U.S. officials walk back claim Syria strike killed senior al-Qaeda leader

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The Washington Put up


The acknowledgement comes as terrorism consultants and the lifeless man’s household have solid doubt on a Pentagon assertion indicating the operation focused a high-ranking militant in Syria

A video by the Syrian Civil Protection, sometimes called the “White Helmets,” captures the moments after a U.S. strike killed Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, on Might 3. (Video: The Syrian Civil Protection)

QORQANYA, Syria — U.S. navy officers are strolling again claims {that a} current strike in Syria killed an influential al-Qaeda determine, following assertions by the lifeless man’s household that he had no ties to terrorists however was a father of 10 tending to his sheep when he was slain by an American missile.

Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, whose household recognized him because the sufferer of a Hellfire missile assault on Might 3, was a former bricklayer who lived quietly on this city in northwest Syria, in accordance with interviews together with his brother, son and 6 others who knew him. They described a form, hard-working man whose “entire life was spent poor.”

The operation was overseen by U.S. Central Command, which claimed hours after the strike, with out citing proof or naming a suspect, that the Predator drone strike had focused a “senior Al Qaeda chief.” However now there may be doubt contained in the Pentagon about who was killed, two U.S. protection officers instructed The Washington Put up.

“We’re now not assured we killed a senior AQ official,” one official mentioned. The opposite, providing a barely completely different view, mentioned “although we consider the strike didn’t kill the unique goal, we consider the individual to be al-Qaeda.” Each spoke on the situation of anonymity to debate preliminary determinations of an ongoing investigation into the incident.

Within the weeks for the reason that assault, U.S. navy officers have refused to determine publicly who their goal was, how the obvious error occurred, whether or not a reliable terrorist chief escaped and why some within the Pentagon preserve Misto was a member of al-Qaeda regardless of his household’s denials.

In a press release, Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for Central Command, mentioned officers are conscious of reports of a civilian casualty and proceed to evaluate the end result.

“Centcom takes all such allegations severely and is investigating to find out whether or not or not the motion could have unintentionally resulted in hurt to civilians,” Lawhorn mentioned Thursday.

Sometimes the Pentagon will widen such investigations if sufficient credible proof of civilian hurt emerges, elevating questions on this case about whether or not the knowledge used to authorize the assault has held as much as scrutiny.

Final 12 months, dealing with accusations the navy had coated up previous situations of errant airstrikes that killed harmless individuals, the Biden administration vowed to take steps it mentioned would scale back such dangers whereas promising larger transparency when unintended killings do happen. Investigations performed by a number of media shops, together with The Put up, have revealed how flawed intelligence and what the navy calls “confirmation bias” have led to catastrophe, together with a 2021 strike throughout the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan that officers initially declared had resulted within the dying of a suicide bomber however as a substitute killed 10 Afghan civilians, together with seven youngsters.

Pentagon plan aims to reduce civilian deaths caused by airstrikes

The Put up offered 4 terrorism consultants with particulars about Misto and the place he lived, and requested them to survey on-line discussions amongst jihadists after the strike for any speak in regards to the assault in Qorqanya. None discovered references indicating Misto was affiliated with a terrorist group. And every mentioned it could be very uncommon for al-Qaeda — notably a senior chief — to function in any significant means close to the realm, which is managed by a rival group that break up from the group years in the past and now considers al-Qaeda an adversary.

The drone strike occurred close to Misto’s residence and hen farm. The Put up shared these coordinates with one of many U.S. protection officers, who mentioned the situation is close to a “recognized space of curiosity” to al-Qaeda however declined to specify which constructing or buildings have been of concern to the USA. Misto’s neighbors instructed The Put up that terrorists don’t stay or function close to the house.

Lotfi Hassan Misto’s residence

Satellite tv for pc picture © 2023 Maxar Applied sciences through Google Earth

Lotfi Hassan Misto’s residence

Satellite tv for pc picture © 2023 Maxar Applied sciences through Google Earth

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Lotfi Hassan Misto’s residence

Satellite tv for pc picture © 2023 Maxar Applied sciences through Google Earth

It’s unclear whether or not American commanders overseeing the strike realized Misto lived shut by, and whether or not his residence’s proximity to the “recognized space of curiosity” to al-Qaeda was an element of their perception that he was a militant.

The Put up obtained photos displaying Misto’s face earlier than and after his dying and offered these to Central Command. Officers there haven’t mentioned whether or not they consider he’s the person killed within the strike. Two facial recognition consultants who reviewed the imagery mentioned they have been assured it confirmed the identical individual, with one skilled’s evaluation reaching 90 p.c certainty. A 3rd discovered inconclusive outcomes.

