Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge From Investigation Of Slain NPR Journalists | KUOW News and Information

Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge From Investigation Of Slain NPR Journalists

Jun 9, 2017
Originally published on June 9, 2017 8:24 pm

NPR journalists David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna died a year ago this week, ambushed on a remote road in southern Afghanistan while on a reporting assignment traveling with the Afghan National Army.

Since their deaths, NPR has been investigating what happened, and today we are sharing new information about what we learned. It's a very different story from what we originally understood.

The two men were not the random victims of bad timing in a dangerous place, as initial reports indicated. Rather, the journalists' convoy was specifically targeted by attackers who had been tipped off to the presence of Americans in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

Gilkey, an experienced photojournalist, and Tamanna, an Afghan reporter NPR hired to work with him, were sitting together in a Humvee when they were attacked.

"After the loss of our colleagues, we wanted to be sure we understood what really happened on the road that day," said Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR. "So we kept reporting."

In addition to discovering that the attackers had been told about the convoy Tamanna and Gilkey were riding in, the continuing reporting revealed new, disturbing details about how exactly the two journalists were killed.

Tamanna did not die from a rocket-propelled-grenade attack, as originally reported. He was shot. This fact was suspected by other NPR journalists who saw his body shortly after the attack and is now confirmed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

And unlike Gilkey, Tamanna did not suffer any burns, a fact that further casts doubt on the original story of a sudden, random attack by hand-launched explosives.

New reporting confirmed by Afghan officials indicates that Gilkey died inside the vehicle, and Tamanna died outside.

Gilkey died of severe burns to his upper body. It is unclear whether his vehicle was struck by an RPG. Aside from the burns, he did not have any injuries that would indicate close proximity to a blast.

The Original Story: Improved Safety Along A Dangerous Road

The NPR journalists had come to Helmand province that day to assess the effectiveness of the Afghan National Army, which had taken over responsibility for security of southern Afghanistan from American forces.

For Gilkey, a well-traveled war photographer who had been to combat zones and disasters around the world, this was familiar territory. He had been to Afghanistan nearly every year since the American involvement began there in 2001.

Same for correspondent Tom Bowman, a veteran Pentagon reporter who has deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq, typically with American troops. He and Gilkey had been on assignment together at least eight or 10 times — enough that Bowman couldn't remember the exact number.

With them was Monika Evstatieva, a veteran producer for the NPR program All Things Considered. Unlike her two American colleagues, she was making her first trip to Afghanistan — or any combat zone.

The fourth member of the team was Afghanistan native Tamanna. A lawyer by training, he chose to become a journalist and had worked freelance for a number of years for news organizations from around the world. He left his wife and children behind in Kabul when NPR came to Afghanistan, and he served as the group's interpreter and local guide.

They all called Tamanna by his nickname, "Zabi" — Gilkey liked to tease him by calling him "Zabi-Dabi-Doo." They had worked together with Bowman the year before, and this time, after three weeks touring the Afghan countryside, the team of four had all grown close. Friends.

They went to Helmand province toward the end of their trip, first touring military bases and then arriving at the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The group met with the governor of Helmand and interviewed the top Afghan general in the region, Mowein Faqir.

The general declared that his security operation in Marjah was successful, and he invited the journalists to see for themselves by driving in a convoy of Afghan soldiers to the town, about 20 miles away. Faqir assured the group that his troops had fought off Taliban forces on the road to Marjah three days earlier. The road, he said, was open.

Three Humvees formed the convoy to Marjah. Bowman and Evstatieva got into the first one, along with a pimple-faced driver, a one-star Afghan general and a third soldier manning the vehicle's 50-caliber machine gun. Gilkey and Tamanna rode in the second Humvee, followed by a group of Afghan soldiers in the third.

Helmand is flat, dusty and hot — even hotter from inside a sealed military vehicle whose windows don't open. Bowman and Evstatieva settled in and watched the countryside roll past through the thick front windows, catching glimpses of Afghan soldiers walking along the road or resting in the scarce shade under their parked vehicles.

