When the journalist, Omaid Khpulwak, was killed on 28 July 2011 during a Taleban attack, Uruzgan province lost its most gifted reporters. He was one of dozens of casualties that day, including 18 other civilians, 10 of them children, who were also killed. However, there is evidence that Omaid, who worked for Pahjwok News agency and the BBC, may have been killed not by the Taleban suicide attackers and gunmen, but by US forces during the counter-attack. Following a BBC request, ISAF launched an investigation into Omaid’s death. Meanwhile, AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, has been sifting through the evidence.
[Since the first posting of this blog, a reader got in touch to point out gaps in the ballistics evidence. I have since consulted two other weapons experts who suggested various other possibilities as to the weapons used. After re-posting, there has been more discussion and this is the third posting. I have amended this part of the blog to reflect their assessments.]
It was ill luck which brought Omaid to the television station of Afghanistan’s national broadcaster, RTA, on 28th July and ill luck which meant he was still working there when most other people had gone out to eat lunch, for just after midday, the RTA compound came under Taleban attack (for an earlier blog on his killing see here). It seems – in what would be the worst luck of all – that Omaid may have survived the suicide bombs, only to be shot dead by US special forces when they entered the ruined RTA building. Evidence for this centres on the nature of his wounds, the timing of his death, ballistics and (hearsay) comments from police. (For pictures relating to the attack open this link. However, be warned, some of the pictures are disturbing)
Omaid was caught up in the first of two Taleban suicide attacks that day. In this first attack, a Taleb in a Corolla car blew himself up at the gate of the RTA building. This allowed two other Taleban to get into the building, firing as they did so. The most likely timing for the start of the attack is 12.15.* Omaid made his last known phone call at 12.11 to Pahjwok news agency during which he discussed a piece he was filing (see here).
The RTA building is next to the compound of the kandak of the private security guards of the pre-eminent strongman in the province – and now its police chief – Matiullah Khan. It seems the attackers may have thought the RTA building would be an easy way in to Matiullah’s compound.** According to the Taleban, he was their target (see here for their press release).
Matiullah has a close relationship with the PRT – his men guard the Kandahar-Tirinkot road, ensuring essential supplies reach the base. He is especially close to US Special Forces, with his men serving as members of their attack teams. The compound of his kandak is near the PRT on the edge of town and, as one frequent international visitor to Tirinkot put it, ‘US Special Forces often hang at Matiullah’s’ (for detail on this relationship and allegations of gross human rights abuses and criminality against Matiullah, see here. Matiullah has always denied the allegations made against him.)
Just after the RTA attack began, a second suicide car-bomb detonated at the governor’s compound about a kilometre away from RTA and the fighting there went on till about 16.30.***
Meanwhile, at the RTA site, according to the governor’s spokesman, Ahmad Milad Mudabir, two civilians were still in the building after the car bomb, Omaid and an elderly male cleaner. The cleaner fled the compound, under fire, and survived, while Omaid decided to hide and went into a bathroom.
Mudabir said foreign soldiers then came from the PRT and counter attacked. He did not know which nationality they were, saying ‘there are many different groups and nationalities at the PRT.’ After about twenty minutes, he said the two Taleban in the building detonated their two bombs. This pattern of events is also described in a press release from the Australian Ministry of Defence (MoD) which specifies that the soldiers were American:
‘In a separate attack on Matiullah Khan’s compound, two suicide bombers activated their devices when United States troops entered the compound. The US soldiers only suffered relatively minor injuries and are being treated at the Role 2 military hospital at Multi National Base – Tirinkot (MNB-TK).’ (see the press release here).
The Australian MoD issued an ‘updated’ press release a day later, stressing that Australian soldiers were not present in the counter-attack. In this second press release, the mention of the US soldiers’ involvement in the counter attack was dropped.**** An ISAF spokesman told AAN the counter-attack was ‘Afghan-led’, but did not specify the nationality of the foreign forces involved. An ISAF press release the day after the attack only mentioned a combined team of Afghan Commandos and Afghan National Security Forces making the counter-attack (see here).
