Murder By Any Other Name

Scott Ritter explains how the murder of Zemari Ahmadi and nine family members by a U.S. drone attack in August was whitewashed by the Pentagon.

A Predator drone firing a missile. (Kaz Vorpal, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News

On Aug. 29, the United States murdered ten Afghan civilians in a drone strike. The U.S. Air Force Inspector Gen., Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, was appointed on Sept. 21, to lead an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack. On Nov. 3, Gen. Said released the unclassified findings of his investigation, declaring that while the incident was “regrettable,” no crimes were committed by the U.S. forces involved.

The reality, however, is that the U.S. military engaged in an act of premeditated murder violative of U.S. laws and policies, as well as international law. Everyone involved, from the president on down committed a war crime.

Their indictment is spelled out in the details of what occurred before and during the approximately eight hours a U.S. MQ-9 “Reaper” drone tracked Zemari Ahmadi, an employee of Nutrition and Education International (N.E.I.), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, working to fight malnutrition among women and children who live in high-mortality areas in Afghanistan.

During those eight hours, the U.S. watched Ahmadi carry out mundane tasks associated with life in war-torn Kabul circa Aug. 2021. The U.S. watched until the final minutes leading up to the decision to fire the hellfire missile that would take Ahmadi’s life, and that of nine of his relatives, including seven children.

The investigation,” Gen. Said concluded in his report, “found no violation of law, including the Law of War.” One of the unanswered questions relating to this conclusion was the precise nature of the framework of legal authorities at play at the time of the drone strike, in particular the rules and regulations being followed by the U.S. military regarding drone strikes, and issues pertaining to Afghan sovereignty when it came to the use of deadly force by the U.S. military on Afghan soil.

Policies in Flux

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence July 20, 2017, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., following a meeting of the National Security Council. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

At the time of the drone strike that murdered Zemari Ahmadi and his family, the policies governing the use of armed drones was in a state of extreme flux. In an effort to gain control over a program which, by any account, had gotten out of control in terms of killing innocent civilians, then-President Barack Obama, in May 2013, promulgated a classified Presidential Policy Guidance (P.P.G.) document entitled “Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities.”

The 2013 P.P.G. directed that, when it came to the use of lethal action (a term which incorporated direct action missions by U.S. Special Operation forces as well as drone strikes), U.S. government departments and agencies “must employ all reasonably available resources to ascertain the identity of the target so that the action can be taken.” The document also made clear that “international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally—and the way in which the United States can use force.”

The standards for the use of lethal force set forth in the 2013 P.P.G. contain two important preconditions. First, “there must be a legal basis for using lethal force.” A key aspect of this legal basis is a requirement that the U.S. have the support of a host government prior to the initiation of any lethal force on the territory of that nation. This support is essential, as it directly relates to the issue of sovereignty commitments under the U.N. Charter.

When the 2013 P.P.G. was published, the U.S. had the express permission of the Afghan government to carry out lethal drone strikes on its territory for the purposes of targeting both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Later, this authorization would extend to encompass the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K.

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump issued new guidance which loosened the conditions under which lethal force could be used in Afghanistan, including the use of armed drones. The Afghan government continued to provide host nation authorization for these strikes. When President Biden assumed office, in January, he immediately directed his National Security Council to begin a review of the policies and procedures surrounding the use of armed drones in Afghanistan.

One of the issues addressed in this review was whether the Biden administration would return to the Obama-era rules requiring “near certainty” that no women or children are present in an area targeted for drone attack or retain the Trump-era standard of only ascertaining to a “reasonable certainty” that no civilian adult men were likely to be killed.

Complicating matters was the fact that the Biden administration was preparing for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which required that the rules and procedures for use of armed drones in Afghanistan be altered to reflect a new reality where U.S. forces were no longer being directly supported, and that the armed drone program would be conducted in an environment where the Afghan government was the exclusive recipient of armed drone support. These new rules and procedures were part of what the Biden administration called its “over the horizon” (OTH) counterterrorism strategy.

Before the new OTH policies and procedures directive could be issued, however, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan changed completely, making the policy document obsolete before it was even issued. The rapid advance of the Taliban, coupled with the complete collapse of the Afghan government, threw into question the legal underpinnings regarding the authority of the U.S. government to conduct armed drone operations in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters in Kabul, Aug. 17, 2021. (VOA, Wikimedia Commons)

The new rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban, did not approve of U.S. armed drone operations. Instead, the Taliban had executed a secret annex to the February 2020 peace agreement reached with the Trump administration regarding its commitment to dealing with counterterrorism issues in Afghanistan once the U.S. withdrew. President Biden determined that his administration would be bound by the terms of that agreement.

Two points emerge from this new environment—first, from a legal standpoint, the U.S. military remained bound by the “reasonable certainty” of the Trump-era policies regarding the use of armed drones, and second, from the standpoint of international law as it relates to sovereignty commitments, the U.S. had no legal authority to conduct armed drone operations over Afghanistan.

While the U.S. had not formally recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, President Biden’s commitment to adhere to commitments made under the terms of the February 2020 peace agreement, coupled with the fact that the U.S. was engaged in active negotiations with the Taliban in Doha and in Kabul regarding issues pertaining to security of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Kabul, make clear that for all sense and purpose, the U.S. treated the Taliban as if they were the sovereign authority in Afghanistan.

In Order to Be Legal

For U.S. drone operations on Aug. 29, to be legal in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had to either gain public approval for these operations from a sovereign authority, gain private approval from a sovereign authority, or else demonstrate that a sovereign authority was unable or unwilling to act, in which case the U.S. could, under certain conditions, consider unilateral action.

