The senior general in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East ordered that his command announced on twitter Earlier this month, a senior al-Qaeda leader was targeted in a U.S. drone strike in Syria, according to multiple defense officials — though it has not been confirmed who was actually killed in the attack.
Nearly three weeks later, U.S. Central Command still does not know if any civilians have died, officials said. Central Command did not begin its review of the incident, formally known as the Civilian Casualty Credibility Assessment Report, until May 15, twelve days after the attack. This review is ongoing.
A defense official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN that some of Central Command Commander Gen. Eric Kurila’s subordinates urged him to hold off on tweeting until it was clearer who had been killed.
Two other officials denied that and said they were not aware of any staff members who expressed consternation or disagreement with the announcement.
Either way, the statement that was eventually posted to Twitter from Central Command’s official Twitter account did not name the alleged senior al-Qaeda leader, raising more questions about what happened.
“At 11:42 AM local time in Syria, May 3, U.S. Central Command forces conducted a unilateral strike against a senior Al Qaeda leader in NW Syria,” the tweet read. “We will provide more information as operational details emerge.”
The tweet was not deleted, and CENTCOM did not retweet about the strike.
The incident raised questions about the thoroughness with which CENTCOM implemented the military’s civilian injury mitigation policy — which is designed to prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian casualties from U.S. military operations.
The policy was enacted in 2022 after a botched US drone strike in Kabul in August 2021 killed 10 civilians.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Patride said Tuesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has “absolutely” confidence in the Department of Defense’s efforts to mitigate civilian harm.
“In terms of the Central Command strike, as you know, they went on that strike on May 3. They’re investigating allegations of civilian casualties,” Ryder said at a Pentagon news conference. “So, you know, I think our record speaks for itself how seriously we take these issues. There are very few countries in the world that do that. The minister has every confidence that we will continue to comply with the policies that we set out.”
Central Command admitted last week Washington Post reports questioned whether the operation could have resulted in civilian casualties and said in a statement that it was “investigating” the incident. The review of civilian casualties did not begin until a week after The Washington Post began submitting information to CENTCOM that the airstrike killed a civilian.
Defense Department officials told CNN that Central Command has still not launched a formal investigation into the strike, known as the 15-6 investigation. Officials said the civilian casualty review would first need to establish that a noncombatant was indeed killed in the attack. Commanders then need to decide whether there are other unresolved issues of the operation that require a more thorough investigation. The 15-6 probe was launched less than a week after the errant Kabul strike.
Defense officials told CNN that after the attack, Kurira and his staff were very confident they had killed the senior al-Qaeda leader, but declined to say why they believed so. But they also knew it could take several days to finally identify the person. The United States has no military footprint in northwestern Syria, which is still recovering from the effects of the devastating earthquake.
But as the days passed, CENTCOM still couldn’t identify the people they killed. Some defense officials saw this as a red flag, they told CNN.
By May 8, CENTCOM had yet to identify the individual and began receiving information from The Washington Post questioning whether civilians had been killed, defense officials said. The Post’s information prompted CENTCOM to begin a review of the attack on May 15 and examine whether it resulted in civilian deaths.
Defense officials told CNN there was still some disagreement within the administration over the identity of the victims. Some intelligence officials still believe the attack targeted an al-Qaeda member, even if he was not a senior leader. But there is a growing belief within the Pentagon that the man — whom his family has identified as Loutfi Hassan Mesto, 56, the father of 10 — is a A farmer who has nothing to do with terrorism.
Mesto’s The family told CNN He was outside herding sheep when he was killed. Lutfi never left his village during the Syrian uprising and did not support any political faction, his brother said.
Mohamed Sajee, a distant relative who lives in Kulkaniya, also told CNN that Routfi was never known to support or oppose the Syrian regime.
“He couldn’t be with al Qaeda, he doesn’t even have a beard,” he said.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, told CNN they were called to the scene of the attack after being called to a local emergency number.
“The team only noticed a crater caused by the missile, next to the man’s body,” the White Helmets said, while confirming that the man had been grazing his sheep.
“His wife, neighbors and others were at the scene when the team arrived,” the group added.
white helmet Tweeted on May 3 They found the body of Mesto, whom they described as “a 60-year-old civilian” who was killed by a missile attack while grazing sheep. Central Command was aware of the White Helmets tweets, but the group’s information was deemed insufficiently reliable and a review had not yet been launched, officials said.
The events of May 3 bear striking parallels with another CENTCOM operation: a U.S. drone attack on Kabul in the final days of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Killed 10 Afghan civilians, including 7 children. The Pentagon initially claimed it had neutralized the ISIS-K threat and defended the operation for weeks, and two days later, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went so far as to call it a “just” in a Pentagon briefing. hit.
The suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport three days earlier that killed 13 U.S. service members put more pressure on Central Command to act against any potential threat, and officials believed another attack was imminent.
Austin ultimately decided that no one would be punished for the botched operation, even though he directed Central Command and Special Operations Command to improve policies and procedures to more effectively prevent civilians from being harmed.
Austin pledged to adjust DoD policy to better protect civilians, even establishing a Civilian Protection Center of Excellence in 2022.
“Leaders in this department should be held accountable for high standards of conduct and leadership,” Austin said at the time.