The violence was subtle at first. A few thuds and pops. Bowman turned to Evstatieva and said, "Everything is going to be OK."

"I really meant it," Bowman recalled. "We have been shot at with mortars on previous trips. This is going to sound nuts, but this really did not sound all that dangerous."

Evstatieva, caught in her first firefight, had a different reaction. "I am horrified," she said.

As a radio producer, Evstatieva was doing what she always does on assignment — recording audio of what was going on. She sat in the back of the Humvee, but her view was blocked by the vehicle's thick, curtained side windows. With a microphone in her hand, the pops and pings of each bullet or explosion amplified the sounds of danger in her headphones. She was scared.

The Afghans, meanwhile, were frantic. The driver stopped, and a soldier outside motioned for Bowman to get out of the vehicle. He did, and looked back to see the roadway cluttered with soldiers shooting off toward the roadside to his left. He couldn't see the other Humvees in the convoy, nor could he tell what — or whom — the Afghans were shooting at.

Soon, the Afghans were screaming at each other. "Give your guests to me — I will keep them safe," the soldier said.

"Get the journalists back in! Close the door!" the general screamed back.

Bowman jumped back into the Humvee, and with the sounds of bullets and explosions behind them, the group raced off toward a small base nearby. Through the front windshield, Bowman could see them driving so close to the shooting soldiers that he feared they would shoot his vehicle by mistake.

After just a few minutes, the Humvee reached safety when they pulled through the gate at a nearby Afghan military camp. Bowman and Evstatieva got out. The Afghans had tried contacting the rest of the convoy over their radios, but no one answered. Bowman and Evstatieva settled in to wait.

Evstatieva also called the closest American base. She had been in touch with American troops throughout the trip to Afghanistan, and they had offered to watch the group's convoy to Marjah with a surveillance drone. The U.S. military officials she spoke with told her they didn't have any details about what had happened but said they saw something: a Humvee on fire.

Afghans at the base didn't seem to know what was happening. They gave the journalists nuts and raisins to eat, then lamb and rice. Slowly, vehicles began to arrive at the base, carrying Afghan soldiers who were wounded from the firefight. Bowman and Evstatieva rushed to them each time, hoping to find their colleagues.

The few people who spoke any English seemed to offer words of encouragement, saying things were OK, or suggesting their friends had a flat tire or were at another camp. The journalists didn't know what to think.

Almost three hours passed. Then, a truck arrived with two bodies in the back, both of them clearly dead.

"Taliban?" Bowman asked the Afghans.

"No Taliban," was the response. "Zabihullah."

Zabihullah. Tamanna's first name. Bowman and Evstatieva were in disbelief.

With Afghans crowded around the truck it was difficult to see, so Bowman and Evstatieva pressed in.

"At first I cannot tell, but then I see Zabi's shoes," Evstatieva said. "He bought those shoes, those gray sneakers, just a day before we left for Helmand. They still looked so shiny."

Zabi was dead.

Evstatieva cried and sat down; she realized that she had forgotten about her recorder, and it was still on. Her sobs and wails are the last sounds on the recording before she clicks it off.

Bowman came over. "Just know that David is probably dead too," he said.

She nodded, and the two sat on a bench and kept waiting, together.

Gilkey arrived 45 minutes later, laid down alone in the back of a Humvee. Bowman got up to look and quickly recognized Gilkey's checkered shirt. He could tell immediately he was dead.

"That's all I remember," Bowman said. "I was numb, shocked. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing."

He went back to sit with Evstatieva.

"I am so sorry you have to go through all of this," he told her.

"It's not your fault," she said.

No Clear Answers

It was a Sunday afternoon. Helmand province is 8 1/2 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast, so by the time the news made it home it was Sunday afternoon there, too.