In the aftermath, Omaid’s brother, Jawed Khpulwak, said Omaid’s body was found in the garden and that police told him it had been moved from the bathroom. The governor’s spokesman said the authorities believed Omaid had been killed in the bathroom by shrapnel in the two later suicide bombs which were detonated inside the RTA building. He said it was impossible Omaid could have stayed alive with bombs exploding in rooms to either side of him. However, looking at the pictures of the ruined bathroom, although the wall he was hiding behind is damaged, it is still standing and it seems possible it could have given him the necessary protection. Moreover, the governor’s theory does not fit with the likely time of death or his injuries.
Trying to piece together Omaid’s last moments of life, we know that he managed to text his family twice: ‘I am hiding. Death has come’ (at 12.26, ie after the car bomb*****). This was followed by: ‘Pray for me if I die.’ This last text message was sent at 12.52 which would appear to place it after the suicide bombings of the two Taleban who entered RTA.
Omaid’s brother said he texted back three times, counselling him to stay hopeful. Omaid’s boss, Danish Karokhel, chief editor of Pajhwok News Agency said, ‘Around 3:30pm, Uruzgan public health director, Khan Agha Miakhel, said the body of Khpulwak had been brought to the hospital from the site of the attack.’ (see here). All of this suggests that the time of Omaid’s death was sometime after 12.52 and before 15.00, more likely earlier as he did not respond to his brother’s third text.
It was the state of Omaid’s body which first raised suspicions for his family and the friends who saw it, as to how he had been killed. ‘In the area where he was, near the wall’ said his brother, ‘there were dead bodies and dead body parts mixed in with the mud. It was clear they had been killed by the blast of a suicide bomb. But my brother’s body was intact, clean, whole. All he had was gun-shot wounds and bleeding. When we washed him, we could see the gunshot wounds. There were more than eleven.’
Jawed said the attending physician at the hospital who examined the body also declared the cause of death as shooting (AAN has not been able to verify this independently). Omaid’s body was buried that same evening.
Both Jawed and one of Omaid’s friends – who asked not to be named – said in separate interviews that they visited the site the day following the attack and that police who had been present in the battle told them Omaid had survived the suicide attacks and been killed later by US soldiers. His brother said the police told him that when US soldiers came near the bathroom, Omaid had stood up and showed them his press cards and said ‘I’m a journalist.’ However, when asked to repeat this claim later, on the record, the policemen denied it.
Omaid’s brother and one of his friends said they recovered several bullets from the bathroom (where all, including the governor’s spokesman agree Omaid had been hiding). Some bullets were embedded in the wall behind the body, others were under rubble. Omaid’s brother said, ‘Bullets were found near the body, some with blood on them; it looked like they had gone through his body.’ He said several shell casings were also found ‘about 4 metres away.’
It seems clear that Omaid died from gunshot wounds, but who pulled the trigger is less clear. From the timing of Omaid’s death, it seems likely that both the Taleban attackers who were initially blamed for his death, were already themselves dead, but that still leaves the counter attacking force, as made up of Afghan and international, probably US, forces. The ballistics evidence points to Omaid having been killed by a weapon used by the US military, although the possibility that such a weapon was used by Afghan Security Forces or even Taleban has to be born in mind.
Pictures of the bullet and shell casings (against a ruler) found were Omaid had died were emailed to AAN and the numbers stamped on the back of the cases noted (LC 60, LC 10, LC 88). AAN consulted various military experts. One said:
‘Not every casing [of every bullet used by the international military] has a NATO head-stamp – they need too much ammo here to have to go through NATO armouries. This round is from a US manufacturer though [Lake City Armory – which is what the LC stands for], so even without a head-stamp, we can say it is highly likely to come from an American weapon.’
Initially, various weapons experts looking at the shell casings thought they were 7.62×51.****** Now, three, after studying the picture again, think this was a misidentification. They said the casings appear actually to be 6mm shorter and are more likely, therefore, to be the new, standardized NATO calibre, 5.56×45. This would mean, said one, that, ‘a whole range of weapons [are] possible – M16, M4, light machine guns etc., almost all used by international military forces.’ Some of these weapons are also in use by Afghan military units. He added, ‘The shell casings of the standard Taleban weapon, the AK47, are only 39mm long.’
