US Killed Civilian Farmer, Not Top Al Qaeda Leader in 2023 Airstrike, Pentagon Admits

US Killed Civilian Farmer, Not Top Al Qaeda Leader in 2023 Airstrike, Pentagon Admits
Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to the grave of his brother Lutfi in the village of Qorqanya, a rural area in northern Idlib province, Syria, on May 7, 2023. (Omar Albam/AP Photo)

The U.S. military has concluded a 2023 airstrike they initially said targeted a senior Al Qaeda leader in northwest Syria had actually killed a lone civilian farmer.

The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)—the military component overseeing U.S. operations throughout the Middle East—said in a May 3, 2023, statement that its forces had conducted a unilateral strike targeting an Al Qaeda member. The initial CENTCOM statement did not identify the suspected Al-Qaeda leader, but the military command said, “We will provide more information as operational details become available.”

Around the same time CENTCOM reported this strike, other reports emerged that an unidentified drone had fired upon and killed Lotfi Hassan Misto (spelled alternately as Lutfi Hasan Masto) while he was tending to his ship in a field near the northwest Syrian town of Qorqanya. Neighbors told The Washington Post that Mr. Misto, 56, was a father of 10 children.

The allegations surrounding Mr. Misto’s death prompted CENTCOM to reassess its May 3, 2023, strike. Now, almost exactly a year after the strike, CENTCOM has acknowledged the operation had indeed resulted in Mr. Misto’s death.

“The investigation 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 Thursday press statement.

CENTCOM did not provide further details about how Mr. Misto could have been mistaken for the intended Al Qaeda target.

“Many of the facts and other findings of the investigation involve classified information and cannot be shared publicly,” the U.S. military command said.

CENTCOM said the investigation concluded their strike complied with the laws of armed conflict, as well as CENTCOM and Department of Defense policies. However, CENTCOM added, “The investigation revealed several issues that could be improved.”

CENTCOM did not elaborate further on what potential improvements it had identified.

While the military command publicized its investigative conclusions on Thursday, CENTCOM said the investigative team that looked into this strike had actually concluded its work on Nov. 15, 2023. It was not immediately clear why the military command has waited nearly six months to come forward with its investigative conclusions, or whether it had previously shared its findings with Mr. Misto’s family.

“We are committed to learning from this incident and improving our targeting processes to mitigate potential civilian harm,” the CENTCOM press statement reads. “U.S. Central Command acknowledges and regrets the civilian harm that resulted from the airstrike. We take all reports of civilian harm caused by U.S. military operations seriously and continue to employ thorough and deliberate targeting and strike processes to minimize civilian harm.”

NTD News reached out to CENTCOM for further details about the investigation but did not receive a response by press time on Thursday. The DOD also referred requests for comment to CENTCOM.

The investigation was led by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John P. Cogbill, and consisted of 10 senior service members and civilian employees not directly involved with the strike, said to have extensive subject matter expertise in intelligence, law of armed conflict, operations, and targeting matters.

Civilian Casualties

Civilian casualties have occurred throughout U.S.-led military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria in recent years.

A November 2021 report by The New York Times revealed that as many as 70 civilian noncombatants were killed by a U.S. airstrike in March of 2019 as U.S. and coalition forces fought to seize the ISIS terrorist group’s stronghold of Baghouz in eastern Syria. The NY Times report indicated military officials had not investigated the 2019 airstrike.

The Pentagon subsequently ordered a fresh review of the 2019 Baghouz strike. That investigation concluded no violations in the rules of engagement or the laws of war had occurred, that the U.S. military commander who had authorized the strike made multiple efforts to differentiate between civilians and ISIS fighters, and that the strikes ordered were proportional for the combat setting in which they occurred.

The Pentagon also conducted a review after another botched U.S. airstrike in the closing days of the war in Afghanistan. CENTCOM had originally reported U.S. forces carried out a strike that had targeted an ISIS member posing a threat to U.S. evacuation operations at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Subsequent evaluations revealed the strike had actually killed 10 Afghan civilians. The Pentagon ultimately concluded the incident was a tragic mistake, and determined no military troops or officials would face disciplinary action.

In December, the Department of Defense published new guidance for minimizing civilian casualties and “Instruction on Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response.” That guidance states when operations result in civilian deaths, military components are instructed to acknowledge fault and extend condolences “as appropriate under the circumstances.” The guidance states condolences can come in the form of written or spoken expressions, as well as payments to address damages caused.

It was unclear what condolences CENTCOM may have extended to Mr. Misto’s family as a result of this latest erroneous strike.

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