Gen. Said does not provide any information as to how he ascertained U.S. compliance under international law. Public statements by the Taliban appear to show that they did not approve of U.S. drone strikes on the territory of Afghanistan. Indeed, when the U.S. carried out a similar drone attack, on Aug. 27, targeting what it claimed were ISIS-K terrorists, the Taliban condemned the strike as a “clear attack on Afghan territory.”

The second precondition set forth in the 2013 P.P.G. authorizing the use of lethal action was that the target must pose “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” In his presentation on the Aug. 29, drone strike, Gen. Said stated that “[i]ndividuals directly involved in the strike…believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat. The intended target of the strike, the vehicle, its contents and occupant, were genuinely assessed at the time as an imminent threat to U.S. forces.”

When promulgating its 2013 P.P.G. on drone strikes, the Obama administration adopted an expanded definition of what constituted an “imminent threat” published by the Department of Justice in 2011, which eschewed the notion that in order to be considered “imminent”, a threat had to be a specific, concrete threat whose existence must first be corroborated with clear evidence.

Instead, the Obama administration adopted a new definition that held that an imminent threat was inherently continuous because terrorists are assumed to be continuously planning attacks against the U.S.; all terrorist threats are considered both “imminent” and “continuing” by their very nature, removing the need for the military to gather information showing precisely when and where a terrorist threat was going to emerge.

To make the case of an “imminent” (and, by definition, “continuing”) threat, all the U.S. needed to do in the case of Zemari Ahmadi was create a plausible link between him and potential terrorist activity. According to Gen. Said, “highly classified” (i.e., Top Secret) intelligence was interpreted by U.S. personnel to ascertain the existence of a terrorist threat.

This assessment was used to create a linkage with Ahmadi, and the subsequent “observed movement of the vehicle and occupants over an 8-hour period” resulted in confirmation bias linking Ahmadi to the assessed terrorist threat.

Who Was in Command?

Part of Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (U.S. National Archives)

Zemari Ahmadi’s actions on Aug. 29, did not trigger the drone attack. Instead, the U.S. appeared to be surveilling a specific location in Kabul, looking for a White Toyota Corolla (ironically, the most prevalent model and color of automobile operating in Kabul) that was being converted by ISIS-K terrorists into a weapon to be used against U.S. forces deployed in the vicinity of Kabul International Airport.

This safe house was located about five kilometers west of Kabul International Airport, in one of Kabul’s dense residential neighborhoods. The specific source of this information is not known but given Gen. Said’s description of it as “highly classified”, it can be assumed that this information involved the interception of specific communications on the part of persons assessed as being affiliated with ISIS-K, and that these communications had been geolocated to a specific area inside Kabul.

One of the issues confronting the U.S. during this time was the absolute chaotic nature of the command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) infrastructure that would normally be in place when carrying out any military operations overseas, including something as politically sensitive as a lethal drone strike. It wasn’t just the policy guidelines for the use of lethal drone strikes that were in limbo on Aug. 29, 2021, but also who, precisely, oversaw what was going on regarding the employment of drones in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military and C.I.A. had completely withdrawn from Afghanistan when the decision was made to begin noncombatant evacuation operations (N.E.O.) operating from Kabul International Airport. The deployment of some 6,000 U.S. military personnel was accompanied by an undisclosed number of C.I.A. and Special Operations forces who were tasked with sensitive human and technical intelligence collection, including intelligence sharing and coordination with the Taliban.

To support this activity, an expeditionary joint operations center (JOC) was established by U.S. forces, led by Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, a Navy SEAL originally dispatched to Afghanistan to lead Special Operations, but who took over command of all forces when the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, left in July 2021.

Admiral Vasely was assisted by Major Gen. Chris Donahue, a former Delta Force officer who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division. While both Vasey and Donahue were experienced combat commanders, they were singularly focused on the issue of securing the airport and evacuating personnel under a very constrained timeline. Managing drone operations would be handled elsewhere.

As part of President Biden’s vision for Afghanistan post-U.S. evacuation (and pre-Afghan government collapse), the Department of Defense had established what was known as the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism Headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Commanded by Brigadier Gen. Julian C. Cheater, Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism, comprised of 544 personnel, was tasked with planning and executing missions in support of Special Operations Command-Central across four geographically-separated locations in the United States Central Command area of responsibility, including Afghanistan.

But Gen. Cheater had only assumed command in July, and his organization was still getting settled into its new quarters (Brigadier Gen. Constantin E. Nicolet, the deputy commanding general for intelligence for the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism headquarters, did not arrive until Aug. 11.) As such, much of the responsibility for coordinating drone operations into the overall air campaign operating in support of the Kabul N.E.O. (which, in addition to multiple C-17 and C-130 airlift missions per day, included AC-130 gunships, B-52 bombers, F-15 fighters, and multiple MQ-9 Reaper drones) was handled by Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (C.A.O.C.), located at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

The Video Source

Capt. Richard Koll, left, and Airman 1st Class Mike Eulo perform function checks after launching MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 7 at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Steve Horton)

Gen. Said, in his presentation, made mention of “multiple video feeds” when speaking of the information being evaluated by U.S. military personnel regarding the strike that killed Ahmadi and his family. This could imply that more than one MQ-9 drone was operating over Kabul that day, or that video feeds from other unspecified sources were also being viewed.

It also could be that the MQ-9 that fired the Hellfire missile that killed Ahmadi and his nine relatives was flying by itself; the MQ-9 carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which integrates an infrared sensor, color, monochrome daylight TV camera, shortwave infrared camera, the full-motion video from each which can be viewed as separate video streams or fused together. In this way, one drone can provide several distinct video “feeds”, each of which can be separately assessed for specific kinds of information.

