ISTANBUL—Mahmoud al Birkawi remembers the moment the U.S. airstrikes began in a north Syrian village. He was in the kitchen of a community building preparing the evening meal for worshippers in the main mosque who were attending the weekly religious lessons given by a moderate Islamist proselytizing group.
“We were thrown against the walls by the first strike, and then a few seconds later came the second, and the ceiling fell on us,” he said. He and others were buried under three meters of dust and debris, he said.
The miracle on March 16 was that the religious lesson had gone on 15 minutes longer than expected, delaying the arrival of 200 worshippers at dinner. “If they’d all been at the restaurant, no one would have come out alive,” said Birkawi.
At least 29 people died and 26 were wounded in the attacks on Al Jinah village, according to the White Helmets rescue group. Two independent Syrian news agencies put the death toll at 50, as did the Local Coordination Committee in nearby Al Atarib.
It did not attract much international attention—certainly not like the U.S.-led bombing of the hard-fought battleground in Mosul, where Amnesty International has said the Coalition has done too little to protect civilians, and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has declared that nobody tries harder than the U.S. military to avoid such casualties.
Perhaps. But the evidence suggests that something went very wrong in Al Jinah.
The U.S. Central Command said the attack was “an airstrike on an al Qaeda in Syria meeting location” in Idlib that killed “several terrorists.” Idlib has “been a significant haven for al Qaeda in recent years,” the statement added. (In fact, the airstrike occurred in Aleppo province.)
Col. John Thomas, the CENTCOM spokesman, said it had been a “precision strike,” and there was no indication that civilians were in the building. “We knew there was going to be a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in a significant number,” he said. “What we expected to happen happened. We took the strike.” But he said CENTCOM is looking carefully into reports of civilian casualties.
The Daily Beast spoke with three eyewitnesses, and all say the event was a religious meeting organized weekly by the Da’awe and Tabligh—or missionary and propagation—order. Da’awa had built the community building, which housed the restaurant, a second mosque and had space where internally displaced people from Aleppo and elsewhere were living.
Human Rights Watch investigators contacted a different set of eyewitnesses, and all described the gathering in Al Jinah on March 16 as a religious event, a senior HRW researcher said. Did the U.S. military do due diligence before selecting the target?
“The question is what intelligence did they have, who was providing it, and what they did to verify it,” researcher Ole Solvang told The Daily Beast. “It seems they failed to take the necessary precautions.”
But Central Command was adamant. “We struck who we intended to strike,” said Thomas. “We had good intelligence on who they were and when the meeting was going to be.”
This was one of three incidents in less than a week in Syria alone that raise questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence. A Coalition assault on a school in the town of Mansoura, west of Raqqa, killed at least 23 people and injured 50, all of them civilians, according to the Smart News Agency. Other reports put the number as high as 100. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a highly respected group of opposition reporters and activists, put the number killed at 183. It stated that among the dead were 18 members of the family of Saleh Muhammad al Jasem, all internally displaced from eastern Aleppo. The top commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said the bombing was under investigation but his initial reading was that it had been a “clean strike” against 30 or so ISIS fighters. “We struck enemy fighters that we planned to strike there,” he told reporters Tuesday.
The next day, some 40 civilians were killed and were 55 wounded in a coalition raid that hit a bakery in the town of Tabqa, also west of Raqqa, the Smart News Agency reported. The Command had no immediate comment on the bombing of the bakery.
One question raised by the reported civilian losses is whether the U.S. military has loosened its rules of engagement since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has promised far more aggressive operations against the Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.
“There has not been a relaxation of the rules of engagement,” Thomas said. But, crucially, since December the authority to approve airstrikes has been relegated to the lowest appropriate level “to provide better responsiveness when and where they needed it on the battlefield,” he said.
Then there’s the broader question about U.S. intelligence about al Qaeda in Syria, following a number of widely questioned assessments.
The U.S. military in 2014 and 2015 mounted airstrikes against what it calls the Khorasan group in al Qaeda, but commanders throughout the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army rebels say they had no knowledge of its existence.
In April 2016, the U.S. spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda, asserted that fighters of what was then called the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, were the dominant rebel force in Aleppo.
“It’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo,” Col. Steve Warren told reporters. But when challenged to check with his intelligence experts, he acknowledged he was wrong. “I was incorrect when I said Nusra holds Aleppo,” he said in an email to this reporter. “Turns out that current read is that Nusra controls the northwest suburbs” and other groups control the center,” he said.
But Warren had no information about the Nour al-Din Zinki movement or other rebel groups that had been playing a bigger role in Aleppo.
The other issue is whether al Qaeda even exists in Syria, and if it does, what activities it has undertaken that threaten U.S. and other Western interests. Last July, the Nusra Front announced it had broken with al Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al Sham, and more recently it renamed itself Hayat Tahrir al Sham. But it has not been accused of operations or plotting against international targets under any of these names since announcing its separation from al Qaeda.
The CENTCOM spokesman did not respond directly when asked. What would help answer the questions is “the specific intelligence of the sort we cannot make public,” he said.
Eyewitnesses contacted by The Daily Beast, all of whom were wounded at the Al Jinah airstrikes, disputed U.S. assertions that al Qaeda members were present at the March 16 meeting. They said the prayer meeting was held regularly on Thursday evenings in Al Jinah, using the town mosque as well as a building built by the Da’awe order, which contains the restaurant, a second mosque and empty space above the mosque housing internally displaced.
Those attending come from villages in the western and southern countryside of Aleppo, said Birkawi, who was displaced from Aleppo. “We don’t know everyone who comes to the lesson, but we know many. Our task is to encourage people to keep on the right ethical path,” he said. He said if fighters from the Free Syrian Army attend, they are out of uniform.
Sheikh Abu Muhammad Fantash, one of the leading imams in the Da’awe and Tabligh group, also rejected any link with al Qaeda. “We don’t belong to anyone. We are not part of any group, and we don’t have any connection with any other group,” he told The Daily Beast. “We are preachers who try to lead the people to the path of the almighty Allah.”
Fantash was wounded in the strikes and buried under the rubble, and had to be carried out by stretcher. “It was the mercy of Allah that gave me more days to live and another chance to continue in life as his obedient servant,” he said.
A third eyewitness, Suleiman Al Assi, a Da’awe activist from Jinah, made the same point. “We don’t belong to any political party or fighting group. We never interfere in politics or issues in dispute. We don’t speak about illnesses, we only speak about medicines.” All three were baffled, they said, by the American targeting.
“We are all bewildered by why the Americans or the Coalition warplanes bombed this mosque. It is a mosque and those who were inside were normal worshippers. Isn’t it enough that the Russians and the regime warplanes destroyed mosques, bakeries, hospitals and all the requirements for life?” he asked.
Muhammad Fadilah, head of the Aleppo Provincial Council, described Da’awe as a moderate group that urges Syrian Muslims to uphold spiritual values. “Like old priests, they roam and spread good tales,” he said. “They are known to visit remote villages in groups of seven or eight to urge people to take the right path. How could people like these be accused of advocating terrorism?” he said. “These are people who are against violence…they only urge people to follow a path to religiosity.”
As for a meeting of al Qaeda: “We have heard nothing about any such meeting,” he said. “If someone wants to hold secret meetings, they have tunnels and underground facilities to do that. But he said Nusra wouldn’t work with Da’awe, because its adherents view Da’awa as “tellers of tales.”