Military Can’t Find ISIS Safe House That Prompted Kabul Drone Strike

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has not located a suspected Islamic State safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan, that officials initially said led to an American drone strike on Aug. 29 that mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, according to two senior military officials.

Two days before the drone strike, military officials said they had determined through electronic intercepts, aerial surveillance and informants that ISIS planners were using a compound about three miles northwest of the Kabul airport to facilitate future attacks involving rockets, suicide explosive vests and car bombs.

But an inquiry into the drone strike by the Air Force’s inspector general, Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, said that was wrong. “We have not found any particular safe house,” he said in a telephone interview after making his findings public last week.

General Said would not discuss the underlying information that led military analysts to focus on the safe house — and even dispatch six Reaper drones to monitor it — other than to say, “It was not faulty intelligence; it was just not specific.” A second U.S. military official confirmed that the available intelligence on the location was not precise enough.

Nearly everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, then days and weeks, after the drone strike has turned out to be false. The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in a densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.

Senior Defense Department leaders have conceded that the driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, had nothing to do with the Islamic State, contrary to what military officials had previously asserted. Mr. Ahmadi’s only connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting and innocuous interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house in Kabul.

But now Pentagon officials say that judgment was also mistaken, after an investigation by The New York Times that the safe house’s location was actually the residence of Mr. Ahmadi’s boss, who American military officials also say has no ties to ISIS.

General Said found no violations of law and did not recommend any disciplinary action. He said a series of assumptions, made over the course of eight hours as U.S. officials tracked the white Toyota Corolla through Kabul, caused what he called “confirmation bias,” leading to the drone strike.

General Said’s investigation made several recommendations for fixing the process through which strikes are ordered, including new measures to cut down the risk of confirmation bias and a review of the procedures used to determine whether civilians are present.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has approved General Said’s findings and recommendations, the chief Pentagon spokesman, John F. Kirby, said last week, and has left it up to the four-star generals leading the military’s Central and Special Operations commands to decide, probably in the next few weeks, whether anyone should be disciplined or rebuked for the strike.

In describing his investigation, General Said said last week that surveillance videos showed at least one child in the area some two minutes before the military launched the drone strike. But the general also said that footage would have been easy to miss in real time.

In the subsequent interview, General Said provided additional details, saying that nine seconds before military operators fired the missile, surveillance video showed the presence of four adults and two children — the largest number of people captured on video before the strike. According to General Said, that group of people — in addition to Mr. Ahmadi and his cousin, whom analysts clearly saw before launching the strike — would have also been easy to miss.

Separately, three U.S. officials said on Monday that the C.I.A. had alerted the military to the presence of a child at the strike site on Aug. 29 but that military officials said the warning came too late — after the missile was launched.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

General Said and other top military officials, including Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Central Command, have sought to put the drone strike into the context of the moment, with American officials at a heightened state of alert after a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport three days earlier killed about 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops.

The military’s first mistake was incorrectly identifying a family home as an Islamic State safe house. “In the 48 hours prior to the strike, sensitive intelligence indicated that the compound at point No. 1 on the map was being used by ISIS-K planners, used to facilitate future attacks,” General McKenzie told reporters at his Sept. 17 briefing, referring to an Islamic State affiliate.

Another recurring aspect of the intelligence, General McKenzie said, was that ISIS would use a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack against American troops at the airport.

At 8:52 a.m. on Aug. 29, a white Toyota Corolla — Mr. Ahmadi’s sedan — arrived at what the military believed was an ISIS safe house.

But witness testimony and visual evidence gathered by The Times indicate that this compound was most likely the home of Mr. Ahmadi’s boss, the country director of Nutrition and Education International, a California-based aid group. The director had asked Mr. Ahmadi to stop by his home to pick up his laptop on the way to work that morning.

According to General Said, military analysts suspected on Aug. 29 that the suicide bomber had at some point three days earlier carried explosives in a black bag similar to a laptop bag. Seeing a black bag being exchanged at a suspected ISIS safe house the morning of the attack was yet another data point that generated confirmation bias, the general said.

Adam Goldman and Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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