Facebook and a LinkedIn Co-Founder Funded a Suddenly Packed Afghan Airlift
(Bloomberg) -- The airlift was fraught with risk from the start. Donors from Silicon Valley including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, as well as Facebook Inc., had agreed to fund an evacuation flight for 188 journalists, aid workers and others who were suddenly in danger after the Taliban’s quick capture of Kabul. They hoped to get most of those evacuees to Mexico City, via Abu Dhabi, to start a new life.
Those plans largely succeeded. But amid the chaos in Afghanistan, they also took an unexpected turn.
Shortly before their flight left on Aug. 30, the airline — Kam Air — stuffed the half-empty plane with at least 155 additional passengers — its employees, their families and more, according to U.S. officials and organizers of the flight.
The 11th-hour surprise created agita at the State Department and in the United Arab Emirates because the extra passengers — who weren’t on the plane’s manifest — hadn’t been screened for that flight and raised security and immigration concerns. It also created angst among many of the organizers and financial supporters, who say they had carefully vetted the original list of passengers and weren’t aware of the extra passengers until the plane landed in Abu Dhabi.
“The 155, not on the FB manifest, were placed on the FB airplane by KAM airlines,” according to a State Department email obtained by Bloomberg News. “FB (and everyone else) learned about these individuals when they landed in Abu Dhabi.”
The circumstances surrounding their departure underscored the turmoil that followed the U.S. withdrawal from the longest foreign war in American history and the difficulty of controlling events in a war-torn country from halfway around the world. But it also exemplified the ways strange bedfellows — in this case, Facebook Inc., a prominent tech founder, security firms, consultants and aid agencies — came together to spirit endangered people out of Afghanistan.
A representative for Kam Air didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Most of the original group of 188 evacuees made it to Mexico, transferring in Abu Dhabi to an EgyptAir flight that continued on to Mexico City via Cairo. The Kam Air employees and other last-minute additions to the Facebook flight remain in the UAE, where they are being vetted with other evacuees, according to administration officials.
In a Sept. 20 situation report, U.S. diplomats stationed in Abu Dhabi said their post still “awaits guidance” on about 3,600 evacuees in the UAE — many of whom escaped thanks to help from outside private groups — “who are not confirmed as belonging to priority categories” such as U.S. citizens or people in immediate danger.
At a Sept. 8 press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised charitable organizations and others that were working to evacuate people from Afghanistan. But he said such privately-founded airlifts create challenges with U.S. personnel on the ground or normal security procedures. “Some of the groups claiming to have all the documentations and arrangements locked down unfortunately don’t,” he said.
While the Facebook flight has been reported previously, Bloomberg News has uncovered new details about it from those on board and others involved in planning the privately funded evacuation, including the involvement of Hoffman, the harrowing days and hours before takeoff, and the unexpected addition of nearly twice as many passengers.
Eric Montalvo, a lawyer and former U.S. Marine who helped arrange the flights, was unapologetic for the way the flight transpired, saying the plane had extra room for people whose lives were in danger if they remained in the country. “Extra lives being saved should never be associated with a complaint,” Montalvo said. “Life is precious. One cannot create the circumstances for failure and then blame the victims of that failure for their desire to survive.”
The operation was organized by a private, Kirkland, Washington-based security firm called Concentric, with help from Facebook, Montalvo, Amman, Jordan-based Magenta Consulting, and nongovernmental organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. Their evacuees were Afghan nationals and included at least 75 children, about 30 people affiliated with Facebook such as employees and their families, as well as aid workers, journalists and even a comedian. All of them were at risk of retaliation by the Taliban for their work if they remained in the country.
Those evacuees were all on the manifest and the UAE knew they were coming, according to the organizers.
“I went out into the private donor network of people that were interested in this and once we had formulated a plan we raised almost a million dollars in 24 hours,” said Roderick Jones, Concentric’s executive chairman. “I’ve always felt there was a moment where you can put private capital and donor money to work where markets or governments can’t find solutions. And it turned out this way because we could take the risks, and we could do this thing in the middle.”
In a statement Facebook said, “In the process of assisting Facebook employees and close partners to leave Afghanistan, we joined an effort to help a group of journalists and their families who were in grave danger. Thanks to the leadership of the Mexican government and the support of the UAE in providing the initial landing, the journalists have been welcomed in Mexico.”
Hoffman was among the first to fund the effort, according to his philanthropic advisor Dmitri Mehlhorn, who was responding on Hoffman’s behalf. He donated money for two other evacuation flights as well as support for Afghans upon arrival at their destinations, Mehlhorn said. Other tech entrepreneurs donated to the operation, according to Concentric, but their identities couldn’t be confirmed.
Beyond Hoffman’s donation for the Kam Air flight, Facebook contributed $400,000, parties involved confirmed. The second leg, from Abu Dhabi to Mexico, was substantially more expensive, and largely covered by Facebook. The tech company didn’t want to publicly disclose how much it paid for the EgyptAir flight.
The people organizing and paying for the evacuation, as well as the evacuees, communicated in group chats on WhatsApp and Signal and on separate Slack channels. When Kabul’s airport became too perilous to chance a departure, some of them organized seven passenger vans to spirit 122 people away to a second airport.
