KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 29: Traffic flows through the dusty capitol city of Kabul at dusk September 29, 2004 in Kabul, Afghanistan. On October 9, Afghans will have the chance to vote, for the first time, in a direct election choosing a presidential candidate. The election is seen as a crucial step towards democracy and peace in the war-torn country after the fall of the Taliban. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Afghan officials vigorously deny both claims made by former UN officials, but the accusations are serious enough to have triggered investigations from Kabul to New York to Washington.
The charges — which include a claim that a police officer shot the American after the attack was over — also raise serious questions about the reliability of Afghan security forces and the integrity of the Afghan government, which the United States is backing with 100,000 troops and billions of dollars in development aid.
After more than a dozen interviews with Western diplomats, current and former UN officials, Western intelligence sources and Afghan government representatives, NBC News has learned at least two investigations are under way into the attack on the UN compound in Kabul last October.
The main investigation conducted by a special UN board of inquiry is expected to be completed in "a matter of days," according to an official in the UN secretary general's office.
The attack on the UN compound began just before 7 a.m. Oct. 28. Three militants with assault rifles and suicide vests tried to overrun a small hotel occupied mainly by UN staff in an upscale residential Kabul neighborhood. Five UN employees were killed, along with three Afghan civilians and two members of the Afghan security forces. The attack nearly paralyzed the UN while it was in the middle of investigating widespread fraud in Afghanistan’s presidential election.
But how did it happen? Did Afghan police respond quickly enough? And, most critically, were Afghan police involved in the attack?
The two investigations specifically focus on the killing of Louis Maxwell, a 27-year-old American from Florida who was working as a security guard for the United Nations. A popular, former US Navy sailor, Maxwell was asleep when the attack began. He jumped out of bed and began to shoot at the attackers, fending them off. Having just awoken Maxwell wasn’t wearing his UN uniform but did have a UN identification card around his neck, according to UN officials.
“He got up onto the roof of that building and started defending the lives of United Nations personnel and saved probably at least 17 of those lives,” Tony Banbury, assistant UN secretary general for field operations, told NBC News in an interview in New York this week.
“In the course of that heroic action by our colleague, Louis Maxwell lost his own life. He was killed. He was murdered,” Banbury said.
But who killed Louis Maxwell?
‘Machinegun fire and an explosion’
The attack on the UN compound began early Oct. 28. NBC News filed it first internal breaking news alert at 6:56 a.m. Kabul time: “Machinegun fire and an explosion resounded in central Kabul.”
The UN guest house was a small hotel with minimal security in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul, a district with many large villas used as guest houses or rented by western diplomats, foreign contractors and international journalists. It is a fairly secure neighborhood with a heavy Afghan security presence.
Two former UN officials who held senior positions in Kabul at the time told NBC News that Afghan police were slow to respond, arriving an hour and a half after the attack began. This, they said, was unusual because of the high police presence in the neighborhood.
The spokesman for the Afghan interior minister, however, disputed that.
“The police of Afghanistan was the first force to arrive to the scene and based on our information that we got from our security forces that were involved in the operation, they arrived after three minutes maximum to the scene and started the rescue operation,” said spokesman Zemarai Bashary.
That difference in response time – 90 minutes versus three minutes – is a huge discrepancy. Also raising questions are witness accounts that while the attack was under way, another Afghan security force allegedly checked on one of Karzai's relatives living in a house next door to the UN compound but left without providing assistance.
Again, Afghan interior ministry spokesman Bashary denies that Afghan forces failed to act.
“Two of the security forces of Afghanistan were killed and one was wounded (during the UN compound attack), so this is to show clearly that they were dedicated to rescue them,” he said.
A father, a musician, ‘a hero’
Louis Maxwell, who graduated from Miami Central High School in 2000, was popular among his UN colleagues. They consistently say he fought heroically to defend the UN compound during the attack.
Maxwell had served in the Navy before joining the UN as a security guard. He was also a father of two and talented musician, who played the trumpet in a Miami band and at his church, according to his mother, Sandra. She called her son Jay.
After the attack, a UN official called Ms. Maxwell with the terrible news. UN officials remain in frequent contact with the Maxwell family.