Earlier, I also wrote that the numbers stamped on the casings referred to the year of manufacture – and that this was an anomaly because it would suggest ammunition from 1960 was still in use. However, one weapons expert has said they are batch numbers – which, if correct, makes sense of the three different numbers found (because batches get mixed up when ammunition is handed out and, if not used, handed back in). He said it might also mean the ammunition was traceable.
Omaid’s brother, Jawed, in an email concerning the origin of the bullets, noted that police, representatives of the NDS, members of the provincial council and other officials who were on the investigating team and who had also seen the bullets ‘had the same idea that these shells belonged to Americans.’ AAN called some members of the Afghan investigating team, but all declined to speak, even off the record. Even senior provincial figures we contacted about Omaid’s death were unusually reticent to speak. The very close relationship between local strongman and new chief of police, Matiullah Khan, and the international forces may be making this a difficult subject to discuss.
Jawed has said he has been threatened on the phone by two unknown Afghans for publicly accusing US forces of killing his brother. He said one was hostile, telling him to shut his mouth, not to blame the Americans, not to show the pictures or film showing Omaid’s body being washed and prepared for burial and not to speak to the media. The other caller spoke as a friend, he said, advising him that if he and his family wants to stay alive, they should sit quietly at home and warning of another man who was killed after complaining. Jawed said both callers were Afghans, but one, he believes from his accent, was an Afghan American. He said he told the ‘friendly’ caller that it was because of his love for his brother that he could not keep quiet and had to tell the world.
One possible scenario for Omaid’s death could be that, after the latter two bombs exploded, whoever entered the building anticipated that more Taleban were hiding there and misidentified Omaid as a combatant. If Omaid was killed by US or Afghan forces, it may still have been legal under the laws of armed conflict. All parties to the conflict are legally bound to distinguish between civilians and military targets and take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. ****** The key legal question would be whether those forces could reasonably have deduced that Omaid was not a Taleban fighter, but a civilian.
It is of course always difficult to know what happened during the heat of battle. If the account of Omaid getting up and trying to present his press card is correct, the soldier – whether Afghan or international (as alleged, according to Jawed by policemen who were at the scene of the battle) – may just have seen a person with something extended in his hand coming towards him and reacted by firing.
On the other hand, we know that this was a civilian compound (a TV station) and journalists could have been expected to be present. For Afghans in Uruzgan, Omaid was a very familiar face. He read the local news on the TV every other night. He was familiar with the main political players and often visited the PRT. He was a journalist who was in his place of work when he was killed. He was un-armed, had his silver Macbook with him (possibly the only one in Uruzgan, which he used for video editing), spoke English and had his press cards.
Omaid’s usual appearance was ‘civilian’. One of his international colleagues commented:
‘He was always very smartly dressed and clean, his beard trimmed and he didn’t wear an ultra-conservative, super-long chemise. His chemise wasn’t baggy and he didn’t have a patu – either of which could have been used to hide a suicide vest. You can tell a lot from a person’s appearance – if it’s a peasant or a banker stepping out. You wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d seen Omaid in London. Of all the people I know in Uruzgan, he did not look like a Taleb.’
Another international friend of Omaid’s said that he never wore a turban.
In January 2011, Omaid was given hostile environment training (which teaches journalists, NGO workers and other civilians how best to stay safe during conflict). A person also present during the sessions – who asked not to be named – said the advice given for just this sort of a situation was specific because a rescue is frequently, ‘the most dangerous time for Afghans’ if, that is, foreign soldiers assume that anyone local must be hostile. Omaid was taught that if he was caught up in an attack, he should find a place of safety, wait and when – hopefully – he was found, raise his hands, stay still and speak in English. We do not know if he took this advice on 28 July. The training discussed one case of the rescue of hostages in Kundoz in September 2009 where an Afghan journalist was killed and a foreign journalist survived (for press coverage, see here and here).
