US military walks back claims that it killed a top al-Qaeda boss in drone strike
The US military has walked back claims that it killed a top al-Qaeda boss in a drone strike in Syria, according to reports.
Officials changed their tune after the family of the man killed by a Hellfire missile said he had no links to terrorists, and was tending to his sheep when he died.
The family identified father-of-ten Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, as the man killed in the strike on May 3, who they say was a former bricklayer who lived in the quiet northern town of Qorqanya, according to the Washington Post.
US Central Command, or CENTCOM, oversaw the operation, releasing a statement hours later that it had conducted a strike ‘targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader.’
Officials have given no further details, and did not reveal the identity of the supposed terrorist leader that they were targeting with the attack.
Pictured: Father-of-ten Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, who has been identified by his family as the man killed in the strike on May 3. They say was a former bricklayer who lived in the quiet northern town of Qorqanya, according to the Washington Post
‘At 1142 am local Syrian time on 3 May, US Central Command forces conducted a unilateral strike in Northwest Syria targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader,’ the statement said. ‘We will provide more information as operational details become available.
The statement quoted General Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla, CENTCOM Commander, as saying: ‘This operation reaffirms CENTCOM’s steadfast commitment to the region and the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda.’
However, according to the Washington Post, Misto’s family has denied that he had any connections to the notorious terror group. They said he was a kind, hardworking man whose “whole life was spent poor,” the publication reported.
Speaking to The Post on condition of anonymity, two officials walked back on the claim that the strike killed a senior al-Qaeda leader.
‘We are no longer confident we killed a senior AQ official,’ one said, according to the newspaper. Another said: ‘although we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person to be al-Qaeda.’
In the weeks since the original statement, military officials have refused to identify who the intended target of the attack was. They have also refused to say how the alleged error occurred, or whether an actual terrorist leader escaped.
A week after the strike, the US military did say it was investigating reports that there was a civilian casualty in the strike on the rural area in northern Idlib province.
Maj. John Moore, a CENTCOM spokesman, said on May 9 that US forces ‘are in the process of confirming the identity of the individual killed in the strike.’
‘We are aware of the allegations of a civilian casualty and the outcome of the confirmation process will inform if further investigation is necessary and how it should proceed,’ he said.
The local civil defense group in northwest Syria, known as the White Helmets, said in a statement that it had responded to the site after hearing sounds of an explosion.
They said they found that a drone strike had killed 60-year-old Lutfi Hassan Masto (later reported to be 56), a local resident who was tending his sheep at the time.
Three of the animals were also killed, the statement said.
Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to the grave of his brother Lutfi, who was killed on Wednesday, May 3, in a US military strike, in the village of Qorqanya, a rural area in northern Idlib province, Syria, Sunday, May 7, 2023
US Central Command, or CENTCOM, oversaw the operation, releasing a statement (pictured) hours later that it had conducted a strike ‘targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader’
Masto’s brother, Mohamed Masto, told The Associated Press that reports that his brother was involved in al-Qaida were ‘absolute lies’ and that his killing was ‘an injustice and an aggression.’
‘He had nothing to do with the revolution. … He had nothing to do with the Al-Nusra Front or with the Islamic State’ or any of the other armed groups involved in Syria’s 12-year-old uprising-turned-civil-war, Masto said.
Fayad Jamil Raji, a neighbor, said he had known Lufti Masto – or ‘Abu Hassan,’ a nickname meaning ‘father of Hassan’ – for many years.
‘The man was a civilian. He had a farm with poultry, cows and sheep,’ he said.
Moore said that CENTCOM’s missions are ‘meticulously planned and executed to maximize success and minimize the risk of collateral damage and harm to civilians.’
It is understood that the strike was carried out by an MQ-9 Predator drone. The Washington Post said Masto had breakfast with his family in the morning, like any other day, before going to tend to his animals.
The Hellfire missile killed him at around 11:50 am near to where he had shared tea with his brother some 20 minutes earlier. Residents described seeing a pillar of smoke rising from an explosion into the otherwise clear blue sky.
One resident contacted the White Helmets through an emergency line, and a team of responders arrived within ten minutes of the strike.
The Washington Post said it had seen a video of the aftermath, with Masto’s relatives crying and being pulled away from his severely disfigured body.
Terror experts quickly raised doubts over the US military’s claim that Masto was linked to the terror group, citing the White Helmets’ quick response and the information they learned about the victim immediately in the aftermath.
Pictured: A US MQ-9 Reaper drone is seen during a combat mission in 2015 (file photo)
Nothing suggests he had terrorist links, they have said.
On any given day there are at least 900 US forces in Syria, along with an undisclosed number of contractors, who partner with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
They are tasked with preventing a comeback by the Islamic State group, which swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, taking control of large swaths of territory, and sometimes also targeting other militant groups.
In April, CENTCOM reported it had taken part in 35 missions in Iraq and Syria, killing 13 alleged IS operatives and detaining 28.