The MQ-9 is also capable of carrying an advanced signals intelligence (SIGINT) pod, producing yet another stream of data that would need to be evaluated. It is not known if this pod was in operation over Kabul on Aug. 29. However, according to The New York Times, U.S. officials claim that that the U.S. intercepted communications between the white corolla and the suspected ISIS-K safe house (in actuality, the N.I.E. country director’s home/N.I.E. headquarters) instructing the driver (Ahmadi) to make several stops.

Logic dictates that the U.S. military kept at least one, and possible more, MQ-9’s over Kabul at all times, providing continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance overwatch during the conduct of the evacuation operation. The primary MQ-9 unit operating in the Persian Gulf region at the time was the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron, which operated out of Ali Al Salem Air Base, in Kuwait.

Given the logistical realities associated with drone operations over Afghanistan, which required a lengthy flight down the Persian Gulf, skirting Iran, and then over Pakistan, before reaching the central Afghanistan region, the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron more than likely forward deployed a ground control station used to take off and recover the MQ-9 drones, along with an undisclosed number of drone aircraft, to Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar.

The time of flight from Al Udeid to Kabul for an MQ-9 drone is between 5 and 6 hours; a block 5 version of the MQ-9, such as those operated by the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron, can operate for up to 27 hours. It is possible that a single MQ-9 drone was on station for the entire period between when Ahmadi was first taken under surveillance until the decision to launch the Hellfire missile that killed him was made; it is also very possible that there was a turnover between one MQ-9 and another at some point during the mission. In either instance, a long-duration mission such as that being conducted on Aug. 29, would have been logistically and operationally challenging.

The crew from the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron was responsible for launching and recovering the MQ-9 drone from its operating base; once in the air, control of the drone was turned over to drone crews assigned to the 432nd Expeditionary Air Wing, based out of Creech Air Base, in Nevada. These crews work with the Persistent Attack and Reconnaissance Operations Center, or PAROC, also located at Creech Air Base.

The PAROC coordinates between the 432nd Wing Operations Center, which serves as the focal point for combat operations, and the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism Headquarters and Central Command Combined Air Operations Center, both out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The PAROC serves as a singular focal point for mission directors, weather analysis, intelligence analysis and communications for drone operations over Afghanistan.

At each node in this complex command and control system, the video feeds from the drone(s) involved can be monitored and assessed by personnel. Such an overlapping network of agencies was implied by Gen. Said in his presentation, when he spoke of interviewing “29 individuals, including 22 directly involved in the strike” for his report.

Given that Gen. Said’s remit is limited to the military forces involved, it is not known if he interviewed another party reportedly involved in the drone strike—the C.I.A. Multiple sources have indicated that C.I.A. analysts were involved in evaluating the video feeds associated with the drone strike of Aug. 29, and that they provided input regarding the nature of the target.

C.I.A. Involvement

Aerial view of C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons)

The C.I.A. operates what is known as the Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center out of its Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There, a fusion cell of intelligence analysts drawn from across the U.S. intelligence community monitor a wall of flat screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones operating from around the world, including Afghanistan.

The C.I.A.’s involvement suggests that because of the confusion surrounding the legality of drone operations in Afghanistan following the collapse of the Afghan government, the Biden administration opted to conduct drone operations under Title 50, covering covert C.I.A. activities, as opposed to Title 10, which cover operations conducted under traditional military chain of command.

In any event, what is known is that an MQ-9 drone, flown by pilots from the 432nd Expeditionary Wing operating out of Creech Air Base, in Nevada, was surveilling a specific neighborhood in Kabul on the morning of Aug. 29, where intelligence sources indicated an ISIS-K terrorist cell was in the process of converting a white Toyota Corolla into a weapon—perhaps a car bomb—that was to be used against U.S. forces operating at Kabul International Airport.

The U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan were on high alert—on Aug. 26, ISIS-K fighters had launched a coordinated attack using suicide bombers and gunmen on a U.S. checkpoint at the airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and some 170 Afghans, including nearly 30 Taliban fighters.

According to a timeline put together by The New York Times, Zemari Ahmadi left his home, located in a neighborhood about two kilometers west of the airport, in a white Toyota Corolla owned by his employer, Nutrition and Education International (N.E.I.). Ahmadi had worked with N.E.I. since 2006 as an electrical engineer and volunteer, helping distribute food to Afghans in need.

The country director for N.E.I. had called Ahmadi at around 8:45 am, asking him if he could stop by the country director’s home and pick up a laptop computer. Ahmadi left his home at around 9 am, and drove to the country director’s home, located about five kilometers northwest of the airport. The drone operators were surveilling the compound where the country director lived, having assessed that it was an ISIS-K safe house.

It is at this point the intelligence failures that led to the murder of Ahmadi and his family began. The country director, whose name has been omitted for security reasons, is a well-known individual whose biometric information, including place of work and residence, has been captured by a highly classified Department of Defense biometric system called the Automatic Biometric Identification System, or ABIS. ABIS, part of what the U.S. calls its strategy of “Identity Dominance”, was specifically set up to help identify targets for drone strikes and was said to contain more than 8.1 million records.

The ABIS, when integrated with other data bases such as the Afghanistan Financial Management Information System, which held extensive details on foreign contractors, and an Economy Ministry database that compiled all international development and aid agencies (such as N.E.I.) into a singular searchable Geographic Information System, or G.I.S., gives an analyst the ability to scroll a cursor over a map of Kabul, coming to rest over a given building, and immediately accessing information about who resides there.

