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Report on deadly 2011 insider attack leaves unanswered questions for victims' family and friends

Aug. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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Prayers are said April 30, 2011, upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del., of the bodies of seven service members killed in the deadliest insider attack of the Afghanistan war. (Jose Luis Magana / The Associated Press)

In the 2˝ years leading up to the deadliest green-on-blue attack in the Afghanistan war, Afghan soldiers and police officers had turned their weapons on coalition troops 19 times.

Still, these so-called insider attacks were considered relatively uncommon, a final investigation into the April 27, 2011, massacre at Kabul International Airport found. None had involved a member of the Afghan air force, which made it all the more improbable to foresee that a trusted colonel named Ahmed Gul would murder eight U.S. airmen and a U.S. contractor that morning inside the airport’s Air Combat and Control Center, according to the May 2013 report obtained last month through an Air Force Times’ Freedom of Information Act request.

As the nation is rocked by the Aug. 5 insider attack that killed U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene and wounded 15 other allied troops, family and friends of the 2011 victims continue to grapple with questions.

After at least three investigations in as many years, they are unconvinced the shooting unfolded the way authorities have claimed and that military leadership did all it could to prevent it.

“It’s not like they were the first ones [killed in an insider attack] or it hadn’t happened before. It was in the news just days before,” said retired Capt. Suzanna Ausborn, the widow of Maj. Jeff Ausborn, a 438th Air Expeditionary Wing adviser who taught Afghans how to fly cargo planes. “There was a viable threat. Yet there was not any type of over watch or guardian or somebody standing by whose only job was to protect Americans. They were basically left vulnerable.”

Ten days before the shooting, an intelligence report warned suicide bombers planned to attack the airport, including a bomber using a suicide vest at an unknown gate. One bomber was depicted as a tall, bald and older Afghan air force colonel, a description Gul partly fit. Forty eight hours before the killings, more reports included the possibility of a rocket attack and a suicide bombing; one day before, an email to the ACCC warned a suicide bomber planned to attack a staff meeting and to “cancel all your morning meetings.”

The victims were not in a meeting but going about their daily routines when Gul opened fire in the ACCC, the investigator wrote in absolving 438th leadership of responsibility for the events of that day. Gul was not a suicide bomber; he shot his victims before being killed by the Afghan quick reaction force, according to the report.

The wing and subordinate commands took “all the appropriate action they could with the information available at the time” and “should not be held accountable for something they simply could not have predicted,” the report said.

But in an interview with Air Force Times, the lead investigator said the final report given to families of the slain was limited. Evidence that indicated Gul had ties to a criminal network — and that his involvement provided a motive for the shooting — was classified, he said.

New findings

U.S. Central Command ordered the final inquiry, called an AR 15-6 investigation, in January 2013 to resolve unanswered questions and discrepancies from previous probes, which included another AR 15-6 and an Air Force Office of Special Investigations report. The final investigation also addressed questions from victims’ families and 81 congressional inquiries, including whether Gul acted alone or if the massacre could be linked to an Afghan criminal patronage network and corruption within the Afghan air force.

In a memo, the investigator, whose name is redacted from the report, described a six-member investigative team poring over thousands of pages of documents and conducting 65 interviews over a three-month period.

The final report takes issue with two major findings from previous investigations: that Gul turned the gun on himself after gunning down the nine Americans and that the victims did not return fire from a “lack of warrior ethos.”

OSI concluded in September 2011 that Gul committed suicide after the shooting spree. But he was most likely killed by the Afghan quick reaction force who did not admit to shooting Gul because they feared retaliation, the investigator said. Gul was heralded by the Taliban and others as a martyr who’d killed “invaders”; hundreds attended his funeral.

Secondly, Gul killed eight of the victims — Ausborn, Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, Maj. David Brodeur, Maj. Philip Ambard, Maj. Raymond Estelle II, Capt. Charles Ransom, Tech. Sgt. Tara Brown and James McLaughlin before they had the chance to draw their weapons.

They were executed within seven seconds, the investigator said.