Early accounts, based on information from the Afghan National Army, said Gilkey and Tamanna were killed by the Taliban, when their Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

But once Bowman and Evstatieva had gotten over the initial shock, they started to think: That doesn't make sense. How could they both have died the same way, when their bodies looked so different?

The night of the attack, they had flown out of Helmand on an Afghan military helicopter and later took an American Chinook to Kandahar Airfield. During the half-hour flight aboard the Afghan helicopter, Bowman and Evstatieva had gotten a long look at their colleagues. Gilkey clearly suffered serious burns to the upper half of his body, but Tamanna looked like he was asleep. The only wound they could see was a small cut on his belly.

Months later, the report of an autopsy on Gilkey conducted by military doctors in the United States added to the confusion. It noted the obvious burns but didn't find any other injuries except smoke inhalation, and it determined that the burns killed him. The journalists checked with military doctors, who had years of experience in Afghanistan dealing with combat trauma. They said one can never predict what combat injuries will look like. But with a rocket-propelled grenade, you would often see serious tissue or organ damage from a blast. Such wounds were not present.

Bowman and Evstatieva decided to confront the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Back in the United States by this time, they found reporting complicated by language and time differences. But they finally arranged a call with Baryalai Helali, a Defense Ministry spokesman, and this time got a different story: Tamanna wasn't killed by an RPG. He was shot, outside the vehicle. Helali had no explanation for how Tamanna got out of a Humvee, without any apparent injuries, if it had been attacked by an RPG with enough force to kill the person sitting next to him.

Meanwhile, an American military official reached out to NPR to inform us that U.S. forces had killed the Taliban leader who they believed had launched the strike against them. His name, the official said, was Mullah Ismail.

Sources in Afghanistan confirmed to NPR that Mullah Ismail had been killed and even provided a picture of the dead Taliban leader.

Still, a lot of things didn't seem right to Bowman and Evstatieva.

For one, during their trip from Lashkar Gah to Marjah, they passed scores of Afghan soldiers along the road. The Taliban could have attacked any group of soldiers that day but didn't strike until the NPR convoy was on the road. Why?

Sources in Afghanistan confirmed their suspicion. They said the Taliban fighters knew they were coming — were very happy about it, one source said — because they had been tipped off by someone at the governor's palace that morning.

"They knew exactly when we would be on that road," Bowman said. "It almost seems obvious now. It was broad daylight and the Taliban usually don't attack in midday. There were lots of other soldiers on the road — standing outside their armored vehicles — resting under the vehicles. The Taliban could have hit at any time. They only started shooting when we arrived."

Bowman called the Taliban to ask. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that Taliban forces carried out the attack but said the group had information indicating that American military troops were in the convoy, not journalists.

"This attack was not meant to target journalists, but [an] American caravan and American soldiers," Mujahid said, adding, "If these journalists had informed us ... in advance about their visit to our area, we would have given them a safe route."

Mujahid disputed the Americans' claim to have killed Mullah Ismail and said the Taliban leader is still alive. And he added another detail that didn't make sense: He said the Taliban used only mortars and rockets in the attack, not small arms like rifles or pistols.

NPR journalists didn't know whom to believe. But they were certain of this: The early story about a random RPG attack didn't add up.

There may be some more answers yet to come. Gilkey and Tamanna's Humvee is said to still be somewhere in Helmand, and it might offer some clues.

Also, Gilkey was carrying two cameras when he died, one of which contained pictures taken earlier that day. The other was melted and its memory card partially disintegrated. NPR is trying to work with forensic investigators to see whether any photos of the convoy can be recovered from the card, which might offer more clues.

Officials at the FBI — which investigates the deaths of Americans overseas — say they are still looking into Gilkey's death, but wouldn't comment. The Afghan National Directorate of Security, akin to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, is also investigating.

One answer has become apparent — to the question that took Gilkey, Tamanna, Bowman and Evstatieva to Helmand province in the first place: Have Afghan authorities brought security and stability to a country wracked by decades of war?

