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US mistakenly killed civilian in airstrike targeting Al-Qaeda leader in Syria

U.S. armed forces found after an investigation that the civilian was struck and killed instead of an Al-Qaeda target last year.
The seal for the U.S. Central Command.
Posted at 11:50 AM, May 02, 2024

The United States says its forces killed a civilian in Northwest Syria while conducting a strike in May 2023 targeting a senior Al-Qaeda leader.

U.S. Central Command released a statement on Thursday saying that an investigation found that U.S. forces "misidentified" their target and instead killed Lotfi Hassan Misto, a civilian who they say was struck by the military as a unilateral counterterrorism airstrike.

"U.S. Central Command acknowledges and regrets the civilian harm that resulted from the airstrike. We take all reports of civilian harm caused by U.S. military operations seriously and continue to employ thorough and deliberate targeting and strike processes to minimize civilian harm," a statement said.

The U.S. said many other facts in the case could not be discussed because they involved classified information.

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Central Command said in a statement, "What we can share is the investigation concluded the strike was conducted in compliance with the law of armed conflict as well as Department of Defense and CENTCOM policies. However, the investigation revealed several issues that could be improved. We are committed to learning from this incident and improving our targeting processes to mitigate potential civilian harm."

The Washington Post reported that it doubted an initial claim by the Pentagon that U.S. forces had successfully killed a senior Al-Qaeda operative in Syria. Video was shared by the Syrian Civil Defense, or "White Helmets," showing the moments after the U.S. strike which killed Misto.

The U.S. said its investigators spoke to nongovernmental agencies after receiving cognitive bias training and red team training, which emphasizes critical thinking skills and cultural empathy. The military said the investigation took the team to sites in Iraq, Jordan and the United States as they also reviewed classified and unclassified information from the Department of Defense.

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In July, multiple U.S. senators released a lettercalling on the Defense Department to release information on a possible civilian casualty after the airstrike. The lawmakers wrote that a DOD internal investigation found evidence of "confirmation bias" when forces were selecting targets, which could lead to U.S. military members killing civilians they "incorrectly believe to be legitimate targets."

Mohammed Hassan Misto sits next to the grave of his brother Lotfi.
Mohammed Hassan Misto sits next to the grave of his brother Lotfi, who was killed on Wednesday, May 3, in a U.S. military strike, in the village of Qorqanya — a rural area in northern Idlib province, Syria, Sunday, May 7, 2023.

The lawmakers accused CENTCOM of waiting at least two weeks before opening up a preliminary investigation "despite knowing of multiple credible reports that alleged this strike killed a civilian." The U.S. military was accused of not announcing that the investigation had grown larger until June 28.

The lawmakers wrote in the letter, "it is unclear why CENTCOM waited for weeks to fully investigate this matter."

Based on information from inside Syria, the Washington Post reported that Misto had been tending to his animals on May 3, 2023, in a rural Syrian town called Qorqanya. His movements were being tracked by a predator drone when U.S. forces fired a Hellfire missile at his property, killing him. Their target, the U.S. military said, managed to escape, according to accounts of the incident.