Both the country director and Ahmadi, as Afghans affiliated with western aid organizations who moved with relative freedom around Kabul, were included in these data bases.

Massive Intelligence Failure

The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force, Leslie Pratt)

The fact that a U.S. intelligence analyst could confuse the known residence/headquarters of a U.S.-funded aid organization with an ISIS-K safe house is inexcusable, if indeed these data bases were available for query.

It is possible that (because of the transitional environment) the events of Aug. 29 transpired with no definitive rules of engagement in place, and that the command and control structure was in a high state of flux, so that the data base was either shut down or otherwise inaccessible. In any case, the inability to access data that had been collected over the course of many years by the United States for the express purpose of helping facilitate the counterterrorism-associated targeting of armed drones represents an intelligence failure of the highest order.

The community of analysts, spread across several time zones and distinct geographical regions, representing agencies with differing legal and operational frameworks, began monitoring the movement and activities of Ahmadi. He picked up a laptop computer from the country director, which was stored in a black carrying case of the kind typically used to carry laptop computers. Unfortunately for Ahmadi, the ISIS-K suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. position at Kabul International Airport on Aug. 26 carried bombs that had been placed in similar black carrying cases, reinforcing what Gen. Said called a chain of “confirmation bias.”

Ahmadi then went on a series of excursions, picking up coworkers at their homes, dropping them off at various locations, stopping for lunch, and distributing food. Near the end of the day, Ahmadi returned to the N.E.I. headquarters where he used a hose to fill up plastic containers with water to bring home (there was a water shortage throughout Kabul, and Ahmadi’s home had no running water.)

Zemari Ahmadi. (Ptipti/Wikimedia Commons)

Analysts watching Ahmadi’s actions somehow mistook the act of using a garden hose to fill plastic jugs with water as him picking up plastic containers containing high explosives that could be used in a car bomb—another case of “confirmation bias.”

At least 22 sets of eyes were watching this, using multi-spectral cameras capable of ascertaining movement of water, temperature variations, all in high-resolution video feeds. How not a single pair of eyes picked up on what was really happening is, yet again, a huge failure of intelligence, either in terms of training as an imagery analyst, poor analytical skills, or both.

But even with all of this “confirmation bias” weighing in favor of classifying Ahmadi as an “imminent threat”, neither he nor his family were condemned to die. Under International Human Rights Law, lethal force is legal only if it is required to protect life (making lethal force proportionate) and there is no other means, such as capture, of preventing that threat to life (making lethal force necessary).

If Ahmadi’s car, upon leaving the country director’s home, had headed toward a U.S.-controlled checkpoint around Kabul International Airport, then U.S. personnel monitoring the drone feed would have had every right, under the procedures then in place, to consider Ahmadi a “continuing imminent threat” to American life, thereby freeing the drone crew to fire a Hellfire missile at the vehicle to destroy it.

Instead, he drove home, pulling into the interior courtyard of his building complex. At this juncture, Ahmadi and his vehicle could not, under any circumstance, be considered an active threat to American life. Moreover, with the vehicle immobile and still under observation, options could now be considered for “other means”, such as capture, to remove the vehicle and Ahmadi as a potential future threat.

While the U.S. and the Taliban had an implicit agreement that U.S. forces would not operate outside the security perimeter of Kabul International Airport, the Taliban were fully capable of sending a force to investigate and, if necessary, detain Ahmadi and his vehicle. The U.S. admits to actively sharing intelligence with the Taliban and acknowledge that the Taliban had proven itself capable of acting decisively to neutralize threats based upon the information provided by the U.S.

The Taiban interest in stopping a suicide bomber was manifest—they had suffered twice as many killed than the U.S. in the Aug. 26 attack on the Airport, and were sworn enemies of ISIS-K. All the U.S. had to do was pass the coordinates of Ahmadi’s home to the Taliban, and then sit back and watch as the Taliban responded. If the Taliban failed to act, or Ahmadi attempted to drive away from his home in the white corolla, then the U.S. would be within its rights under international law to attack the car using lethal force.

However, to get there the U.S. first needed to cross the legal hurdle of exhausting “other means” of neutralizing the potential threat posed by Ahmadi’s car. They did not, and in failing to do so, were in violation of international law when, instead, they opted to launch a Hellfire missile.

Ignoring the Children

The decision to fire the Hellfire missile was made within two minutes of Ahmadi arriving at his home. According to The New York Times, when he arrived, his car was swarmed by children—his, and those of his brother, who lived with him. For some reason, the presence of children was not picked up by any of the U.S. military personnel monitoring the various video feeds tracking Ahmadi.

The drone crew determined that there was a “reasonable certainty”—the Trump-era standard, not the “near certain” standard that would have been in place had the Biden administration published its completed policy guidance document regarding drone strikes—that there were no civilians present. How such a conclusion can be reached when, on review, the video clearly showed the presence of children two minutes before the Hellfire missile was launched—has not been explained.

But Gen. Said wasn’t the only one who saw children on the video feed. At the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center in Langley, at least one analyst working in the fusion cell there saw the children as well. According to media reports, the C.I.A. was only able to communicate this information to the drone operators who fired the Hellfire after the missile had been launched, part of the breakdown in communications that Gen. Said attributed to the chain of mistakes that led to the deaths of Ahmadi and his family.

Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said. (U.S. Air Force)

What Gen. Said failed to discuss was the communications channels that the C.I.A. information had to travel to get to the drone operators. Did the C.I.A. have a direct line to the pilots of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing? Or did the C.I.A. need to go through the Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism headquarters, the Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), the Persistent Attack and Reconnaissance Operations Center, or PAROC, or the 432nd Wing Operations Center, which communicated directly with the drone crew?

According to The New York Times, the tactical commander made the decision to launch the Hellfire missile, another procedural holdover from the Trump-era, which did away with the need for high-level approval of the target before lethal force could be applied.

The professionalism of those involved in reviewing the drone feed was further called into question when the analysts, observing a post-strike explosion of a propane tank in the courtyard of Ahmadi’s apartment complex, mistook the visual signature produced as being that of a car bomb containing significant quantities of high explosive.

Gen. Said’s report covers up a multitude of mistakes under the guise of “confirmation bias.” In his report he notes that “[t]he overall threat to U.S. forces at [Kabul International Airport] at the time was very high,” with intelligence indicating that follow-on attacks were “imminent.” Perhaps most importantly, Gen. Said writes that “[t]hree days prior, such an attack resulted in the death of 13 service members and at least 170 Afghan civilians. The events that led to the strike and the assessments of this investigation should be considered with this context in mind.”

If that is indeed the standard, then Gen. Said must consider the words of President Biden at a press conference held on Aug. 26, after the ISIS-K attack on Kabul International Airport. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said. “We will not forgive, we will not forget.”

Revenge was clearly a motive, with the drone operators leaning forward to put into action the President’s directive to hunt the enemy down and make them pay. Did the drone operators see children in the video feed? They say no, even though the C.I.A. analysts saw them prior to the launching of the Hellfire missile, and Gen. Said saw them after the fact.

These same drone operators were riding high on four years of “hands off” operations, where they were free to launch drone strikes under a “reasonable certainty” standard which was put in place knowing that the result would be more innocent civilians killed.

Some of the Obama administration rules were getting in the way of good strikes,” one U.S. official is quoted saying about the need for looser restrictions. Gen. Said makes no reference to the impact the Trump-era policy had on conditioning drone operators to be more tolerant of civilian casualties, even to the extent that they looked the other way if acknowledgement of their presence could prevent a “good strike.”

What’s Wrong With the Program

A BQM-74E drone launches from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (U.S. Navy photo by Cryptologic Technician 1st Class Carl T. Jacobson/Released)

The drone strike that killed Ahmadi and his family in many ways embodies all that was wrong with the U.S. lethal drone program as it was implemented in Afghanistan and elsewhere, failing to further legitimate U.S. national security objectives while harming U.S. credibility by wantonly killing innocent civilians.

A case can be made for criminal negligence on the part of all parties involved in the murder of Ahmadi and his family. But it is unlikely that any such charges will ever be put forward. The attack clearly violates international law, although the Biden administration will claim otherwise.

Gen. Said acknowledges so-called “confirmation bias” without getting to the bottom of what caused those involved in the drone strike to get it so wrong. Gen. Said alludes to systemic problems, such as the need to “enhance sharing of overall mission situational awareness during execution” and review “pre-strike procedures used to assess presence of civilians.”

But systemic (i.e., procedural) errors can only explain away so much. At some point the professionalism of the individuals involved must come under scrutiny, both in terms of their technical qualifications to carry out their respective assigned missions, as well as their moral character in willingly tolerating the deaths of innocent civilians in the name of mission accomplishment. Gen. Said leaves open the possibility that someone, somewhere, in the chain of command of these individuals can decide that the events of that day was a byproduct of “subpar performance” resulting in some form of “adverse action.”

That, however, is just another way of excusing murder, of tolerating a war crime committed in the name of the United States.

The day after Ahmadi and his family were murdered by U.S. forces, ISIS-K, operating from a safe house near to where the N.E.I. country director lived, used a modified white Toyota Corolla to launch rockets toward the U.S. positions in and around Kabul International Airport.

Fortunately, there were no causalities. But neither was the ISIS-K attack thwarted by a U.S. drone program that had been tipped off in advance about the nature and location of the attack. The ability to kill innocent civilians while failing to interdict genuine security threats is perhaps the most accurate epitaph one could ascribe to the U.S. lethal drone program in Afghanistan.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


21 comments for “Murder By Any Other Name

  1. robert e williamson jr
    November 8, 2021 at 21:53

    After lying to go to war, the “War On Terrorism”, the government of the U.S. has acted repeatedly as the aggressor against civilians many not armed. Expertly revealed by the investigation presented here by Mr. Ritter. An investigation that shows convincingly that the U.S. in this case, once again, engaged in a “War Of Terror”against civilians.

    terrorism – the unlawful use of violence and intimidation especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

    Given them ten kinds of hell Scott!
    Thanks CN

  2. napier
    November 8, 2021 at 21:01

    Very good analysis. Thanks.

  3. michael888
    November 8, 2021 at 17:18

    “Scottie Boy”, as Biden refers to you, this is “above your paygrade” and the reason Biden gets to ride in the limousine and you don’t! Biden is running things now EXACTLY as he wants. Best to give him and his minions a wide berth, and make only vague statements. Americans get thrown in jail for telling the truth and embarrassing our betters.

  4. susan
    November 8, 2021 at 11:20

    War is murder, plain and simple…

  5. November 8, 2021 at 08:02

    Thanks Scott, you made the legality point very convincingly. What always shocks me (or at least used to) was the complete lack of morality and humanity exhibited by the National Security State. It is clearly run and staffed by sociopaths an psychopaths who have no regard for morals, ethics or human life. They station armed combatants in over 100 countries around the world, and then claim that they can use drone strikes to kill just about anyone because they might pose a possible threat to the armed combatants. That is the logic of a psychopath.

