A 60 year old male civilian was killed by a declared US drone strike on the outskirts of Qurqaniya just before noon on May 3, 2023. US Central Command released a statement that they had targeted a senior Al Qaeda leader without any additional details.
The Syrian Civil Defense (@SyriaCivilDefe) tweeted that a civilian named Lutfi Hassan Masto (Abu Hassan), age 60, was killed by an unidentified drone while grazing sheep on the outskirts of Qurqaniya. The drone strike also resulted in the death of sheep.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) released a statement on May 3rd that “at 1142am local Syrian time on 3 May, US Central Command forces conducted a unilateral strike in Northwest Syria targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader. We will provide more information as operation details become available.”
However, the information provided by CENTCOM has been disputed by local sources. A tweet from Syrian journalist @pressrahhal stated that while “US Central Command claimed targeting a leader it said was prominent in the “Al-Qaeda” organization…the target is the martyr uncle “Lutfi Hassan Masto” at the age of 60, and he is a civilian who has no connection with any organization, neither now nor previously.”
Xeber24 News was the only source that referred to “the leader of one of the terrorist organizations” as being killed in the drone strike but did not clarify if it was the same person as the elderly man killed. However, multiple terrorism experts that spoke with the Washington Post pointed out that “it would be very unusual for al-Qaeda — particularly a senior leader — to operate in any meaningful way near the area, which is controlled by a rival group (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) that split from the organization years ago and now considers al-Qaeda an adversary.” Other terrorist analysts pointed out that there were no announcements or celebrations of martyrdom among any terrorist organizations. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group that controls Idlib province, told The Post the victim was a civilian.
A Washington Post investigation into the victim identified him as “a father of 10 tending to his sheep when he was slain by an American missile” and “a former bricklayer who lived quietly in this town in northwest Syria” according to interviews with his brother, son and six others who knew him. Those that knew him described a kind, hard-working man whose “whole life was spent poor.”
Multiple local sources referred to the location of the strike as being on a poultry farm, specifically in the vicinity of “Abu Khalouf poultry farm.”
Aramme News attributed the strike to a MQ9 reconnaissance aircraft.
On May 9th, AP quoted Maj. John Moore, a CENTCOM spokesperson, who said Tuesday that U.S. forces “are in the process of confirming the identity of the individual killed in the strike….We are aware of the allegations of a civilian casualty and the outcome of the confirmation process will inform if further investigation is necessary and how it should proceed.” On May 18th, the Washington Post quoted two U.S. defense officials, one who said “We are no longer confident we killed a senior AQ official,” while the other official said “though we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person to be al-Qaeda.”
The victim’s brother, Mohamed Masto, told AP that reports that his brother was involved in al-Qaida were “absolute lies” and that his killing was “an injustice and an aggression…He had nothing to do with the revolution. … He had nothing to do with the Al-Nusra Front or with the Islamic State” or any of the other armed groups involved in Syria’s 12-year-old uprising-turned-civil-war, Masto said.
A neighbor named Fayad Jamil Raji told AP he had known Lufti Masto — or “Abu Hassan,” a nickname meaning “father of Hassan” — for many years. “The man was a civilian. He had a farm with poultry, cows and sheep,” he said.
According to the Washington Post, on the day of the strike, his son Hassan said that Masto had gathered with his family about 7:30 a.m that morning. “We had breakfast that morning like there was nothing wrong. We had breakfast and everything was fine, and then he went to herd his sheep,” the son recalled. Masto then took a break after a few hours outside near his home to have tea with his brother, and they parted ways around 11:30 a.m., and he returned to his animals as they grazed. An MQ-9 Predator drone soared overhead and struck him close to where he had just had tea with his brother 20 minutes ago. Neighbors pointed out that aircraft had been surveilling the area for nearly two weeks.
The incident occured at 11:42:00 local time.