The United States has concluded its internal investigation into the bombing of the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque in Syria and declared that it was “legal”. According to the official version of events, “two dozen” Al-Qaeda fighters were killed with possibly one civilian casualty, described as a “small-in-stature person”. On the ground reports, including human rights investigations, local testimonies and Syria-based journalists, contest the official US position.
The attack took place on 16 March at approximately 6:55pm. The US Special Operations Task Force attacked the mosque near Al-Jinah, a village in Aleppo province in northern Syria. A US F-15 Strike Eagle aircraft and an MQ-9 unmanned drone bombed the mosque where around 300 people had gathered for the evening prayer and a religious lecture. The attack destroyed a section of the mosque, killing 49 civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The White Helmets civil defence group recovered 38 bodies from the rubble. The US originally denied targeting a mosque, but in-depth investigations by Bellingcat, Forensic Architecture and Human Rights Watch concluded that the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque was indeed hit and at least 38 people had been killed.
A number of reporters were invited by General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at US Central Command (CENTCOM), to be briefed on the investigation; full details of the official version of events have not been made public. However, Airwars, an organisation mapping coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq, published the media briefing transcript.
Pre-strike intelligence led to the attack
We’ve simply found no – zero — credible evidence to discredit the intelligence. And that includes additional intelligence collected post-strike itself,
General Paul Bontrager, CENTCOM.
General Bontrager confirmed that on 14 March, intelligence suggested that “Al-Qaeda and Syrian militants would be attending a meeting with Al-Qaida leaders” in Al-Jinah. On 15 March, US forces received intelligence that “reinforced the likelihood” of the meeting involving Al-Qaeda. On 16 March, intelligence and reconnaissance drones confirmed that a gathering was happening on the ground; thus began the strike procedure.
The US Strike Cell, which was responsible for conducting the operation, was in communication with the Targeting Engagement Authority (TEA) to obtain authorisation in accordance with the “laws and regulations”. Facts and information for the targeting process were being acquired.
The F-15 dropped “10 bombs” and the drone fired “two missiles” according to the details shared in the media transcript. The investigation estimated that “two dozen men attending an Al-Qaeda meeting were killed in the strike with several injured.” The US maintains that only one civilian is likely to have been killed, possibly a child.
The US failed to understand the local pattern of life
Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US journalist with On the Ground News, told MEMO: “If [the Americans] were gathering intelligence for [just] three days that would explain the error in the intelligence because that was a weekly meeting with the Jamaat Tabligh [a non-political religious missionary] group. They meet every Thursday evening and this is known worldwide — not just locally, worldwide — that they meet on Thursdays. They have been meeting at this very mosque for the past four years according to locals.”
Bontrager said that the intelligence was not acquired on the ground which may have led to the massacre of civilians gathered in the mosque for the purposes of worship.
“If this was taking place in Chicago or Los Angeles, no one would have launched a strike like that,” insisted Abdul Kareem. “They themselves [the US military] have closed the investigation; they had no one on the ground, they talked to no one.”
Abdul Kareem explains how the US government claimed that its air strike was aimed away from the mosque, yet video evidence shows the building which was hit was part of the mosque.
The US investigation’s considerations
Although military and civilian specialists took part in the US investigation, Gen. Bontrager made it clear that “none of us were involved in the strike or the decisions leading up to the strike.” This would surely have placed some serious limitations on the ability of the investigating panel to assess the details of the attack on the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque, even after reviewing all accessible materials, including videos and operational and intelligence reports.
A review of sources “second-hand”, without real-time understanding of how legal or operational assessments were made is unlikely to be able to provide an accurate account of how and why events unfolded. Videos and reports do not provide the deeper context of what happened. A closer investigation of communications between the Strike Cell and Targeting Engagement Authority officers is needed to see what was said in real time by way of a transcript analysis. The ethnomethodology of the pilot-commander-legal adviser discussions and what they perceived in the run up to and during the attack needs to be published for the sake of transparency, along with video evidence that may assist in the triangulation of information. This has to be in the public interest and will enable people to understand why the US military attacked a mosque and mistook a religious gathering for a meeting of Al-Qaeda militants based on just three days of intelligence gathering.
Four operational errors
Gen. Bontrager confirmed four operational errors during the attack on the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque. For a start, there was an incomplete information flow to the Targeting Engagement Authority, then officers changed shifts without an adequate hand-over of information. There was also a failure by the US military to register religious sites on a category 1 “no strike” list. Finally, those officers who suspected that this was a religious compound did not flag them up to the Targeting Engagement Authority.
Although these four issues were admitted during the media briefing about the investigation, Bontrager still asserted that “this is not a place where we found any negligence on any individual or group of individuals.”
War crimes law
According to the US position, there was only one “small-in-stature” civilian killed in the attack, which was deemed to be a proportional and legal strike. Even after the Targeting Engagement Authority knew about the civilian in question being present at the intended target site, the go-ahead was given for the air strike to take place.
The fact that the religious buildings were not mapped on the ground is a matter of serious concern. This suggests negligence on the part of the US officers within the Special Operations Task Force.
An attack on a religious building is a clear violation of the laws of war and can equate to a war crime. The US targeted civilians in Al-Jinah and used indiscriminate and disproportionate force.
According to the laws of war, a party to the conflict can only target a civilian if the person in question is directly participating in hostilities. Under the US definition of “combatants”, all “military aged males” killed in the locality of a conflict zone, whether by drone strike or air strike, are regarded as fair targets. This policy has been put into practice in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, which have witnessed a significant number of civilian casualties from US attacks on “militants”.
What we know from the internal investigation into the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque tells us a lot about America’s “targeted killing” policy. Last year, the US published its own civilian casualty figures for Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The numbers are a fraction of those collated by independent monitoring of US air and drone strikes.
The US Defence Department needs to take the knock-on effect of air strikes like that in Al-Jinah very seriously, as they have the ability to escalate conflict dynamics. A reasonable assessment of the bombing of the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque must conclude that it targeted a gathering of Jamaat Tabligh, a non-political missionary group. Indiscriminate attacks on such gatherings are likely to engender even more hatred of the US and its policies which, in their extreme nature, will only produce more extremism amongst those who oppose America’s military interventions around the world. Violence begets violence; it is a vicious, and very deadly, cycle.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.