Pentagon admits airstrike killed civilian, not al Qaeda leader, in Syria last year

The Pentagon acknowledged Thursday that it mistakenly killed a civilian in a 2023 airstrike in northwest Syria after U.S. service members misidentified the man as a senior al Qaeda leader.

An internal investigation found American forces “misidentified the intended Al Qaeda target and that a civilian, Mr. Lufti Hasan Masto (Masto), was struck and killed instead,” according to a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) statement on the findings.

The probe also concluded that while the strike was “conducted in compliance with the law of armed conflict as well as Department of Defense and CENTCOM policies,” it “revealed several issues that could be improved.”

CENTCOM said it could not publicly share many facts and findings of the investigation, as they involve classified information.

“We are committed to learning from this incident and improving our targeting processes to mitigate potential civilian harm,” CENTCOM said, adding that it “acknowledges and regrets the civilian harm that resulted from the airstrike.”

The U.S. military initially claimed that it had killed a senior al Qaeda leader in the May 3, 2023, strike in northwest Syria. Instead it targeted Masto, a 56-year-old shepherd.

CENTCOM ordered an investigation last June, weeks after The Washington Post published a May 18 report on the strike, in which Masto’s relatives asserted he had no ties to terrorists.

U.S. officials quickly walked back the claims a senior al Qaeda figure had been killed and wrapped its probe in November, but did not publicly admit until Thursday that it had mistaken Masto as an al Qaeda official.

The Post reported that Masto was tracked by an armed Predator drone before U.S. forces fired a Hellfire missile at him behind his home and chicken farm.

The Pentagon pledged in January 2022 to work toward reducing such civilian casualties and increasing transparency should they happen.

The directive followed public outcry and scrutiny over several high-profile U.S. drone strikes, including a botched Aug. 29 attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 people, including seven children, and an attack in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.

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