  6. Beverly
    November 7, 2021 at 15:56

    Remember Daniel Hale who started his prison sentence just around the same time the U.S. committed this heinous murder? Scott Ritter needs to be careful with revealing so much detailed information about the questionable “murder from the sky” drone war which our imperial fascist government loves so much.

  7. James Simpson
    November 7, 2021 at 03:33

    This is far from enough.

    “While occasionally low-ranking members of the military are punished for particular atrocities, there is no accountability for those who launch wars or commit crimes within wars, unless they are African. The International Criminal Court has now said that it will prosecute the crime of aggressive war. Heretofore it has only prosecuted what are called “war crimes.” The very concept of “war crimes” serves to falsely suggest the legality of war itself. We don’t have lynching crimes for those occasions when some element of a lynching is carried out improperly. We don’t have mass-shooting crimes for those moments when a mass-shooter somewhere within The Country That Matters conducts some part of his mass shooting incorrectly. Yet we have war crimes for the bits of wars that are done wrong. Yet even those are only prosecuted by the ICC when the accused is from Africa.

    Attempts in countries like Spain and Belgium to prosecute U.S. war crimes under universal jurisdiction have been quashed by pressure from the U.S. government. Attempts by the International Court of Justice to hold the United States responsible for war crimes in places like Nicaragua have simply been ignored by the U.S. government. The war crimes of recent decades, the spying without warrant, the imprisoning without trial, the torture, etc., are ceasing to be crimes.”


    • michael888
      November 8, 2021 at 17:05


      It is against this Law for any American, agency or state to assist in arresting, trials or punishment of Americans engaged in war crimes. This is AMERICA!

  8. Casey VanSise
    November 7, 2021 at 02:26

    Ah, the ubiquity of being a terror suspect for happening to own a white Toyota Corolla and/or Casio F-91W wristwatch in Afghanistan, or being one among the approximately two out of every three US residents to inhabit a “constitution-free” zone within 100 miles of national boundaries (though it seems to creep ever further inland). With evidential standards like that, the relevant authorities can have all kinds of people dead to rights at the drop of a hat!

  9. val
    November 7, 2021 at 00:27

    thank you all for bringing this to us. You are right about the drone killings and the secret killings.
    Since they have been secretly killing American citizens and none of us are safe. How do we get this to
    the American Public?

    • John Ressler
      November 8, 2021 at 09:35

      “How do we get this to the American Public?” IMO – It’s not how or if we get the information out or not, it’s that the American public is so misinformed and brainwashed that I don’t think telling them will make a bit of difference – they support our killing ways. Makes me effing sick – makes us “soul sick.”

  10. Richard Lemieux
    November 6, 2021 at 20:31

    Thanks Scott for the detailed description. I really dislike the drones and the cruise missiles and whatever weapon is being used in civilian areas. There is an institution that is designed to handle civilian illegal activities and that is called the police. If a weapon such as a drone is used in a civilian area it should be under the responsability of the police. I don’t believe that any US Intelligence service or even the Mossad can keep an up-to-date database of where people actually are and what they do at any time. That may be their dream but that is a dream. I really don’t like to give too much sophisticated equipment to the Military especially of the computerized type. They play too much with video games and they live in bases outside of the world of the ordinary people.

  11. Billy
    November 6, 2021 at 19:48

    Great work Scott

  12. powerandpeople
    November 6, 2021 at 19:26

    November 2020


    Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Misguided Defense of John Brennan and The Logan Act: a Dangerous and Unconstitutional Law

    …”There are so many amazing ironies to this Brennan statement. To begin with, it’s just stunning to watch Obama’s Chief Assassin — who presided over a global, years-long, due-process-free campaign of targeted assassinations, under which the official “kill list” of who was to live and who was to die was decreed by Judge, Jury and Executioner Brennan in a secret White House meeting that bore the creepy designation “Terror Tuesdays” — now suddenly posture as some kind of moral crusader against assassinations. I have denounced these Israeli assassinations as terrorism — both in the past and yesterday — but I have also denounced with equal vigor the Obama/Brennan global assassination program.

    The audacity of Brennan’s moral posturing became even more evident as he tried to explain why his and Obama’s assassination program was noble and legal, while the one that resulted in Friday’s killing in Iran was immoral and criminal. After all, this is the same John Brennan who got caught red-handed lying about how many innocent civilians were killed by Obama’s global assassination program, and who even claimed the right to target American citizens for execution by drone without any transparency let alone due process: a right they not only claimed but exercised.

    When you’re reduced to sitting on Twitter trying to distinguish your own global assassination program from the one you’re condemning, that is rather potent evidence that you are among the absolute last persons on earth with the moral credibility to denounce anything. That’s particularly true when you directed your unilateral assassination powers onto your own citizens, ending several of their lives.”

    • evelync
      November 7, 2021 at 12:40

      Thanks, powerandpeople.
      And thanks for the link to the Greenwald Article.

      Because it led me to this:
      hxxps://en.wikipedia DOT org/wiki/Logan_Act

      and the origin of the Logan Act – the Federalists’ move to thwart a repeat of this:
      “Dr. George Logan of Pennsylvania, a state legislator and pacifist, in 1798 engaged in negotiations with France as a private citizen during the Quasi-War”.

