The senior general in charge of US forces in the Middle East ordered that his command will be announced on Twitter that a senior al Qaeda leader was targeted in an American drone strike in Syria earlier this month — although there is no confirmation yet of who was actually killed in the strike, according to multiple defense officials.
Nearly three weeks later, US Central Command still does not know if a civilian was killed, officials said. CENTCOM did not open a review of the incident, officially known as a civilian-casualty credibility assessment report, until May 15 – twelve days after the strike. That review is ongoing.
A defense official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN that some of CENTCOM Commander Gen. Erik Kurilla urged him to stop tweeting until there is more clarity on who was really killed.
Two other officials denied that, and said they were not aware of any staff expressing dismay or disapproval of the announcement.
Either way, the statement finally posted on Twitter from the official CENTCOM Twitter account did not identify the supposed senior al Qaeda leader, raising many questions about what happened.
“At 11:42 am local Syrian time on 3 May, US Central Command Forces conducted a unilateral strike in Northwest Syria targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader,” the tweet read. “We will provide more information as operational details become available.”
The tweet was not deleted and CENTCOM did not tweet about the strike again.
The episode raises questions about how thoroughly CENTCOM is implementing the civilian military harm reduction policy – a process to prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian casualties caused by US military operations.
The policy was developed in 2022 after a botched US drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians in August 2021.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is “absolutely” confident in Defense civilian harm reduction efforts.
“As for the CENTCOM strike, as you know, they conducted that strike on the third of May. They are investigating allegations of civilian casualties,” Ryder said at a Pentagon news briefing. “So, you know, I think our record speaks for itself in terms of how seriously we take this. Very few countries around the world do that. The secretary has full trust that we will continue to follow the policies we have in place.
CENTCOM acknowledged last week after a Washington Post report that questioned the strike that the operation may have resulted in a civilian casualty and said in a statement that it was “investigating” the incident. The civilian casualty review was not launched until a week after the Post began presenting information to CENTCOM suggesting the strike had killed a civilian.
CENTCOM still has not opened a formal investigation into the strike, known as a 15-6 investigation, defense officials told CNN. Officials said the civilian casualty assessment must first determine that a non-combatant was killed in the strike. Then, a commander must decide that there are other unanswered questions remaining about the operation that require a more thorough investigation. A 15-6 investigation was launched less than a week after the wrongful strike in Kabul.
Defense officials told CNN that after the strike, Kurilla and his staff were highly confident they had killed the senior al-Qaeda leader, though they declined to say why they were convinced. But they also know that it may take several days to confirm the person’s identity for sure. The US has no military footprint in northwest Syria, an area still recovering from the effects of a devastating earthquake.
But as the days passed, CENTCOM still did not determine the identity of the person they killed. Some defense officials consider that a red flag, they told CNN.
As of May 8, CENTCOM still had not confirmed the person’s identity, and began receiving information from the Washington Post that raised questions about a civilian being killed, defense officials said. The Post’s information led CENTCOM to open a review of the strike, and whether it killed a civilian, on May 15.
There is still some disagreement within the administration about the identity of the man killed, defense officials told CNN. Some intelligence officials continue to believe the target of the strike was a member of al-Qaeda, although he was not a senior leader. But there is growing belief inside the Pentagon that the man – identified by his family as Loutfi Hassan Mesto, a 56-year-old father of ten – was a farmer with no links to terrorism.
Mesto’s family told CNN that he was out grazing his sheep when he was killed. Loutfi never left his village during the Syrian uprisings and did not support any political faction, his brother said.
Mohamed Sajee, a distant relative who lives in Qurqaniya, also told CNN that Loutfi was never known to be for or against the Syrian regime.
“It’s impossible that he’s with al Qaeda, he doesn’t even have a beard,” he said.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, told CNN that they arrived at the site of the strike after being contacted by their local emergency number.
“The team only noticed a crater caused by the missile, which is next to the body of the man,” said the White Helmets, who also confirmed that the man was grazing his sheep.
“When the group arrived, his wife, neighbors, and other people were at the location,” the group added.
The White Helmet tweeted on May 3 that they recovered the body of Mesto, whom they described as “a civilian in his 60s” who died in a missile strike while grazing sheep. CENTCOM is aware of the White Helmets’ tweet, officials said, but the group’s information is not yet considered strong enough to open an investigation.
The May 3 incident bears striking similarities to another CENTCOM operation: a US drone strike in Kabul during the final days of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which killed 10 Afghan civilians, including 7 child. The Pentagon initially claimed it had eliminated an ISIS-K threat and defended the operation for weeks, with Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley went on to call it a “just” strike at a Pentagon briefing two days ago.
A suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport three days earlier, which killed 13 US service members, increased pressure on CENTCOM to act against any potential threats, and the officials believed at the time that another attack was imminent.
Austin finally decided that no one should be punished for the failed operation, even as he directed the Central Command and Special Operations Command to develop policies and procedures to prevent civilian casualties more effectively.
Austin has committed to adjusting Defense Department policies to better protect civilians, even establishing a civilian defense center of excellence by 2022.
“The leaders of this department must be held accountable for high standards of behavior and leadership,” Austin said at the time.