US military investigators have concluded that despite a series of errors, a deadly March air raid in northern Syria was legal and may have killed just one civilian, a child – an account starkly at odds with those of human rights groups and locals.
Yet at the same time officials now concede that in a “preventable error,” targeters and pilots were unaware at the time that they were conducting air strikes on part of a mosque complex.
Speaking to reporters on June 7th, Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at CENTCOM, said that though US officials had failed properly to classify religious buildings that were in the strike zone, the unilateral American attack on the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque complex in Al Jinah was lawful, and had achieved its objective of disrupting a gathering of “al Qaeda leaders”.
US investigators now argue that what they targeted was a structure attached to a mosque. They identified two separate buildings that they claim were under construction, something Bontrager said meant they did not technically have to be on No Strike Lists – though he said it would be recommended that this practice be changed. Bontrager said the US believed that what it had targeted was planned eventually to be a “school or madrassa” and that the larger part of the complex – which was relatively less damaged – was a “future mosque.”
However, analysis carried out by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture – backed by footage of the site taken before the attack – said that the al-Khattab mosque complex was fully functional.
Locals told Human Rights Watch that the structure appeared unfinished because of insufficient funding. The northern section, reported Human Rights Watch, contained a kitchen and eating area, toilets and washing room. The upstairs held “several rooms that were sometimes used for religious classes for children and the imam’s apartment.” This section of the mosque was directed targeted, determined the three groups.
According to local reports, at least 38 people were killed in a hail of bombs and missiles that began around 7pm on March 16th. Investigations carried out by the three NGOs established that US forces fired on the northern part of Al-Khattab mosque while it contained worshipers. Hellfire missiles then reportedly targeted many of those who fled the initial attack. Military investigators now say that F-15 jets released 10 bombs, while a single MQ-9 reaper drone subsequently fired two missiles.
US authorities had said publicly in the aftermath of the attack that they were targeting an al Qaeda meeting place at al Jinah, and that they had purposefully avoided a mosque they knew to be in the area – which they identified as a smaller structure adjacent to Al-Khattab.
Yet remarkably, Bontrager now says that even that smaller mosque was not something the “target engagement authority” was actually aware of – meaning that approval of the strike was made without knowledge that either the older and smaller mosque, or the newer and larger al-Khattab facility, had any religious significance. That in turn indicates the pilots carrying out the attack were unlikely to have been aware that they were striking a mosque complex.
“None of the buildings were annotated on our No Strike List as Category 1 facilities, which is a register of entities that must be carefully evaluated before an approval to strike,” said Bontrager, describing the misidentification as a “preventable error.”
“This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known, and that is something we need to make sure does not happen in the future,” he said.
Had the mosque been identified as such and put on a No Strike List, it would have been subject to more rigorous vetting. Nevertheless, the strike would have been permitted due to the alleged gathering of militant leaders inside, claimed Bontrager. And even the presence of a child did not deter the attackers.
“What we saw was a smaller in stature person accompanying an adult into the meeting site, and that alone is what we saw that made us call this individual a civilian,” said Bontrager. That likely presence of a child was known to planners of the final stages of the attack. “The target engagement authority was aware, the proportionality assessment was made and it was still deemed a legal strike.”
“The investigation found that at the time of the meeting the structure hit and the people who were targeted were valid targets because they were engaged in an al Qaeda meeting,” reporters were told in a Pentagon briefing. “It was certainly determined a proportional strike with regard to the al Qaeda meeting that was in place.”
Investigators did not divulge which al Qaeda “leaders” were present or killed during the attack, something they have done previously after unilateral American airstrikes in Syria. The outcome of the attack from a counter-terrorism perspective remains vague.
’38 civilians killed’
CENTCOM’s findings, which have not yet been released outside of a briefing for select reporters, are likely to raise further questions about the incident. Investigators did not visit the site of the attack, which is in a militant-held area. But they also did not speak with any locals who witnessed the attack. Still, Botranger said investigators were “confident” that they did not hit a gathering of civilians, instead killing “approximately two dozen men attending an al Qaeda meeting.”
By comparison, in examining the strike Human Rights Watch spoke with 14 people with close knowledge of the incident, including four people who were at the mosque, as well as first responders and local journalists. Those witnesses told HRW that a religious lecture had concluded and many attendees were lingering ahead of night prayers when the bombing began.
Syrian Civil Defense reported the recovery of 38 bodies, and published the names of 28 victims. Among the named dead were five children, the imam as well as his wife, Ghousoun Makansi.
“It is hard to understand how the Pentagon can determine with such confidence who was killed and not in the attack without having spoken to anybody on the ground,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
“The absence of any details about what intelligence the attack was based on and whom the Pentagon thinks it killed in the attack only compounds questions about how it reached these conclusions. This should not be the end of this investigation, and the Pentagon should release much more detail about what it knows.”