The answer is no. The Taliban says it is on the move in Helmand, and earlier this year, American Marines returned to the district in hopes of restoring order. They might be working with the same people in Lashkar Gah who tipped off the Taliban that Americans were in the convoy carrying NPR journalists.

While the lack of clarity about precisely what happened to Gilkey and Tamanna seems to underscore the continued instability in Afghanistan, Bowman and Evstatieva said they took some satisfaction in at least getting closer to the whole truth. And they plan to keep reporting.

"We're not going to let this drop," Bowman said. "We not only owe it to David and Zabi, but to the Marines and soldiers who still deploy there, who will continue going into harm's way."

This week, NPR dedicated a memorial to the journalists at its Washington headquarters, including a display with one of Gilkey's cameras from Afghanistan and photographs of the journalists. Evstatieva and Tamanna's wife, Fauzia, have become close friends.

"We miss Zabi and David every day," Evstatieva said.

NPR's Nicole Beemsterboer produced the radio story and audio components of this digital story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


A year ago this week, we lost two colleagues, NPR photographer David Gilkey and Afghan journalist and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna. They were on a reporting trip in southern Afghanistan when they were ambushed and killed. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR producer Monika Evstatieva were also on the trip, but they weren't injured.


The Afghan National Army first said that David and Zabihullah were killed by an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, and that's what we reported. But Tom and Monika continued to pursue more details, and they learned that what happened that day is much more complicated.

SIEGEL: Today, in a special report, Tom and Monika remember David and Zabi and share what we know so far. We are also for the first time airing recordings from during and after the attack, recordings that some listeners may find upsetting. Here are Monika and Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: We'd gone to Afghanistan to report on the security situation. The U.S. military handed over control to the Afghan National Army at the end of 2014. Most of the Americans who are still working there were trainers for the Afghan military.

MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: And by and large, we were told the Afghans were making progress.

BOWMAN: But Helmand province in the southern part of Afghanistan is the most dangerous province, and the Taliban had recaptured a lot of territory there. By Sunday, June 5, 2016, we'd been in Afghanistan for several weeks.

EVSTATIEVA: In the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, we interviewed the new Helmand governor, who says the area is getting better.

BOWMAN: We also speak to the top Afghan general in Helmand, Faqir Mowein, who tells us Helmand province isn't so dangerous anymore.


MOWEIN FAQIR: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: "The route to Marjah is open," he tells us, and we can drive without a problem.

EVSTATIEVA: The general assured us the Afghan military cleared Taliban fighters from the area three days earlier.

BOWMAN: General Mowein says his troops can take us to Marjah so we can see for ourselves.

EVSTATIEVA: We talk it over, and we decide to go.



BOWMAN: Good luck.


BOWMAN: There were four of us that day. I'm the Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

EVSTATIEVA: And I'm the producer Monika Evstatieva. My job is to collect the sound you hear and help Tom report the story.

BOWMAN: Together with us is NPR's photojournalist David Gilkey. David's a tall, imposing character, and he's a legend in the photography world. But he's really more like a 14-year-old. He's fun. He loves dumb jokes, eats corn dogs and all sorts of crappy food. Here he is earlier on our trip, mimicking a host reading into my story.


DAVID GILKEY: On a recent night, dozens of Afghan commandos climbed aboard an American helicopter at the base. They flew north and spilled out into the mountainous districted of Shah Wali Kot.


BOWMAN: And when he's not a goofball, he's an artist, a true artist. David's an awesome photographer who has covered conflicts all over the world - Chechnya, the Balkans, South Africa. He and I have been to Afghanistan countless times together. He's been there almost every year since the war began, often embedded with U.S. troops. Here he is reporting in 2012.


GILKEY: So every time I go out on a patrol, I'm not only taking pictures, but I strap a recorder to my helmet. So you'll hear both the camera shutter and the gunfire going off.