“He called to tell me what a hero Jay was and how he had saved so many people’s lives. If it wasn’t for him, there would have been a lot more deaths,” Ms. Maxwell said.
“He paid the ultimate price. But my son would not have had it any other way. He knew what he needed to do. … He stood and he fought to save those people, and I will always honor him for that,” she said.
Maxwell is to be honored in May with the UN's Dag Hammarskjold medal, given posthumously to peacekeepers who lose their lives during service.
The killing of Louis Maxwell
One of the former UN officials and a senior Western diplomat in Kabul told NBC News that Maxwell was shot dead by an Afghan police officer and not the attackers themselves. The sources, who like others interviewed for this story asked not to be identified because of the investigations, said that Maxwell was killed after the attack ended and that an amateur video supports their claim. The video, posted on the website of the German magazine Stern, shows Maxwell falling to the ground after being shot. Afghan security forces can be seen nearby in the blurry and shaky recording.
One of the main questions investigators are examining is how Maxwell, who defended the compound from a rooftop, ended up being killed at street level when the attack was over.
Afghan interior ministry spokesman Basharay said at least one of the attackers was wearing an Afghan uniform.
“We have accepted that there was a bomber wearing a police uniform and he was shooting everyone that was coming in front of him. Perhaps he has shot the UN security guard. But before saying that, we need to investigate this,” Basharay said.
But the former UN officials said senior Afghan officials were uncooperative in providing information after the attack.
“We were completely stonewalled,” one former UN official told NBC News.
The Afghan government, however, has consistently denied any attempt at a cover-up.
“We were ready from the beginning to do a giant investigation, to study the incident,” Bashary said.
Discrepancies between official Afghan statements and accusations of Western diplomats and UN officials triggered at least two investigations into the UN compound attack and the killing of Maxwell. NBC News has learned that the United Nations in New York and the FBI are involved. The FBI's investigation is being carried out by its Washington field office.
“There is a concern on the part of the United Nations that Mr. Maxwell may have been killed by friendly fire by Afghan security forces. That is a possibility,” said Banbury, Assistant UN Secretary General for Field Operations.
“The investigation by the Untied Nations is trying to establish the facts whatever they are, whether Mr. Maxwell was killed by deliberate fire, inadvertent fire, by terrorists, we are trying to get to the bottom of the facts,” Banbury added.
NBC News has learned immediately after the attack, the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (DSS) began its investigation and within weeks recommended that the UN secretary general’s office establish a special board of inquiry. The board of inquiry is headed by a senior official from the Australian federal police, Australia’s equivalent of the FBI. The DSS also briefed the FBI in Washington.
“When there was information suggesting that possibility (that Maxwell was killed by Afghan security forces) we felt it was our responsibility to share that information with FBI,” Banbury said.
The UN’s investigation is almost complete.
“We expect it will be done within a matter of days,” Banbury said.
The election dispute
The attack happened in the midst of a major dispute between the United Nations and President Karzai over allegations of voter fraud in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election.
On Aug. 20, two months before the attack, Afghans went to the polls. Karzai was the front runner for re-election but faced a tougher than expected challenge from his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Almost immediately, international election monitors claimed there was widespread fraud, most of it carried out by Karzai supporters.
UN officials intensified their investigations, and in October, evidence of fraud became overwhelming. UN monitors who were staying at the guest house said a million votes for Karzai – about one in five of the national total – should be discounted. Under international pressure, Karzai agreed to hold another round of elections, a runoff with Abdullah.
On Oct. 20, U.S. Sen. John Kerry stood next to Karzai as the Afghan president announced that he would agree to the second round.
Just eight days later, the UN compound was attacked.
On Nov. 1, Abdullah pulled out of the race. There were numerous reports Abdullah was encouraged to step aside by Western officials who worried a runoff could trigger violence across Afghanistan. The second round of voting was never held. Karzai won by default. The United States congratulated Karzai on his victory and recognized him as Afghanistan’s democratically elected president.
Although the current investigations focus on the UN compound attack and the killing of Louis Maxwell, they also are re-examining a highly sensitive period in Afghanistan’s modern political history. The conclusion of the UN investigation is likely to be made public, but not the details.