The ninth American killed, Capt. Nathan Nylander, was in an adjoining conference room when he heard the shooting inside the Air Command and Control Center. Instead of leaving the building, he responded to the ACCC and engaged the gunman until his weapon jammed. Gul killed Nylander when he tried to exit the building.

Nylander was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

Further, the investigator wrote, while previous investigations describe Gul as an unqualified, unprofessional officer who was addicted to drugs and isolated from his co-workers, the most recent probe found that American advisers “were extremely fond of Gul before the shooting.” One adviser described him as the least likely to commit such an act of violence.

“All the ACCC members that morning were attacked by a person who they recognized and likely believed to be an ally and friend,” the report said. Five active shooting experts agreed Gul’s “use of surprise, violence of action, and shock left no chance for the victims to adequately respond in self-defense.”

No Afghans were seriously injured in the attack, including 14 inside the ACCC that morning. One interpreter who witnessed the shooting gave conflicting accounts of what happened, and OSI ballistic reports could not determine that all the rounds fired came from Gul’s weapon — which led to suspicions of a coverup or conspiracy.

All 14 Afghans had an official reason to be there on the day of the shooting. Two years later, the report stated, half remained in their jobs and supportive of the adviser mission. One had moved to the U.S.

“I find it to be more probable ... that one shooter (Col. Gul) caught trained U.S. Airmen off guard, rather than multiple shooters conspiring to kill Americans, then trying to cover it up,” the report said.

Corruption, crime link explored

The final investigation found evidence of widespread corruption and narcotics trafficking in the Afghan air force in early 2011.

The Afghan Ministry of Defense viewed the force as a personal transportation service rather than a professional military branch; some within the Afghan air force saw their work as a means of profit and power, according to both the OSI probe and the final AR 15-6. Afghans flew unauthorized passengers and cargo around the country, and coalition troops had no way to check who and what was on board. They did not use printed schedules and relied on cell phones to task last-minute missions.

U.S. air advisers were trying to limit the abuses in the months and weeks before the shooting. Some of the victims were vocal about making changes. One, Bryant, had recommended cutting off fuel to the Afghan air force so it could only fly scheduled missions. The final inquiry found no connection between the massacre and allegations that some members of the Afghan air force used U.S.-funded aircraft to transport drugs and weapons around the country — and line their own pockets. But NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan had not opened any probe into such allegations, it said.

Brodeur, Bryant and McLaughlin were part of a larger effort that included the 438th, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Afghan Ministry of Defense, among others, to establish new policies addressing the potential for corruption, the probe said. These were hardly groundbreaking efforts, however, it said. While the work of the advisers could have provided a motive for the shooting, there was no hard proof, according to the findings.

Some witnesses interviewed as part of the final AR 15-6 disagreed with the absence of a motive. More progress had been made in stamping out corruption from January to April 2011 than anytime before, said one witness whose name was redacted from the report.

“The killings represented a deliberate and well thought plan to reverse the progress made and allow the [Afghan air force] to revert to their opaque and seemingly chaotic command and control methods that permitted [them] to engage in their various profitable and corrupt activities,” one witness wrote. “Certain power brokers within the AAF were not willing to relinquish their hold on corruption in favor of a professional air force. Col. Gul was not simply a drunk, drug addict gambler acting alone. I fully believe he was coerced (perhaps because of his debts and past behavior) to commit the murder by the power brokers within the AAF that stood to lose the most by the reforms to their command and control systems.”

The criminal patronage network protected some of the corrupt actors within the Afghan air force, making it difficult to punish or remove them, the investigator wrote.

The report concluded there was no direct evidence linking Gul to the crime network and that involvement was unlikely; Gul was a management officer for travelers and cargo in the ACCC with no authority to deny or approve cargo or passenger movement. He also belonged to a different tribe than the criminal patronage network, and in Afghanistan, tribal loyalties run deep.

“Obtaining irrefutable evidence would likely require informants and undercover operatives,” the report said.

But the lead investigator told Air Force Times there is “significant evidence that indicates criminal network involvement” in the killing of the Americans.

“That evidence is all classified. It is not enough to be used in a court of law. I can tell you we have Afghan air force officers, contractors, numerous Afghans who put their lives on the line and everybody’s story added up the same,” said the investigator, who spoke to Air Force Times on the condition that his name not be used.