EVSTATIEVA: The fourth member of our team is Afghan journalists, our guide Zabihullah Tamanna. We call him Zabi for short. Zabi has been a journalist and a photographer for many, many years. Sometimes when you hear a story on NPR from overseas, you hear the voice of someone speaking to us in their own language. And then you hear the voice of the interpreters who work with us in the field.



EVSTATIEVA: Yeah. Here is Zabi. He's taping a translation. And that's me recording him.


TAMANNA: We have lost several outpost in the east of Lashkargah city, and heavy losses were inflicted on our forces.

EVSTATIEVA: OK, very good. Just say outposts.

TAMANNA: What did I say?


TAMANNA: No, come on - again?


TAMANNA: We have lost several outposts.

EVSTATIEVA: Zabi is a lawyer by training, and he's as big as David at 220 pounds.

BOWMAN: And he never raises his voice despite being the dad of three and the butt of David's jokes. David calls him Zabi-Dabi-Doo morning, noon and night.

EVSTATIEVA: Zabi-Dabi-Doo (laughter).


EVSTATIEVA: Back on the road, we leave in three armored Humvees driven by Afghan soldiers. Tom and I are in the first vehicle alone with a one-star Afghan general. His name is Noor.

BOWMAN: General Noor is tall and lean with a thick mustache and a deep voice. Think Barry White. Our driver is a young soldier, maybe not even 20.

EVSTATIEVA: And there is one more soldier at the top of our Humvee. He's manning a large .50-caliber machine gun. Zabi and David jump into the second Humvee. The third is full of Afghan soldiers.

BOWMAN: So we take off to Marjah. It's a district that has a long history of violence. It's basically a center for heroin production and insurgency. In ten minutes, we leave the city noise, and the road opens up to vast, flat farmlands. The only people we pass are soldiers at checkpoints guarding the road.

EVSTATIEVA: Before we left, I called the U.S. base. They agreed to watch us on the drone feed.

BOWMAN: The road looks calm, but the remnants of recent fighting are obvious.


BOWMAN: All these destroyed trucks along the road - we just passed two of them destroyed by roadside bombs, or IEDs.

We drive very fast, and we only slow down to drive around the huge craters in the road. The Humvee has no side mirrors, and we can't open the thick glass window.

EVSTATIEVA: We couldn't see David and Zabi's Humvee or very much else that was around us. All we could see is the road ahead. There was no obvious danger. There was nothing to put us on our guard. Most of the soldiers we pass are sleeping under their vehicles, trying to hide from the scorching sun until this.


BOWMAN: Seconds later, we hear a second gunshot.


BOWMAN: So I ask the general...


BOWMAN: Taliban out there?


EVSTATIEVA: Like on any other reporting assignment in the field, I had the recorder going and my headphones on, so the sound is enhanced. I can hear the bullets striking the vehicle. I get really scared. I touch Tom on the shoulder. He sits right in front of me. He turns around and says...

BOWMAN: Everything's going to be OK, and I really meant it. We'd been shot at with mortars on previous trips. And this is going to sound nuts, but this really didn't sound all that dangerous.

EVSTATIEVA: But this is my first gun battle. I'm horrified. I keep recording.


EVSTATIEVA: The Humvees stop. The gunner is shooting off to the left-hand side of the road, but we cannot see anything. There are bushes. Suddenly the sleeping Afghan soldiers are up and running towards our vehicle. Others are shooting.

BOWMAN: One of the Afghan soldiers out on the road walks up to my door and motions me to get out. I jump out and look down the road, and I see everyone, all the Afghan soldiers, firing.

EVSTATIEVA: I see one of the Afghan soldiers shooting back with a mortar. The general and the soldier who told Tom to get out start yelling at each other.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

GENERAL NOOR: (Foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: Later we were able to translate their conversation. "Give your guests to me," the soldier says. "I'll keep them safe." He wanted us to get into a ditch and take cover. The general shouts back, "get the journalists back in. Close the door."

