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US admits to killing civilian it misidentified as al Qaeda target

U.S. Central Command acknowledged on Thursday that troops targeted and killed a Syrian civilian who had been “misidentified” as an al Qaeda target a year ago.

U.S. forces carried out the strike in northwest Syria on May 3, 2023, and shortly thereafter, there were reports that the individual who had been killed was a civilian, quickly identified as Lufti Hasan Masto, a father of 10. CENTCOM initially said the strike had targeted a “senior al-Qaeda leader,” but later commenced an investigation.

The review of the strike “determined U.S. forces misidentified the intended Al Qaeda target and that a civilian, Mr. Lufti Hasan Masto (Masto), was struck and killed instead,” CENTCOM said in a statement about the investigation’s findings.

“What we can share is the investigation concluded the strike was conducted in compliance with the law of armed conflict as well as Department of Defense and CENTCOM policies,” their statement continued. “However, 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.”

A Department of Defense official confirmed to the Washington Examiner that no one was disciplined as a result of the strike. The investigation concluded that the Target Engagement Authority had made a “reasonable decision” based on the information they had at the time and that the strike was carried out in compliance with the department’s policies and procedures and with the law of armed conflict.

Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, directed an investigation on June 6, 2023, roughly a month after the strike occurred, while the commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve initiated the inquiry on June 23, 2023.

Brig. Gen. John Cogbill led the investigation, which concluded back in November. He was supported by a team of 10 senior service members and civilian employees not directly involved in the strike. They conducted more than 40 interviews.

Masto’s son, Hassan, told the Washington Post that the fateful day started like any other.

“We had breakfast that morning like there was nothing wrong,” he said. “We had breakfast and everything was fine, and then he went to herd his sheep,” and then after a few hours he had tea with his brother. Less than half an hour after leaving his brother, around midday, he returned to grazing his sheep when the MQ-9 Predator drone overhead deployed a Hellfire missile in his direction.

The Pentagon has commonly faced criticism for its drone program in the post-9/11 war on terror, specifically for incurring civilian casualties. The department, under Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s tenure, has implemented the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan in response to such incidents.

“I learned in combat that the protection of civilians in conflict zones is both a moral and national security imperative,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), one of the co-chairs of the Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus, told the Washington Examiner. “My thoughts are with Lotfi Hassan Misto’s family. This tragedy shows once again the need for oversight to prevent incidents of civilian harm, ensure accountability, and make amends. As Co-founder of the Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus, I remain committed to preventing further tragedies like this.”

Notably, this announcement comes as Israel continues its war against Hamas in Gaza. Israeli forces, with U.S.-provided weapons, have carried out an all-out assault in the strip against Hamas, which carried out the Oct. 7 terrorist attack that left roughly 1,200 people dead.

Israel’s subsequent military response over the last six months has resulted in the deaths of roughly 34,000 people, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry. Hamas intentionally embeds itself within and underneath the civilian population in Gaza to force Israeli troops to either endanger those civilians or not go after the terrorists to avoid civilian casualties altogether.

U.S. leaders, including President Joe Biden, have repeatedly urged Israel to do more to prevent civilian casualties over the course of several months. About a month ago, an Israeli airstrike killed seven aid workers who were employed by the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization founded by famous chef Jose Andres.

The errant strike, which Israel acknowledged, investigated, and apologized for, incurred international outrage and prompted Biden to threaten to condition U.S. aid to Israel if Israeli leaders did not do more to safeguard Palestinian civilians and allow for an increase of humanitarian aid.

The Biden administration is currently trying to persuade Hamas to accept the current iteration of a ceasefire proposal that would, at least temporarily, preclude Israel from carrying out a full-scale operation of Rafah, the southernmost city of Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge due to the war.

The U.S. does not support Israeli operations in Rafah without significant and careful consideration for how to evacuate and support the civilian population. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed earlier this week that Israel intends to carry out these operations.

The admission from CENTCOM about the Syrian strike is a reminder of its own past actions.

One of the most infamous U.S. airstrikes in recent memory occurred on Aug. 29, 2021, in Afghanistan, days after a suicide bombing attack killed 13 U.S. troops and injured dozens of others at Hamid Karzai International Airport.


On Aug. 29, U.S. forces believed an Afghan aid worker was actually an ISIS-K terrorist who posed a grave risk to the troops at the airport. As Zemari Ahmadi went about his day, his daily tasks naturally took him closer to the airport — which military officials believed was indicative of an imminent threat.

U.S. Central Command launched an airstrike at Ahmadi, which killed him and nine others, including several members of his family. U.S. defense officials have acknowledged Ahmadi was not in fact a terrorist who posed any threat to the U.S. forces at the airport.

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