Among the original 188 was a woman who requested anonymity to protect family members when she spoke to Bloomberg News from a hotel room in Mexico City. She’d been fielding messages from her Afghan colleagues still on the ground asking for her whereabouts.
The Afghan woman described an escape that often appeared hopeless, navigating checkpoints and dealing with several false starts in an unstable and rapidly deteriorating environment. She was the only local employee for a well-known U.S.-based aid organization who was able to get on the flight, primarily because her relatively high profile made her a visible target for the Taliban. Her American co-workers contacted Concentric to help evacuate her when their organization did not. As a Taliban takeover of Kabul appeared all but inevitable, she said she and others faced increasing threats, and she said she believed the Taliban would come for her if she stayed.
In the days leading up to the flight, the woman said she received messages from U.S. co-workers telling her to make her way to Kabul to get on a plane out of the country. Her parents rode with her on a 16-hour taxi ride to Kabul, where she planned to head to the airport. As they arrived in the city center at midnight, however, the people helping her escape called with bad news.
“They said the airport was attacked,” the woman said. “The plan has changed.” Suicide bombers and gunmen struck near the Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, killing over 180 people, including 13 U.S. service members. Kabul airport would become impossible to enter.
She and her parents were told to take another taxi and make their way to another city with an airport that was still running flights, in what ended up being a 13-hour drive. She and others involved in the operation asked that the name of the airport and the city not be disclosed to keep it open as a viable option for future evacuations.
Once they arrived, they were directed to safehouses that had been secured by organizers of the evacuation for passengers to stay until a flight became available. Twice she was told to take her backpack — the only luggage she could bring — and prepare to get to the airport, only to be told the flight was off. She finally made it on the third try, after being told to stand outside a mosque on a busy street to wait for a bus. The bus that picked her up then traveled to collect the rest of the passengers who had been waiting in their own safehouses, scattered across the city.
“Every next step was shared with me five minutes before I had to take action,” she said. “The people in the U.S. had to negotiate and coordinate with so many groups in Afghanistan. The plan changed all the time.”
The genesis for the evacuation began some two weeks prior to the flight, when Concentric’s chief of staff, Laura Hoffner, a military veteran, watched reports from Kabul’s international airport, and saw the images of Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the capital, horrified as they clung to the landing gear of departing U.S. military aircraft only to fall to their deaths from the sky.
“I was deployed to Afghanistan five times and spent years there, enough for it to be an emotional part of my life,” she said. “Those scenes shocked me to my core.”
A former naval intelligence officer who supported Navy Seal teams during special operations in Afghanistan, Hoffner became one of dozens of U.S. military veterans working urgently to help Afghans who’d worked as translators for the U.S. military and their families to get out of the country.
“Based on the roles I had while I was in the military, people were reaching out to me, and we started getting requests from different clients asking for us to help,” she said. “And we had to figure out who we know in this space, what they have available at the time, who has assets on the ground, how much it’s going to cost.”
As more people and organizations came to her asking if she could fit their translator or aid worker or journalist and their families on board, she began to build a manifest of passengers for the Kam Air flight. Her colleagues reached out to people to work out logistics on the ground and to Silicon Valley to raise money for the effort.
They connected with Montalvo, who was in Tajikistan working with Kam Air, a private Afghan airline, to organize flights out of the country, Montalvo and Concentric confirmed. He was able to charter a plane for the group.
Initially, Tajikistan was to be their destination. Albania was floated as a possibility, as was Uganda. One Middle Eastern country would only take people if they’d already been vaccinated against Covid-19. Others said they could land but couldn’t stay. Through high level connections, Facebook smoothed passage for the Afghans to land in Abu Dhabi, according to the organizers.
Montalvo had chartered a second plane that was meant to include Kam Air’s employees and others who were desperate to get out of the country. That second plane was bound for Doha, rather than Abu Dhabi. He said those passengers were on the Doha flight manifest and had been vetted prior to departure. Montalvo said he doesn't know why Kam Air chose to board its people onto the first plane instead and was as surprised as everyone else when he received word that they had arrived in Abu Dhabi.
Magenta Consulting had already secured entry for a group of media professionals to arrive in Mexico, managing director, Sarah-Jean Cunningham, said. After consultations with the Mexican government that ran into the early hours of the morning before the Kam Air flight took off, approval was granted for 175 of the group of 188 to enter Mexico on humanitarian grounds. The 13 others remained in Abu Dhabi to continue on to separate destinations.
Having left her parents behind, the Afghan woman said she arrived in Mexico with $1,000 in cash and no idea how long that would hold.
The flight was met by representatives of the International Rescue Committee, who took the passengers to hotels where they would stay until their visa applications were processed, according to several of the participants. What remained of the funds raised to fly everyone out was donated to help support all the passengers in this next chapter of their lives, Concentric confirmed. The woman expects to go to the U.S., but while she waits she remains anxious about the fate of her family who remain in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban won’t punish me. They will punish the male members of my family,” she said. “I was the lucky one, because my life was saved.”
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