BOWMAN: No one seems to know what the hell is going on. I jump back in the Humvee.


EVSTATIEVA: Tom, can we go back now?

The young driver turns the car around, and we speed back.

BOWMAN: I was worried then that we'd flip into the canal because we were so close to the edge of the road.

EVSTATIEVA: This is also the moment I realize that the other two Humvees are not behind us.

BOWMAN: Including the one carrying David and Zabi.


BOWMAN: We're really safe in this thing. And also, they sound like they were pretty far away.

EVSTATIEVA: We race to a small camp only, like, five minutes away. We stop only to make a quick radio call to the rest of our convoy.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: He's saying, "Adel." That's the name of another driver - but no response. We've lost communications.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: We arrived to the camp's gate. It's so confusing. The general is furious. He pounds his fist.


EVSTATIEVA: He is angry. Don't make him angry.

BOWMAN: We get out of the Humvee. It's this rustic camp of Quonset huts and sandbag walls. There are all these soldiers just standing around, looking at us.


EVSTATIEVA: Where is everybody? Where is David?

Where are David and Zabi?

BOWMAN: The soldiers here only knew a few words of English, so we get some scraps and information about what happened to them.


EVSTATIEVA: Where are they?

BOWMAN: It sounds like their tire got blown out.

EVSTATIEVA: Where - their tire?

BOWMAN: They OK, good?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Good, no problem.

EVSTATIEVA: They tell us David and Zabi are hunkered down at another outpost. Then the waiting begins. We spend the next hour on the phone, frantically calling them. But the calls just go straight to voicemail. I also call the U.S. base two hours away by car. The cell phone reception is very spotty.


EVSTATIEVA: There is not a lot of reception.

BOWMAN: The Afghans give us water. Later they feed us with nuts and raisins, then lamb, rice and tea. Everyone around us seems to know very little. At least that's what they say.


EVSTATIEVA: Does someone here have a cigarette?

BOWMAN: Cigarette?

EVSTATIEVA: Does somebody have a cigarette?


EVSTATIEVA: And yes, I chain smoke for the next hour, checking in with the Americans every 20 minutes or so. Then they tell me they saw something on the drone.


EVSTATIEVA: They just - when the Americans - I just called them. They said they just saw a Humvee being blown up, but I don't know what they were talking about.

BOWMAN: It just didn't make any sense. It was so frustrating.

EVSTATIEVA: Then the wounded Afghan soldiers started coming in. Every time we see a truck or a Humvee pull in, we run towards it, hoping to see David or Zabi.


BOWMAN: There's a soldier they're pulling out of an armored vehicle. He's on a stretcher. Is he OK, good, OK? Is he OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: One wounded?

We're reporting on the ambush until they open the back of a pickup truck. Two bodies were inside, both men, this time clearly dead.


BOWMAN: Who is that?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Taliban?


BOWMAN: Civilians?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Zabihullah.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Zabihullah.

EVSTATIEVA: At first, I can't tell. But then I see Zabi's shoes. He bought those shoes, those gray sneakers just a day before we left for Helmand. And they still look so shiny.


EVSTATIEVA: Tom, can you check if this is Zabi?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Zabi, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Zabihullah (foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: (Crying) Oh, my God, please, no, please, no.

BOWMAN: Zabi was dead. We expected the worst for David.


BOWMAN: Where's David, the photographer? Is he OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: The clinic.

BOWMAN: David, photographer, baseball cap - is he OK? Is he OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Yes (foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Is he alive?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BOWMAN: We waited another 45 minutes.

EVSTATIEVA: I call the Americans to tell them.


EVSTATIEVA: Sir, our fixer is dead. Our fixer, our fixer - they just brought him. He's dead.

BOWMAN: We kept waiting.


EVSTATIEVA: Oh, my God, what did we do? (Crying).

