Afghan Targeted in U.S. Drone Strike Worked for U.S. Non-Profit, Sought Special Visa

The Afghan man who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last month worked for an American non-profit organization, and had been seeking a special visa to the U.S., his family and colleagues said.

Zemerai Ahmadi had worked for 15 years for Nutrition & Education International, a California-based non-profit to counter malnutrition in Afghanistan. One of Zemerai's brothers, Romal Ahmadi, had also worked briefly for NEI.

Zemerai and Romal had applied for special visas to the U.S. for those who had worked with U.S. companies. His brother, Emal Ahmadi and his nephew who was killed in the drone strike, Ahmad Naser Haideri, had also applied for special visas because they had worked for the U.S. military.

"Everything we're hearing about him is just so disturbing and so absurd because he had such love for his people," said Zemerai's coworker, who asked to only be identified as Sonia. "How would he overnight turn around and start wanting to kill his own people. It makes absolutely no sense at all whatsoever."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Pentagon After Drone Strike
The Pentagon has defended its drone strike on August 29 which killed an Afghan man and nine other members of his family. U.S. Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby speaks at a press briefing on August 30 in Arlington, Virginia. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by the Associated Press, and the scene at the family home—where Zemerai's car was struck by a Hellfire missile just as he pulled into the driveway—all seem to sharply contradict the accounts by the U.S. military.

The family wants the United States to hear their side of the story and see the facts on the ground.

"We just want that they come here. See what they did. Talk to us. Give us the proof," Emal said of the U.S. military. Near tears, he opened a photo on his phone of his 3-year-old daughter, Malika, in her favorite dress. Another photo showed her charred remains after she was killed in the strike.

Days after amid reports of the children killed, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a "righteous strike," and said, "at least one of the people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator."

The U.S. acknowledged reports of civilian casualties and said they may have been caused by secondary explosions. The family said when the 37-year-old Zemerai, alone in his car, pulled up to the house, he honked his horn. His 11-year-old son ran out, and Zemerai let the boy get in and drive the car into the driveway. The other kids ran out to watch, and the missile incinerated the car, killing seven children and an adult son and nephew of Zemerai.

"That was my last memory, the sound of his horn," said Romal, who was inside the house at the time. His three children, aged two to seven, were killed.

Emal provided the AP with documents including their visa applications, letters of recommendation and even a medal Haideri had received for his service with a special U.S.-trained elite special force. Haideri also had a letter of reference from the U.S.-based Multi Country Security Solutions Group, where he worked as a contractor, calling him "an important part of our commitment to provide the best faithful service to the U.S. Special Forces."

"He was an excellent employee," the firm's president, Timothy Williams, who wrote the letter of reference, told the AP. "I'm not going to change from that just because of the incident that happened. I'm going to stand behind my guys."

Zemerai's colleagues at NEI described him as a talented worker who worked his way up from a handyman to a skilled engineer and an essential employee.

Last year, when the company was unable to pay employees at full salary because of the coronavirus pandemic, employees were given the opportunity to leave their positions for better-paying work elsewhere.

But Ahmadi declined, saying, "I am NEI. From beginning to end, until we accomplish our goal," the company's founder and president, Steven Kwon, told the AP.

Colleagues recalled him as a doting father and enthusiastic dancer who kept an optimistic spirit amid the chaos of his surroundings and was quick to comfort those around him with a joke. He had grown up poor in Kabul and maintained "such a heart for the poor," said Sonia.

"He was definitely the best of us. Absolutely," she said.

He also always supported the company's efforts to hire more women and create women's programs, which is one of many reasons that colleagues said the suggestion that he was connected to any sort of extremism seems preposterous to them.

The family, grieving and furious, still wants refuge in the United States. On top of their already existing worries over their past work with the U.S., they now fear the new Taliban rulers will suspect them of being ISIS. The Islamic State group is a violent rival of the Taliban.

"The U.S. has accused us. They haven't cleared our name and they won't even talk to us, and now the suspicion is on us," Emal said. "We are angry, but we don't know what to do. For our safety we would go to America, but it must be all our families, not just me."

Ahmadi house
Zemerai Ahmadi, the Afghan man who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last month was an enthusiastic and beloved longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization, his colleagues said, painting a stark contrast to the Pentagon’s claims that he was an Islamic State group militant about to carry out an attack on American troops. An Afghan inspects the damage of Ahmadi family house in Kabul, Afghanistan September 13. Bernat Armangue/AP Photo