An ISAF spokesman has assured AAN that it is as keen as anyone else to know the truth. However, given the ISAF media’s office history of occasionally being used to cover up SOF blunders (for examples, see here and here and here), friends, family and colleagues of Omaid are watching the investigation closely. The fact that the BBC – one of Omaid’s employers – is involved in the demand for an inquiry (see here for details)lends weights to those who hope for full and frank answers as to how Omaid died.*******
In Afghanistan, it is usual for claims, counter-claims and conspiracy theories to swirl around in the wake of such high profile, violent deaths as Omaid’s. Investigation in this case is made trickier by the extreme difficulty of getting to Tirinkot (no flights mean one would have to drive on what locals call the ‘road of death’ from Kandahar), the threatening local situation, which meant witnesses were frightened and those who would speak largely insisted on anonymity, and the fact that the very man you would want to lead such an investigation – the most able journalist in Uruzgan – is the man whose death you are trying to investigate.
On 28 July 2011, the vast majority of those killed – as during the rest of the conflict – certainly died at the hands of the Taleban who deliberately attacked civilian targets, with no regard to the inevitable civilian casualties. Nevertheless, it seems that one civilian may have been killed by international forces. AAN has tried to piece together what happened to him and present the evidence fairly. This case raises questions as to whether, in an admittedly dangerous and difficult situation, ‘looking Afghan’ can be enough for international forces to believe there is hostile intent and an imminent threat.
We look forward to the release of the ISAF investigation answering some of the uncertainties surrounding the death of one of Afghanistan’s finest journalists.
* All sources except the governor’s spokesman, said the Corolla car bomb at RTA exploded at 12.15. The governor’s spokesman said the car bomb was at 11.45 or 11.50 and the two walking suicide bombers at 12.15. The Australian MOD said the attacks started ‘just after midday’. An international working in Tirinkot placed the first explosion at 12.15 (‘while we were eating lunch’).
** Two interviewees in Tirinkot thought the Taleban fighters may have believed the RTA compound to be unguarded and therefore an easy way to gain access to Matiullah and his kandak of private security guards. Two weeks before the attack, the two interviewees said, Matiullah’s soldiers had been guarding the RTA building, but were withdrawn. In the meantime, other guards (whom they said were from NDS) were deployed, but it is possible that Taleban intelligence was out of date and they expected RTA to be unguarded and therefore an easy way to access Matiaullah’s compound. Actually, however, they faced with a route that was more difficult than expected and this may be why they detonated their bomb in front of the RTA building. The governor’s spokesman, however, said he knew nothing about any change of guard.
*** An international who was in Tirinkot at the time described the sequence of attacks that afternoon as follows: ‘It was 12.15 when we heard the first explosion – we were just eating lunch. It came from the direction of Matiullah’s compound, but we thought at first it was the PRT, which is in the same direction. It was a fairly large explosion, less than a kilometre away. Even from inside the courtyard, we could see the smoke plume. Maybe 20-30 minutes later, we had finished watching the dust and smoke settle and a second bomb exploded at the governor’s compound [which was much nearer to her]. It looked the same, only the first was larger. Then, for a while, there was shooting, I think from the governor’s compound and then we heard about the deputy provincial governor, Khoda-e Rahim, that someone had thrown a hand-grenade at him and he threw it back and survived.
After the second explosion, there was almost continuous small armed fire. I counted six smaller explosions. Others counted five from both sites. We heard ANP racing to the scene, down the semi-paved roads with their sirens blaring. We also saw Special Forces in black – possibly Afghan, possibly international – on the roofs neighbouring the governor’s compound.
The helicopters came after about an hour [after the start of the attacks] and were circling, two around RTA and the other in a wider circle. They were setting off flares and were relatively high above the ground, as if they were worried about being hot. They would hover and then circle. Eventually, the helicopters disappeared one by one and there were international forces driving around and parked at the post near our compound. It all lasted about 5 hours.’
**** The second press release said, ‘There have been reports that two platoons of Australian soldiers were involved in the immediate response, however this is incorrect. A small number of specialist ADF [Australian Defence Force] personnel responded shortly after the incident to ensure there was no further danger from explosive devices.’ It goes on to note that, ‘an ADF [Australian Defence Force] security platoon was deployed into Tirinkot to the Governor’s compound to relieve US personnel involved in providing security at the incident site.’ (see here).