After I stopped crying, I turned off the recorder. I sat down on a bench. And you came to me and said...

BOWMAN: Just know that David's probably dead, too.

EVSTATIEVA: And I remember simply nodding 'cause I knew this was true, too.

BOWMAN: And finally another Humvee pulled up.

EVSTATIEVA: Then you told me, wait here. I'm going to see who it is.

BOWMAN: And they open up the back of the Humvee. David's body was there by himself. That's all I remember. I was numb, shocked. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.

EVSTATIEVA: Then you came back, and you told me...

BOWMAN: I am so sorry you have to go through all of this.

EVSTATIEVA: And I said, it's not your fault.


MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm very sorry to report this breaking news. We've just learned that NPR journalist David Gilkey and Afghan translator Zabihullah Tamanna were killed today on...

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: David Gilkey and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna were on assignment with an Afghan military convoy.

SIEGEL: When they came under attack by the Taliban. The Humvee they were riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

BOWMAN: Rocket-propelled grenade - that's how the Afghan army told us they died.

EVSTATIEVA: But once we recovered from the initial shock, we started to think. That did not make any sense. For one thing, their bodies looked so different. We spent an hour staring at them on our helicopter flight back to the U.S. base that night.

BOWMAN: Zabi looked like he was asleep, as if he had a heart attack. The only thing that stood out was a small stomach wound. David, on the other hand - and this is very hard - had severe burns. But they'd been sitting next to each other in the same Humvee.

EVSTATIEVA: Also, we started asking ourselves, why did it take 45 minutes to get David's body back after Zabi's? Why didn't they arrive together?

BOWMAN: All that had to wait. The U.S. military helped us get Zabi's body back to Kabul. David's body was headed to Dover, Del., to the military mortuary.

EVSTATIEVA: When we got back to Kabul, I went to the local market, and I bought a big, fat sheep. This is the traditional funeral present to bear respect to Zabi's family.

BOWMAN: Four days later, we were back in the U.S. We started talking to all of our sources.

EVSTATIEVA: We cannot reveal the names of the people who have been helping us because of the extreme danger it poses to them. Here is one of them explaining what happened. We've changed his voice to protect his identity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: (Unintelligible).

EVSTATIEVA: He says, "the Taliban knew you were coming. They ambushed you. They were really happy." Someone tipped them off while we were at the governor's palace that morning.

BOWMAN: Other sources confirm this. They knew exactly when we would be on that road. It almost seems obvious now. It was broad daylight, and the Taliban usually don't attack in midday. There were lots of other soldiers on the road, standing outside their armored vehicles, resting under the vehicles. The Taliban could have hit at any time. They only started shooting when we arrived.

EVSTATIEVA: Then, a month later, we get more information, this time an email from the U.S. military.

BOWMAN: Brigadier General Charles Cleveland writes, U.S. Army special forces have killed the Taliban leader who ordered the ambush.

EVSTATIEVA: Cleveland said the man behind it was Mullah Ismael, and he was killed with three other Taliban associates on 12 June.

BOWMAN: Our Afghan sources also confirm this and even sent us pictures of the dead Taliban leader.

EVSTATIEVA: So we reached out to the Taliban ourselves.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: (Foreign language spoken).

EVSTATIEVA: This is Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the Taliban.

BOWMAN: He denied Mullah Ismael was dead and said the picture we had was of someone else. But he also told us, yes, the Taliban did attack our convoy. But then he said the Taliban had no idea there were journalists in the convoy. They thought we were American soldiers. If he had known we were journalists, he said, they wouldn't have attacked.

EVSTATIEVA: That also did not make any sense. No American convoy had been on that road for two years. And the Americans never used old Humvees. There is also one more confusing thing Mujahid tells us. He said they only used mines and rocket launchers in the attack that day, no rifles, no AK-47s.

BOWMAN: An autopsy of Zabi was never performed. It's just not done in Afghanistan. But all we could see was a small wound on his stomach. How can that have been created by an explosive RPG, the kind of weapon that can rip apart a Humvee?

