A formerly classified document published Friday by NPRrevealed how the Pentagon dismissed highly credible evidence of civilian deaths caused by the October 2019 U.S. assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.
In a raid hailed by then-U.S. President Donald Trump as “impeccable,” U.S. special forces stormed al-Baghdadi’s hideout just outside Barisha in Idlib province on October 26-27, 2019. Realizing he was cornered during the raid, al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive device, killing himself and two children he was carrying with him, according to U.S. officials.
For years, the Pentagon dismissed a December 2019 NPRreport of a U.S. military helicopter attacking Syrian civilians in Barisha during the raid, killing two cousins traveling in a van and blowing the hand off a third man, claiming the victims were enemy combatants who ignored repeated warning shots.
NPR subsequently filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Pentagon and obtained a redacted copy of the military’s erstwhile secret assessment of the raid.
Remarkable reporting from @DanielEstrin.@NPR obtained new US military docs on the Baghdadi raid of Oct 2019.— Joanna Naples-Mitchell (@joanna_nm) July 21, 2023
Civilian harm allegations were dismissed on the flimsiest of bases.@CenterZomia & @CivCenter are asking the Pentagon to take another look.https://t.co/cBMVrkVlJ5
The document revealed that:
- U.S. troops fired warning shots just seconds before helicopters opened fire on the victims’ van, belying claims that the men demonstrated hostile intent by failing to stop or move;
- The Pentagon offered no solid evidence that the victims were enemy combatants;
- The military did not compile a recommended intelligence dossier to back its claim that the victims were “unlawful enemy belligerents”;
- The Pentagon questioned the veracity of a survivor’s account of the attack given to NPR—but did not interview the man; and
- The military dismissed credible evidence—including photos, reporting by NPR and other media, and assessments by NGOs including Airwars—that civilians were harmed in the raid.
“Over the past 20 years, the U.S. military has struggled with escalation of force and many civilians were killed when they were falsely viewed as a threat,” Larry Lewis of the Center for Naval Analyses told NPR. “This incident appears to be one of many such cases.”
Barakat Ahmad Barakat and two friends were driving in Syria when their van was struck, killing his friends and severing Barakat’s hand.— Airwars (@airwars) July 21, 2023
US General Kenneth McKenzie said the vehicle displayed “hostile intent.”
The reality was they were civilians going about their daily lives.
The raid’s sole survivor, a 39-year-old laborer named Barakat Ahmad Barakat, told NPR that the two men who were killed were his friends and that they were heading home after working at a local olive press. Barakat—who insisted he did not know that al-Baghdadi was hiding out in the area—said the U.S. airstrike took the men by surprise. They fled the van but came under renewed aerial attack.
“Suddenly I felt something hit us,” he said. His friends, 27-year-old Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and 30-year-old Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo, were killed. Barakat’s right hand was blown off; his arm was later amputated. His left hand was also badly injured.
The U.S. military initially claimed that the army helicopters came under fire from the van. However, a formerly classified U.S. Central Command document previously published by NPR shows that the Pentagon acknowledged the claim was untrue.
“The military owes [Barakat] a lot more. They owe him a real explanation for what happened to him because the military has not even taken basic steps to check their own assumptions from that night.”— Rosie Berman (@RosieBerman) July 21, 2023
— @joanna_nm https://t.co/I7Zmko5Uzv
The newly exposed document states that the military also “assessed secondary explosions emitted from the vehicle, indicating weapons and explosive devices were on board the panel van.”
This was untrue, as was a similar claim made by the Pentagon following an August 2021 drone strike that killed 43-year-old Afghan aid worker Zamarai Ahmadi and nine of his relatives, including seven children, in Kabul during the chaotic days of U.S. withdrawal from a 20-year invasion.
The Pentagon often attempts to conceal or minimize civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombs and bullets, which have killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians in more than half a dozen nations since the ongoing so-called War on Terror began after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
NPR‘s latest report on the al-Baghdadi raid comes as the Pentagon implements its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), a series of policy steps aimed at preventing and responding to the death and injury of noncombatants.