Particulars about what transpired earlier than and after the U.S. assault have been gathered from interviews with Misto’s household and neighbors and pictures offered by the Syrian Civil Protection, a humanitarian response group sometimes called the “White Helmets” that responded to the strike location inside minutes.

Misto’s neighbors described his routines of ingesting tea with household and associates, tending to his animals and leaving residence largely to wish at his mosque. He was a conventional Muslim, they mentioned, and didn’t personal a cellphone.

The morning of Might 3 was unremarkable, his son Hassan mentioned. Misto gathered with household about 7:30 a.m. “We had breakfast that morning like there was nothing incorrect. We had breakfast and every little thing was wonderful, after which he went to herd his sheep,” the son recalled.

Misto took a break after a number of hours outdoors close to his residence to have tea together with his brother. They parted methods round 11:30 a.m., and he returned to his animals as they grazed in a rolling discipline of shrubs, twisting timber and rock outcroppings.

An MQ-9 Predator drone soared overhead, monitoring Misto’s footsteps by way of the sphere. Such plane had been surveilling the realm for almost two weeks, neighbors mentioned. The Hellfire missile hit him not removed from the place he had tea together with his brother simply 20 minutes earlier.

The explosion despatched a pillar of smoke into the intense blue sky, elevating alarm within the city.

Plumes of smoke erupted after a U.S. drone strike outdoors Qorqanya, Syria. (Video: Twitter)

A neighborhood resident contacted the White Helmets by way of an emergency quantity, and a crew of first responders arrived inside 10 minutes. Not less than one wore a video digicam on his helmet.

The beforehand unpublished video, which was offered to The Put up, exhibits a dozen individuals standing close by as the help employees arrive. Most stare in shock. Some cry.

The video exhibits two males making an attempt to tug one in all Misto’s sons, Muhammed Misto, away from his father’s severely disfigured physique as one other man covers it with a shirt. Misto’s spouse recognized her husband’s stays to the White Helmets, a spokesperson mentioned, who then took the physique to a hospital on the town.

Muhammad Misto crouches over his father’s physique, as neighbors and different members of the family look on. (Video: The Syrian Civil Protection)

Video and pictures published online present sheep’s corpses intermixed with fragments from the missile.

Sometimes, when al-Qaeda leaders are killed, sympathizers announce their deaths on-line as a celebration of martyrdom, mentioned Jerome Drevon, a senior analyst on jihad and trendy battle with the Worldwide Disaster Group. If the sufferer was a lower-level member of the group, teams could not announce their dying, he mentioned, however individuals near them will, usually saying how they have been related to the group. On this case, Drevon mentioned “there was nothing.”

Rita Katz, government director of SITE Intelligence Group, which intently tracks on-line exercise of jihadist organizations, didn’t discover something on-line that steered Misto was energetic with or tied to al-Qaeda. Not one of the posts Katz reviewed solid doubt on Misto’s civilian standing, she mentioned.

Former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria seeks to soften its brand

“In a short time after this strike, the White Helmets got here out and recognized the person together with his title and his career. Locals got here ahead to say, this man’s at all times been a farmer. He’s by no means had any political actions; he’s by no means had any affiliation with armed teams,” mentioned Charles Lister, the director of Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism on the Center East Institute. “The tempo and breadth of such push-back was really fairly uncommon.”

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group that controls the de facto native authorities and navy pressure in Syria’s Idlib province, visited the location later within the day and eliminated missile parts. A spokesperson for the group, often known as HTS, instructed The Put up the sufferer was a civilian. The group didn’t reply to extra questions or requests for remark.

HTS, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, was affiliated with al-Qaeda however broke ties in 2016 and has since eliminated anybody from the realm who doesn’t agree with its viewpoints, the consultants mentioned.

Even when a number of al-Qaeda leaders are nonetheless on the bottom in Idlib province, Drevon mentioned, “they actually can’t act since HTS has forbidden them from conducting any navy actions. All of them are surviving underground or dwelling on the run. They know nicely that HTS can arrest them at any time.”

In interviews, Misto’s household and longtime neighbors mentioned the accusation of an al-Qaeda affiliation struck them as weird.

“He was born right here and died right here,” mentioned a neighbor who known as himself Abu Zaid.

Misto’s brother was extra pointed. “In the event that they declare that he’s a terrorist, or that they obtained somebody from al-Qaeda,” he mentioned, “they’re all liars.”

Kelly and Horton reported from Washington and Piper reported from London. Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Cate Brown in Washington and Nilo Tabrizy in New York contributed to this report.

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