EVSTATIEVA: What the Afghan army initially said about the RPG attack wasn't adding up.

BOWMAN: We needed more answers, so I called Baryalai Helali, the spokesman at the Afghan Ministry of Defense. The phone line is hard to understand. When I pressed him, he said, you're right. He said David was killed inside the Humvee but not Zabi.

BARYALAI HELALI: And the other one who got outside the vehicle - he got shot by the Taliban.

BOWMAN: He got outside the vehicle and was shot by the Taliban.


EVSTATIEVA: So an RPG did not kill Zabi. He was shot. But who shot him? If you believe the Taliban, they say they did not use rifles.

BOWMAN: And David - remember; he had severe burns. His autopsy indicated he died of those burns and smoke inhalation.

EVSTATIEVA: And that's unusual. His body did not show any blast wounds, and his internal organs were not damaged.

BOWMAN: We reached out to several military doctors who have years of experience dealing with combat wounds. They said you can never be certain, but the autopsy is not typical of an attack by an RPG.

EVSTATIEVA: There was one more thing that did not make sense. Zabi was wearing an armored vest like all of us. How could he have been shot in the stomach wearing it, especially from such a distance?

BOWMAN: The Taliban were about a hundred yards away from our convoy, so if they attacked with an RPG, how was it that Zabi got out of the Humvee but David could not? And since David didn't have any blast injuries, what happened? What caused the burns?

EVSTATIEVA: Remember; the U.S. military had a surveillance drone above us, and they saw a Humvee on fire. We were told this footage is part of an investigation being conducted by the FBI. They investigate Americans killed overseas. But if the FBI has the footage, they wouldn't let us see it.

BOWMAN: So the original story from the Afghan army of what happened doesn't hold up or the story from the Taliban, for that matter. Zabi wasn't killed by an RPG. He was shot. And David died of burns, not a blast. This wasn't a random Taliban attack. They knew we were coming or at least that Americans were coming. We were sold out.

EVSTATIEVA: We still have a lot of questions, and we might eventually get some answers. We are told David and Zabi's Humvee is still somewhere in Helmand. That may provide some clues.

BOWMAN: The Afghan military was able to retrieve both of David's cameras from the Humvee. One had pictures from earlier that day. The other one was kind of melted, but we still hope to get some images from it. Maybe his final pictures could provide us some more clues.

EVSTATIEVA: The FBI wouldn't comment, but they're still investigating. So is the Afghan National Directorate of Security, sort of like their version of the CIA.

BOWMAN: And maybe they'll help us answer the biggest question. Who sold us out? Who shot Zabi? The Taliban admits they attacked, but they say they never shot anyone. Can we believe them? There were of course other people out there with guns that day, members of the Afghan army. And it's not unusual for Afghan soldiers to actually support the Taliban, even to attack for them. These so-called green-on-blue attacks used to be common in Afghanistan, but the ministry of defense firmly denies that's what happened to us.

EVSTATIEVA: It's been a year. Tom and I haven't been back to Afghanistan since. We miss Zabi and David every day. Zabi's wife, Fauzia, has become family to me.

BOWMAN: I think about David and Zabi a lot, and it's comforting to know that some of David's ashes were scattered in a river in Afghanistan, a country he loved so much.

EVSTATIEVA: We do have an answer to the one question that brought the four of us to Afghanistan in the first place. Has the Afghan government and military brought stability to a country wrecked by 16 years of war?

BOWMAN: Absolutely not. The Taliban is still on the move. A few hundred Marines are now back in Helmand. They could be working with the same people who tipped off the Taliban that we were there. And the road to Marjah - people there say it's still not safe.


SIEGEL: NPR's Tom Bowman and Monika Evstatieva reporting on the deaths of NPR photographer David Gilkey and Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. They were killed a year ago on assignment in Afghanistan.