U.S. targeters “misidentified” a civilian in Syria in late 2023 as a senior Al Qaeda leader, a mistake which led to them being killed by a U.S. air strike, Pentagon officials said Thursday. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP) (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images).

U.S. targeters “misidentified” a civilian in Syria in late 2023 as a senior Al Qaeda leader, a mistake which led to them being killed by a U.S. air strike, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

An investigation by U.S Central Command “determined U.S. forces misidentified the intended Al Qaeda target and that a civilian, Mr. Lufti Hasan Masto, was struck and killed instead” in a “unilateral counterterrorism” air strike in Northwest Syria on May 3, 2023, officials said in a release.

The findings came after an investigation was directed by CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla on June 6, 2023. The inquiry involved site visits to Iraq and Jordan and more than 40 interviews before concluding in November.

“Many of the facts and other findings of the investigation involve classified information and cannot be shared publicly,” the CENTCOM release said, adding that the strike complied with the law of armed conflict, Department of Defense and CENTCOM policies. “The investigation revealed several issues that could be improved. We are committed to learning from this incident and improving our targeting processes to mitigate potential civilian harm.”

The inquiry was conducted by Army Investigating Officer, Brig. Gen. John P. Cogbill and a team of ten senior service members and civilian employees who were “not directly involved with the strike” but are experts in intelligence, law of armed conflict, operations, and targeting matters, according to CENTCOM. 

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Airstrikes in Syria and Iraq 

The civilian death investigation was announced days after the DOD released its Congressionally mandated report on civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in 2022. The Pentagon found zero U.S. military operations in 2022 resulted in civilian casualties. 

However, officials also used the recent report to update statistics from previous years “based on allegations that were assessed after the date of the last report.” 

Between 2017 and 2021, the DOD said that U.S. airstrikes on targets in Syria killed 18 civilians and injured 11 others. A majority of the deaths took place during a June 4, 2018 strike in Al Helo, Al-Hasakah Province in Syria which killed 12 people.

 CENTCOM continues to carry out hundreds of airstrikes each year as U.S. officials estimate that 2,500 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, despite the fall of the group’s last refuge in Baghouz, Syria in 2019. As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the ongoing campaign against ISIS, officials said U.S. and partner groups killed 18 ISIS operatives and detained 63 more in the first three months of 2024.  A majority of the operations took place in Iraq which killed 11 ISIS members.

U.S. counterterrorism operations continue despite meetings between the two nations and the Higher Military Commission on the future of U.S. troop presence in Iraq. U.S. officials have pushed back on a near term American military withdrawal and at the same time experts have urged that increasing tensions due to the onset of the Israel-Hamas war and Iran proxy groups attacks on U.S. bases could drag the U.S. into a broader conflict with the roughly 3,300 U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria and Jordan as targets.

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