A YouTube video and reports from an NGO prompted the U.S. military to investigate claims of civilians being killed by American airstrikes in Syria last year.
The Army’s recently declassified investigation found that two children were likely killed and two civilians wounded last November by bombs targeting members of an al Qaeda offshoot known as the Khorasan group.
These are the first civilian casualties the military has reported since the U.S. commenced an air war in Iraq and Syria last summer. As of May 7, the U.S. had carried out 2,937 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since President Obama authorized them on August 8, 2014.
The military says it learned about the civilian casualties through publicly available “open source” channels.
Shortly after airstrikes on November 6, 2014, U.S. government and military officials began seeing reports that civilians had been killed in the operation.
One of the sources, cited by the Army’s investigator as key to its official inquiry, is a non-governmental organization called the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). The group had published a report on November 9, three days after the strikes. It identified the buildings targeted by the airstrikes, where the two children were killed, as “military points” used by al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al Nusra Front, and another jihadist group active in Syria’s civil war called Ahrar Ash-Sham. According to SNHR’s report, one of the children killed was the daughter of an al Nusra fighter, who was also killed by the airstrike.
The Army investigation also notes that “open source video footage purportedly from that location showed [two] female children that appear to be deceased.” The video, it says, was posted by a “YouTube user who states he is against the Assad regime.” Additionally, the investigation mentions that State Department and USAID contacts had reported to the agencies that civilians were killed by the airstrike.
Most U.S. air strikes have targeted members of the self-declared Islamic State, also known as ISIS. But the November strikes detailed in the report targeted members of al Qaeda in Syria, who were reportedly plotting attacks on Western targets.
When the Pentagon announced the attack on the al Qaeda cell, called the Khorasan group, the news was widely reported at the time. Few Syria observers or terrorism analysts had heard of the group prior to the government announcing its operation against them, which led to speculation about their role within al Qaeda and inside Syria.
After first seeing reports of civilian deaths tied to the strike on the Khorasan group, the military appears to have initiated its formal investigation in January 2015, based on the chronology provided in its report.
Marine Brigadier General Thomas D. Weidley was appointed to investigate the reports of civilian casualties as part of an official inquiry known as a 15-6 investigation.
After evaluating the evidence, Weidley found “the strikes were conducted [in accordance with] military authorities and the rules of engagement … current at the time of the strikes. All targeting procedures were followed in order to mitigate possible civilian casualties.”
Despite that, Weidley concludes that the strikes “likely resulted in the deaths of two civilians, and cause minor injuries to two other civilians residing near one of the targeted locations.”
The target of the airstrikes, in the early hours of November 6, 2014, had been suspected bomb-making facilities located in Harim City, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Governate. According to the Army’s report, “the strikes were designed to destroy targets utilized by the Khorosan group-affiliated extremists to meet and manufacture explosives.”
The suspected bomb-making facilities had been on a “No-Strike list,” which prohibits attacks on certain areas based on civilian presence or other concerns. After that initial determination, “the buildings were assessed as being converted to military use by members of [the Khorasan Group],” and “were removed from the No-Strike List.”
The buildings were cleared for airstrikes after a determination that “their predominant use was for hostile purposes—a meeting place and safe-house for foreign extremists,” according to the investigation. The report says the Army had received intelligence indicating “the facilities were visited and used by known [Khorasan]-affiliated members,” who were believed to be at the buildings based on “multiple intelligence reports locations.”
According to the Army’s report:
“The aircraft observed weapons accurately striking their intended targets on Compound 001 and Compound 002. Post strike battle damage assessment … of the two targets determined the airstrikes struck their intended targets, with [six] buildings destroyed, and [two] buildings damaged. By a preponderance of the evidence, the airstrikes likely caused the deaths of two civilian children who were likely residing at or near one of the targets. The airstrikes also likely injured [two] [Ed note: there appears to be a redaction here in the report] local employees, who were residing near one of the targets. The targets were valid military targets and the Law of Armed Conflict … principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction, and unnecessary suffering were adhered to during the targeting and engagement process. Furthermore, the strikes were conducted lAW military authorities and the rules of engagement … current at the time of the strikes.
The report concludes: “All targeting procedures were followed in order to mitigate possible civilian casualties during these strikes.”
The report does not make a final determination about whether the children were killed in the initial airstrike or by secondary explosions set off when bombs hit an ammunition facility in one of the targeted buildings.