls, remain intact.

Romero noted that in urban environments the shock wave can bounce around in unexpected ways. “Something that you think should have been wiped out isn’t,” he said.

Still, if there had been a substantial amount of explosive material in the vehicle, Romero said, the sedan would have probably been obliterated. “You wouldn’t see it,” he said.

Instead, video appeared to show the headlight of the white sedan was still on in the moments after the strike.

Castner said some of the details offered by the Pentagon bolster his theory that the second explosion was probably triggered by gasoline vapors, rather than the detonation of homemade bombs.

Key to the theory, Castner said, is the time between the explosions, which a defense official said was between 1 and 1.5 seconds.

There are two kinds of explosions in this circumstance, he said. The first, a “sympathetic” detonation, is when an explosive triggers another explosive instantaneously as one combined detonation, and the materials blowing up are indistinguishable from one another.

The second type, a “secondary” explosion, is a detonation that occurs quickly after the blast, but not instantly. An example would be hot or fiery material igniting fuel vapors in a gas tank.

A fuel tank explosion in the courtyard, Castner said, would be consistent with the slight interval between explosions that the defense official described.

“It’s going to go up in a bright flash with a lot of smoke that will look impressive but will not do damage to the surrounding area,” he said. “It’s usually very large but without the power.”

Another kind of secondary explosion occurs when explosive material catches fire and burns hot enough to trigger a blast, but that would take minutes or even hours, he said.

Whether a tank can explode is determined by the amount of fuel in the tank and if there is enough space for vapors to accumulate, Castner said. It is the vapor, not the fuel, that ignites, he and Dalnoki-Veress said. The senior U.S. military official said cars do not typically explode after being hit with a Hellfire but rather burn.

“I can’t prove that there was no explosives in the car at all,” Castner said. “All the evidence that I see is consistent with the first blast being the Hellfire, and the second blast being just the car burning or related to the gas or oil. I’m not seeing evidence of the second blast being significant.”

Alternatively, some experts told The Post that there could be a smaller amount of explosives that detonated after the Hellfire struck. Former Air Force joint terminal attack controller Wes Bryant said the images are consistent with the car carrying explosive material.

“Hellfires just do not do this level of damage by themselves to a vehicle,” said Bryant, whose duties included guiding airstrikes from the ground. “That tells me there was some level of high-order explosives.”

Defense officials concluded an initial investigation into the deadly strike and have begun a fuller assessment, officials said, including whether it can identify more civilians killed in the strike.

“Alternative hypotheses could be true,” the official said, including a secondary blast caused by igniting fuel vapors.

Susannah George in Kabul, Olivier Laurent, Daron Taylor and Shelly Tan contributed to this report. Design and development by Irfan Uraizee.

Alex Horton is a national security reporter for The Washington Post, where he covers the U.S. military. He joined The Post’s general assignment desk in 2017 from Stars and Stripes, and served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.
Sarah Cahlan is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team. Before joining the Post she was an NAHJ fellow at NBC News.
Dalton Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and researcher at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 2016 after five years covering conflict with the AP.
Joyce Sohyun Lee is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team. Before joining the Post, she worked as an associate video producer for Time magazine.
Meg Kelly is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team.
Elyse Samuels is a video reporter for The Washington Post's visual forensics team. She joined The Post's video team in 2016 where she worked in breaking news, verification and in collaboration with the The Fact Checker.