Amid a busy news week, the indictment Wednesday of a pair of former Blackwater contractors for the alleged murder of two Afghan civilians hasn’t gotten much attention. But the case has the potential to become a big problem for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and for Blackwater’s future business prospects in that country.
The particulars of what happened last May 5 — including whether the contractors had been drinking and whether they were acting in self-defense — are in dispute, but everyone agrees the shooting occurred after a traffic accident in Kabul.
The charges have attracted attention for coming so soon after a federal judge dismissed a case against Blackwater contractors who allegedly killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. That shooting also unfolded after a traffic incident.
The contractors in the Kabul case, Christopher Drotleff, 29, and Justin Cannon, 27, were arrested last week in Corpus Christi, TX, and Virginia Beach, VA, respectively. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Here’s what we know:
They are charged with second-degree murder and other counts under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows cases against people employed by the military abroad, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In Afghanistan the pair were doing weapons training with Afghan soldiers through a Blackwater subsidiary called Paravant LLC. (Blackwater is now known as Xe.) Paravant was a subcontractor on a large Raytheon contract.
According to interviews with the AP, the men say that the shooting occurred when two U.S. vehicles, each holding a pair of contractors, were driving in Kabul. An Afghan car slammed into the first vehicle, flipping it over, they say. Drotleff and Cannon, who were in the other car, say that when they got out to help, the Afghan car swung around and started driving at them.
At that point, the pair opened fire, Cannon with an assault rifle and Drotleff with a handgun, according to the indictment. The indictment does not offer a narrative of what allegedly happened, but the AP reports Drotleff emptied a 16-round clip.
Drotleff has said he fired in self-defense, telling the AP, “I feel comfortable firing my weapon any time I feel my life is in danger. That night, my life was 100 percent in danger.” He also suggested that a political agenda is driving the case.
The two men killed were Rahib Mirza Mohammad (also known as Rahib Helaludin) and Romal Mohammad Naiem, according to the indictment. The contractors are also charged with attempted murder of Fareed Haji Ahmad (aka Sayd Kamal), who was injured.
The Los Angeles Times in August quoted an Afghan police investigator saying that one of the two slain men was walking home from prayers when he was shot in the head, 200 yards away from the traffic incident. The investigator also said the Toyota sedan that was involved in the incident did not have any weapons in it.
The Times piece, which appears to be one of the few — if not the only — reporting done on the Afghan men who were killed, quotes Afghan sources saying the shooting was unprovoked:
Residents say the U.S. contractors opened fire without provocation after one of their vehicles tipped over in a traffic accident. Killed along with Dost was Romal, 22, a passenger in a Toyota sedan on his way home from work. …
Mohammed Shafi, a neighborhood elder who said he ran to the shooting scene that night, said the Toyota driver told him that the Americans ordered him to stop, then told him to move on. When the driver began pulling away, Shafi said, the Americans started shooting.
After the shooting, the contractors lost their jobs — for violating Blackwater’s drinking policy. They deny they had a drink since they arrived in Afghanistan in November 2008, according to CNN.
Drotleff has been arrested twice for DUIs in the past decade in Virginia Beach, according to the Virginia Pilot.
In the days following the shooting, Cannon and Steve McClain, a contractor who was in the other vehicle, fled Afghanistan fearing prosecution there, according to Attorney Daniel Callahan.
Callahan, who was representing the men as of last spring, said at the time that Blackwater was attempting to turn them into “scapegoats.” He told the Wall Street Journal: “We believe Blackwater is trying to paint these men as out on a lark and drinking so that the company can maintain its ability to work in Afghanistan after losing its work in Iraq.” Callahan did not return our call seeking comment.
Callahan also told the Journal the men were carrying captured AK-47 assault rifles, on instructions from their manager — even though they weren’t supposed to have weapons at the time
After the shooting, the dead men’s families were paid by either the U.S. military or representatives of Blackwater, according to the Los Angeles Times.