Flaws in crime investigation

The crime scene where the nine Americans were shot and killed was never properly contained, the report said.

Well-meaning Afghan investigators put spent shell casings into a bag rather than leaving them where they’d fallen. Two 9 mm pistols believed to have belonged to Ambard and Brown went missing during the massacre and have never been recovered.

A day after the shooting, the Afghan Ministry of Defense, which had taken control of the scene, halted the collection of evidence. Blood stains were scrubbed from floors and walls, furniture was moved and walls painted, according to the investigation. Evidence was in the hands of various Afghanistan law enforcement organizations.

OSI agents who arrived in Kabul from Bagram on April 27 were denied access by the Afghan defense ministry until May 1, the report said. When U.S. agents interviewed Afghan witnesses three days after the massacre, language barriers thwarted the process even with the best translators. Cooperative Afghan witnesses tended to tell U.S. agents what they thought the agents wanted to hear, the report said. Uncooperative witnesses feigned misunderstanding.

U.S. investigators have never spoken to members of the Afghan quick reaction force that presumably shot and killed Gul.

The finalinvestigator said he did not find any evidence of a deliberate coverup but rather the typical conduct of an Afghan military police investigation.

“All the investigators involved had to deal with a tremendous language barrier, in a war zone, under sometimes hostile conditions,” he wrote. “Some questions will never have definitive answers. After two years, key players have moved on and memories have faded.”

Unanswered questions

Most of the families of the slain were briefed on the investigation findings in May 2013.

“We were told by many people that a lot of questions were going to be answered” in the final AR 15-6 report, said Suzanna Ausborn, who had been married to her husband, Jeff, for seven years when he was killed. “The only thing we got out of it is the shooter didn’t kill himself. To me, that really wasn’t a big concern. I didn’t really care about that as much as were there people in the higher ranks of the Afghan military involved. Was there a drug component to it? Why were the Afghans in the room not questioned more? Those things never got answered.”

The report also did not put to rest the question that Gul acted on his own, Ausborn said. “I will never be convinced he was able to do so much damage, one person by himself. So many people in the room were armed, not just Americans but other Afghans. I’ll never believe he was a lone shooter, ever.”

Retired Lt. Col. Sally Stenton, who was at the 438th in April 2011 and counted many of the victims as friends, does not think so either.

Five experts on active shootings consulted in the final investigation agreed Gul was able to kill or critically wound multiple victims in a matter of seconds, the report said.

“Who are they, where are their reports? Why didn’t they brief the families? Build a computer rendition to show how this was possible. A 10-second video,” said Stenton, who served as legal adviser to the Afghan air force and staff judge advocate for the 438th.

One of the victims, Brown, was able to make a call after the shooting broke out, which Stenton said makes it unlikely she was critically injured in the first few seconds.

“My theory has always been — and this is my field — that some of the Afghans in that room were holding some or all of our people at gunpoint where they could not draw their weapons and Gul went around and shot them. He did not do this without help,” Stenton said.

“It’s very hard for people to understand,” the investigator told Air Force Times. “It takes five to six seconds to realize a friend of yours has gone off the reservation and another five to six seconds to pull your weapon and engage. [Gul] had critically wounded everybody in the first five to six seconds. I say that with a great deal of confidence. That’s what the evidence supports.”

The investigator did not pursue some interviews because he did not believe it would change findings, according to the report.

“How do you know when you didn’t investigate it? That’s what I mean when I say this was a foregone conclusion. It’s very disturbing and it screams ‘coverup.’ I’ve found in my own practice — one hair, one speck of blood, one interview — can make a difference. For them to sit there and say that — it’s galling,” Stenton said.

“I was afforded all the necessary time and resources ... to uncover the truth, wherever it led, and I am convinced further investigative inquiry will not bring greater clarity to this tragedy,” the investigator wrote.

For Ausborn, it is not enough.

“So many things still don’t make sense. I’m not sure they ever well,” she said. “There’s been more inquiries and more concern over [the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in] Benghazi — were they aware of a potential threat, what should have been done. I feel like the same thing applied to April 27, 2011. There was a threat, and they did nothing about it.”

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