      “The Logan Act was basically a response to an effort by a Philadelphia Quaker named George Logan to try to negotiate directly with the French government. This was a big scandal at the time in foreign affairs because Logan—a Democratic-Republican—was trying to thwart the policy of the Federalists, who controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.
      —?Steve Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law”

      “Kevin Kearney, writing in a case comment for the Emory Law Journal, described Dr. Logan’s activities in France:

      Upon his arrival in Paris, he met with various French officials, including Talleyrand. During these meetings, he identified himself as a private citizen, discussed matters of general interest to the French, and told his audience that anti-French sentiment was prevalent in the United States. Logan’s conversation with Merlin de Douai, who occupied the highest political office in the French republic, was typical. Logan stated that he did not intend to explain the American government’s position, nor to criticize that of France. Instead, he suggested ways in which France could improve relations with the United States, to the benefit of both countries. He also told Merlin that pro-British propagandists in the United States were portraying the French as corrupt and anxious for war, and were stating that any friend of French principles necessarily was an enemy of the United States. Within days of Logan’s last meeting, the French took steps to relieve the tensions between the two nations; they lifted the trade embargo then in place, and released American seamen held captive in French jails. Even so, it seems that Logan’s actions were not the primary cause of the Directory’s actions; instead, Logan had merely provided convenient timing for the implementation of a decision that had already been made.”

      hxxps://en.wikipedia DOT org/wiki/Logan_Act

  13. Em
    November 6, 2021 at 18:11

    Scott Ritter is thorough enough that his investigations, in these matters, leave no stone unturned.
    The US has, by its very conduct, both domestically and internationally, made the notion of the ‘rule of law’ itself, obsolete. When the Rule of Law breaks down it becomes binary, between the moral and immoral aspects of mankind’s innate potentials – mutually exclusive phenomena. There is no longer any overlap between the precedent of legitimate institutional democratic principles and a return to a suborned, feudal class autocracy.

    This is the warpath the power elite is on, and apparently, for all intents and purposes, without much let or hindrance. They well know that sticks and stones, against their fossil fueled technologies of missile drones and tanks, will never hurt them… unless… unless what? This is the more desperately pertinent question? Organize in massive numbers? They have broken this backbone long, long ago.

    When international relations have reached the stage of Armed conflict, by whatever means necessary, the situation is now politics by other means, and is beyond promulgated, so-called laws, such as the absurdity of there being a “Law of War.”

    When was the last time the US adhered to a universal principle, with “the component of international law that regulates the conditions for initiating war (jus ad bellum) and the conduct of warring parties (jus in bello)”?
    It is, in, deed, the world’s contemporary prime example of setting the stage for ignoring the so-called rules. Dating back to ancient times, these so-called ‘laws of war’ are, to begin with, nothing better than contrivances of oligarchic elites to tilt the scales of power outcomes, surreptitiously, in their favor.

    Pertaining to the Julian Assange (JA) show trial, “(t)he standards for the use of lethal force set forth in the 2013 P.P.G. contain two important preconditions. First, “there must be a legal basis for using lethal force.” A key aspect of this legal basis is a requirement that the U.S. have the support of a host government prior to the initiation of any lethal force on the territory of that nation. This support is essential, as it directly relates to the issue of sovereignty commitments under the U.N. Charter.” In their demented minds they have created the legal basis for using force.
    It was with ‘lethal force’, and the breaking all precedents of international law, to which the US pays no heed; that their proxy sovereign British government took (JA) from the Ecuadorian embassy, and has him illegally incarcerated as a political prisoner of war – by other means. The enemy, in this instance, has now become all of us; the entire global population.

    Only when the consciousness of the entirety of humanity is further empowered, if ever, to where we become more capable of recognizing the depths of own dark capacities for deceit, hypocrisy, ignorance and self-delusion, will the species be able to avoid falling into the same traps and truly evolve into a higher, more inspiring, form of civilization.

    And, as day by day, unfolding reality in all spheres of operations is proving; in all these millennia, we have not even begun to come close to this higher plain of awareness.

    Pssst… the same disregard for the rule of International Law reigns, with regard to the Israel-Palestine catastrophe.
    Philo-Semitic perspective in a broader, more inclusive context, than simply one mythology.

  14. Rex Williams
    November 6, 2021 at 17:14

    It is good to see the name Scott Ritter on the pages of CN identifying the disgraceful attitudes that are displayed to the lives of people everywhere.

    The shameful episode, still running its course in Iraq, in which Scott Ritter was so prominent in a good sense by denying the existence of WMD in that country, will always be remembered.
    This sad killing in Afghanistan however, will just be another matter swept conveniently under the carpet supported by a corrupt media in a very corrupt country.

    Thanks for the article, Scott and good luck.

  15. Oregoncharles
    November 6, 2021 at 14:35

    Thank you, Mr. Ritter, for a horrifying account. It certainly casts a lot of light over the US failure in Afghanistan – which, after all, was baked in from the beginning. “Graveyard of empires,” and all that.

    ” In any case, the inability to access data that had been collected over the course of many years by the United States for the express purpose of helping facilitate the counterterrorism-associated targeting of armed drones represents an intelligence failure of the highest order.”

    You could say that, if you’re being much too polite. Or you could just say they didn’t give a damn and wanted revenge, regardless. On children, nonetheless.

    I hope everyone involved, top to bottom, has the worst possible PTSD for the rest of their lives.

  16. robert e williamson jr
    November 6, 2021 at 14:05

    Being the curious guy I am I have long be interested in the secrets the US government keeps and learning why.

    It all started after being drafted and sent to Berlin Germany Nov of 1968.

    I have learned a few of things that I well never stop believing.

    #1. The CIA could have prevented the JFK murder but made a conscious decision not to.

    #2. CIA has and continues to lie to cover up the truth.