***** Or, in the governor’s spokesman’s timings, this would have been after the latter two bombs.
****** In the earlier blog, I looked in detail at what weapons could have been used to fire a 7.62×51 bullet. They include the M240, a belt-fed machine gun, which is used on the auto-turrets of US military vehicles and also by the Afghan National Army (including their Commando units), a sniper weapon, such as the M-24 or a gun like the new Heckler & Kock 417, which said one expert, ‘I know US Special Forces [use], but cannot say how ‘widely’ … – these guys usually shoot what they like).’
******* Although current ISAF and US military Rules of Engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan are classified, the flavour of the likely ROE can be gleaned from the US military lawyers’ manual, Operational Law Handbook, which publishes the ROE card given to troops in Iraq in 2005, as follows (Sourced here):
ARMED CONFLICT (STABILITY OPERATIONS):OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (IRAQ, 2005)
MNC-I ROE CARD
YOU ALWAYS HAVE THE RIGHT TO USE NECESSARY AND PROPORTIONAL
FORCE TO DEFEND YOURSELF
1. You may engage the following individuals based on their conduct:
• Persons who are committing hostile acts against CF [Coalition Forces].
• Persons who are exhibiting hostile intent toward CF.
2.Positive Identification (PID) is required prior to engagement. PID is a reasonable
certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target.
3.Escalation of force Measures (EOF).When time and circumstances permit, EOF Measures
assist CF to determine whether hostile act/intent exists in a particular situation. When you are confronted with a hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent that threatens death or serious bodily injury, you may use deadly force without proceeding through EOF measures.
4.Warning Shots. In general, CF may only use warning shots in situations where deadly force
is authorized or in EOF situations.
5.The use of force, including deadly force, is authorized to protect the following: (1)
yourself, your unit, and other friendly forces; (2) detainees; (3) civilians from crimes that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, such as murder or rape; (4) personnel or property designated by the OSC when such actions are necessary to restore order and security.
6.You may DETAIN civilians based on a reasonable belief that the person: (1) is interfering
with CF mission accomplishment; (2) is on a list of persons wanted for questioning, arrest, or
detention; (3) is or was engaged in criminal activity; or (4) must be detained for imperative reasons of security. Anyone you detain MUST be protected. You MUST fill out a detainee apprehension card for EVERY person you detain.
Law of Armed Conflict Principles:
a. Use of Force. The use of force will be necessary and proportional to comply with the
b. Only Attack Legitimate Military Targets. All personnel must ensure that, prior to any
engagement, non-combatants and civilian structures are distinguished from proper military targets.
c. Minimize Collateral Damage. Military operations will, in so far as possible, minimize
incidental injury, loss of life, and collateral damage.
d. Do not target or strike anyone who has surrendered or is out of combat due to sickness
e. Do not target or strike hospitals, mosques, churches, shrines, schools, museums,
national monuments, and any other historical and cultural sites, civilian populated areas or
buildings UNLESS the enemy is using them for military purposes or if necessary for your self-defense.
f. Do not target or strike Iraqi infrastructure (public works, commercial communication
facilities, dams), Lines of Communication (roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, railways) and
Economic Objects (commercial storage facilities, pipelines) UNLESS necessary for self-defense or is ordered by your commander. If you must fire on these objects, fire to disable and disrupt rather than destroy.
g. Treat all civilians and their property with respect and dignity. Do not seize civilian property, including vehicles, unless the property presents a security threat. When possible, give a receipt to the property’s owner.
• MNC-I General Order No. 1 is in effect. Looting and the taking of war trophies are
• ALL personnel MUST report any suspected violations of the Law of War committed by
any U.S., friendly, or enemy force. Notify your chain of command, Judge Advocate, IG,
Chaplain, or appropriate service-related investigative branch (e.g., CID, NCIS).
These ROE are in effect as of 27 Mar 07
******** The Afghan government has finished its investigation into the attack, and said results have been sent to the relevant government ministries, but will not be publicly released. ISAF told AAN it was making ‘steady progress’ and that when its investigation was finished, it would inform first Omaid’s family and then the BBC of the results. Omaid’s family only found out about the ISAF inquiry from a journalist (see here). AAN does not know the extent of ISAF’s investigation, but it is normal for ISAF to restrict itself to going over their own intelligence and procedures. This is one of the ways in which families of those who have been killed, allegedly, by the international military lose confidence that a serious investigation is being carried out.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020