"Confirm that one last time, these pax are an imminent threat," American fighter pilot "Dude 15" radioed to the German forward air controller. For a half an hour on the night of Sept. 4, 2009, two F-15 fighter jets had been circling above a sandbank in the Kunduz River in Afghanistan. Then Staff Sergeant W. spoke the crucial words: "Yeah, those pax are an imminent threat."
Two minutes later, the weapon systems operators aboard the two jets each released a 500-pound (230-kilogram) GBU-38 guided bomb. The two bombs detonated on the ground at 1:50 a.m. local time, striking two tanker trucks Colonel Georg Klein had feared might attack his base.
The blast killed a large number of people -- exactly how many remains unclear to this day. The Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, says 91 people were killed. A NATO report arrived at the figure of at least 142 dead or injured. According to research conducted by lawyers representing the victims, it was 137 people. What is clear beyond a doubt is that this was the most devastating German-ordered attack since World War II.
Since March, the first civil chamber of Bonn's District Court has been hearing a case concerning the deadly military strike. Bremen-based lawyers Karim Popal and Peter Derleder sued the German state, asking for a total of around €90,000 ($124,000) in compensation for damages and suffering to the surviving family members of the airstrike's victims. The Bundeswehr has so far paid about €500,000 in voluntary compensation efforts.
The lawsuit states that Popal's clients lost family members in the attack. Farmer Abdul Hannan's two sons, eight and 12 years old, died in the bombing. So did Guldin Rauf, a laborer from the village of Omar Khel who left behind his wife, Qureisha, and six children, ages 15, 13, 10, eight, five and three. The court must now address the fate of these survivors, as well as the question of what exactly happened in Kunduz that night.
As part of that process, the court is to view videos from the two F-15 jets on Wednesday, and hear radio communications conducted between the American pilots and the Bundeswehr soldier W. SPIEGEL ONLINE has been granted access to these materials as well.
'I Do Want to Drop It'
One thing likely to become evident to the court is how greatly Dude 15, a pilot from California, struggled with dropping the bomb. Having already discussed the matter for some time with the German forward air controller, code name Red Baron 20, Dude 15 radioed his fellow pilot in the other jet, "I really want to drop on them, but just something doesn't... something doesn't feel right."
Dude 15 then attempted to involve a superior officer in the matter, but the German soldier refused, saying clearance would come from the commander of the German base, who was "right next to me." For the fifth time now, the American pilot requested permission to perform a low-altitude flyover of the sandbank, which would warn civilians and allow them the chance to seek cover. Red Baron denied permission for such a "show of force," replying, "Negative. I want you to strike directly."
When Colonel Klein learned on the evening of September 3, 2009, that insurgents had hijacked two tanker trucks very nearby, he made the assumption that these could be used as mobile bombs to attack German forces. So he called in American fighter jets and had his forward air controller claim there were "troops in contact" -- that is, German soldiers positioned near the trucks' location. With troops in contact, NATO rules of engagement would permit an attack.
Charges Dropped against Klein
The civil court in Bonn, presided over by Judge Heinz Sonnenberger, now seeks to determine whether Klein was in culpable violation of his duty to protect civilians. It is not yet known whether the officer himself will be called as a witness. The prosecutor, who carries the burden of proof in the case, so far has not named him as a witness.
The German Federal Prosecutor's Office dropped its own criminal proceedings against Klein. In a final report, classified as secret, the officer was cleared of the charge of murder of civilians, on the grounds that "based on the circumstances as they were known to him" and on an informant's intelligence, "the presence of civilians was considered unlikely," and thus Klein was not obligated to provide warning to the people on the ground around the tanker trucks.
When questioned by NATO investigators, pilot Dude 15 stated that he and the others in the two fighter jets were unaware that the hijacked truck drivers, themselves civilians, were still present on the ground. If they had known, the pilot stated, they "would not have fired" their weapons.