    #3. The involvement and their continued denial by CIA dictates that one would , could and should believe that a secret arm of our government decided to kill an American through extra-judicial judgement that it should be done.

    #4. The JFK death would be the first of these incidents that would become general knowledge of the public in which the U.S. government played a pivotal role. It is still debatable to this day if Jack Ruby was the second.

    #5. The CIA and they have been involved in many many deaths since it’s inception. During the FBI is suspected of the same behavior.

    #6. The Ruby Ridge incident deaths and the deaths at Waco Texas were totally preventable. So were so many others through the nation at various times the Weather men, Black Panther groups all of them.

    #7. These incidents and the 911 attack hardened the American psyche to as point that if America was willing to kill U.S. citizens in extra-judicial removals Americans would be all-in with doing so for any reason. The practice has become endemic in American culture and it’s leaders disingenuously announce amazement that American kill each other so thoughtlessly.

    #8. The CIA aided in the importation of drugs onto U.S. soil and DEA looked the other way.

    #9. That William P Barr aided the government in it’s actions as concerned with the INSLAW / PROMIS scandal and the BCCI scandal and pushed for the Iran Contra pardons. e is also I beive and CIA shill st the very least.

    #10. Patrick Lawrence has written at CN the ICIJ is CIA driven and after finding that the Organized Crime and Corruption reporting Project has worked hand in hand with the ICIJ I looked a little farther and seems the OCCRP must be related or working for CIA also . One would want to note the OCCRP was founded or formed in 2006 the same year WikiLeaks came on scene. Both after PROMIS software and it’s it’s derivatives were circulating around the world by open act of spys and others.

    #11. Curious me looked at the Bretton Woods Conference wiki and at the site their exists a header for Influence near the end after Ratification of Bretton Wood Final and Savannah Conference. and before See Also.

    Quoting the text there; “Because of it’s success in founding two international organizations that have had long influential lives the Bretton Woods Conference is sometimes cited as an example worthy of imitation.” [by whom] end quote – is the blue hot link that follows that line. continuing to quote, ” I particular, since the collapse ion the early 1970’s (hot link blue) of the system of pegged exchange rates agreed to at Breton Woods there have been a number of Calls for a “New Breton Woods”. Calls for a “New Breton Woods is a blue hot link.

    This comment Oct 2020 was by someone who remains unknown.

    #12. I believe that these beliefs are related in at least one or more ways. JFK to CIA to drug running, extra-judicial murders or out cold blooded murder, CIA very heavily engaged in laundering money, CIA heavily involved in off-shore banking, CIA to GHW Bush, the Safari Club,BCCI , CIA and BCCI to GHW and CIA to ICIJ and OCCRP . That those calls for another Bretton Woods. Pull up the International Monetary System wiki and SEE “Call for A New Bretton Woods” and that edit button hot link hit it and yuou’ll get the dope on the “Washington Consensus ”

    So is that what this trillion dollar Biden Bill is all about, saving the U.S. or saving the CIA.

    #13. Lucky 13, I believe that ithe time has come for those much more intelligent than I and better resourced than I to get to the bottom of this mess.

    So is this trillion dollar Biden Bill is all about, saving the U.S. or saving the CIA and the Deep State?

    Thanks CN and Mr. Ritter never ever give up and thank you for your service.

    • robert e williamson jr
      November 6, 2021 at 18:10

      I apologize for my numerous mistakes:

      #4 It is still debatable to this day if Lee Harvey Oswald was the second.

      #5 During the same time period FBI is suspected of the same and similar activities. Most early victims were members of black organizations Malcom X, Black Panthers P Stone Rangers and others including MLK. and I believe Robert Kennedy.

      #6 Need to include Ruby Ridge and Waco where predominately white died. Death by government became a “regular thing?

      #9 Use your INSLAW wiki and them hot links it’s all there follow the gyrations and convoluted court history plied against William Hamilton, once he had a government contract they used it to drive him to bankruptcy. William P Barr has shown his true colors throughout his career over and over.

      #10 As late as 2001 PROMIS was still in the news, SEE INSLAW wiki “Later Developments” the Washington Times and Fox news each quoted Federal law enforcement officials familiar with the debriefing of Robert Hanssen as claiming that the convicted spy he stolen had copies of a PROMIS derivative for his KGB handlers.

      Don’t be too quick to kill the messengers here.

      Hanssen is serving 14 or so life sentences and was counter intelligence, with a broken up work record, interesting stuff here. I think he got sloppy and the government” through him out on the cold”, another useful idiot become patsy.

      #12 See the Bretton Woods Conference wiki at the end of wiki Background entry – “The United States Invited a a smaller group of countries to send experts to a preliminary conference in Atlantic City New Jersey, to develop draft proposals for the Bretton Woods conference. The Atlantic City Conference was held 15-30 1944. I suspect the members of the smaller group of countries, counties that were brought into “the fold ” (the fold) def. noun a “group or community, especially when perceived as the locus of a particular set or aims and values. ”

      Can you say Deep State ?

      Special Thanks to CN for this opportunity. Lets make Robert Parry proud!

  17. Robert Emmett
    November 6, 2021 at 08:45

    What a gruesome read. I guess it’s just easier to find & kill innocents than actual bad guys. Yeah, saying the operators’ professionalism slipped is one way of putting it. Or maybe they just don’t give a shit about harmless Afghani families.

    I wonder if an official finding of no wrong-doing means there’s no legal necessity for compensation. Over years of operation and with a record of as few as 10% of drone victims being what the military considers legit targets, even if there is compensation that just becomes a cost of doing business, right?

Comments are closed.