To the United States military, he was an ISIS-K facilitator they feared was involved in a plot to attack Kabul’s international airport.
To his family and colleagues at a US nonprofit, 43-year-old Zamarai Ahmadi was an aid worker applying for a US visa to get his family out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
In the two weeks since US drone operatives fired a Hellfire missile at a car in a residential Kabul compound, two vastly different narratives have emerged about the man who his family say died alongside nine relatives.
The Pentagon maintains at least one ISIS-K facilitator was killed in what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley called a “righteous strike” on the compound on August 29.
In a statement, US Central Command pointed to “significant secondary explosions” as evidence of a “substantial amount of explosive material” in the vehicle. A US official with knowledge of the operation told CNN Thursday that operatives tracked the car for about eight hours before initiating the strike.
But CNN interviews with two explosive experts and more than two dozen of Ahmadi’s relatives, colleagues and neighbors raise questions about whether an ISIS-K facilitator was killed in the attack and whether the car contained explosives.
Their accounts also prompt doubts over whether the military had sufficient intelligence to launch a strike that, according to family, would ultimately kill three men with visa pathways to the US and seven children aged 15 and under.
In the days leading up to the strike, tensions in the Afghan capital were high.
An ISIS-K suicide attacker had detonated his vest outside a gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport three days before, killing at least 170 people and 13 US service members. And an August 31 deadline was fast approaching for the US and its allies to complete their evacuation of increasingly desperate people from the airport.
After the attack, US President Joe Biden was firm: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.
“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at a place we choose and at a moment of our choosing.”
On August 28, Biden said US commanders had warned another terrorist attack on the airport was “highly likely” in the next 24 to 36 hours. “I directed them to take every possible measure to prioritize force protection,” he said in a statement.
The US official told CNN that intelligence sources led the US military to a compound about 5 kilometers (3 miles) northwest of Kabul’s airport, where they believed the August 26 airport attack had either been planned or directed. As the compound was within a few hundred meters of an old ISIS safehouse, the location didn’t surprise them, the official added.
The US began monitoring the house and sent an unmanned aircraft overhead, the official said.
That morning, Ahmadi’s day started in a similar way to many others, according to his workmates.
He often acted as their driver, they said, using a Toyota Corolla owned by the US nonprofit Nutrition and Education International (NEI), where Ahmadi had worked for 15 years.
At 8.44 a.m., Ahmadi received a call from NEI’s country director asking him to pick up a laptop from the colleague’s house, according to the colleague and phone records of the call.
But first, Ahmadi drove to pick up a former colleague, who asked to be called Khan for this story for security reasons. Khan wanted to go to the office to get information about US visa applications.
Khan said Ahmadi arrived at his house at about 8.45 a.m., and phone records confirmed he phoned as he pulled up outside.
Ahmadi and Khan then picked up the laptop from the country director’s house. Ahmadi got out of the car to get the laptop from his colleague’s father, Khan said. Ahmadi arrived at the house just before 9 a.m., according to Khan.
At about the same time, the unmanned aircraft overhead detected a vehicle pulling out of a suspected ISIS safehouse, the US official told CNN. There wasn’t much coming and going from the house, so when a vehicle did leave, “it was significant,” the official said.
The US began following that vehicle.
Ahmadi’s workmates, however, described a relatively typical day for them.
The mood in the car was jovial, said Khan, his former workmate.
“(Ahmadi) was the same, like the past — just joking, talking with each other, laughing,” he said.
Recently, NEI — a nonprofit dedicated to addressing malnutrition in Afghanistan — had been delivering rice and soybeans to camps in Kabul full of people who had fled the Taliban as militants claimed more regional territory.
At about 9.30 a.m., Ahmadi and his two passengers arrived at the NEI office where they ate their takeaway breakfast, according to Khan and the country director.