In the latest example of problems with the U.S. drone and targeted killing program, the Pentagon is investigating whether it mistakenly killed a civilian in a recent strike in northwest Syria. U.S. officials are now walking back their previous assertion that the May 3 strike killed a senior al-Qaeda militant, following investigative reporting suggesting the target, Lotfi Hassan Misto, was a farmer with no ties to terrorism in an area hostile to any al-Qaeda presence.
This is not the first time U.S. drones or other airstrikes have missed the mark. It is the continuation of policies that have resulted in decades of civilian harm, as meticulously documented by a series of award-winning New York Times reports. The strike that killed ten civilians, including seven children, during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 is one prominent example, but there are countless other strikes that have claimed innocent lives that never make the headlines.
These incidents are tragic, but they are not merely “tragic mistakes.” Civilian harm resulting from U.S. strikes is the result of systemic problems that have plagued the program for decades, a continuous failure to learn from the past, and a growing military culture of impunity.
What is concerning about this latest incident is how the Department of Defense (DOD) did not seem to know much about who it killed with a drone in a highly important strike trumpeted by the Pentagon and despite a series of proposed reforms within the Department to address civilian harm and stricter policy guidance from the White House. U.S. military officials speaking on condition of anonymity to the Washington Post offered mixed assessments of the latest strike, with one official acknowledging the Pentagon was “no longer confident” it had killed a senior al-Qaeda member and another official stating that “though we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person to be al-Qaeda.”
The evidence for the belief that Misto was a member of al-Qaeda is classified, making it impossible to verify claims of what the DOD knew or thought it knew at the time. But al-Qaeda has not claimed any of its members were recently martyred, as is typical after such strikes. Counterterrorism experts also say it would be highly unusual for al-Qaeda to operate in the area where the strike occurred, which is controlled by rival group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Video footage from the civil defense “White Helmets” immediately following the strike also corroborates that the U.S. missile killed the 56-year-old farmer.
What is more, the U.S. military has a history of misidentifying targets due to confirmation bias and relying on outdated or unsubstantiated intelligence reporting. DOD previously has also misclassified civilians as combatants based on flimsy evidence, including a combination of factors such as gender, the presence of weapons, and physical proximity to fighting or known terrorist locations.
Congress, for its part, should ensure that there is an independent investigation into this incident and accountability for any wrongful harm. In the wake of the strike, Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (D-CA) urged the Pentagon to “conduct a full investigation into what happened, make potential plans for amends, and report to Congress.” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) similarly called for DOD to find out the “truth of what happened, provide the compensation that Congress has repeatedly authorized, and allow independent investigations.”
As U.S. officials grapple with the fallout from the latest drone strike, Congress and senior administration officials should demand answers to the following questions:
- Who was the original target of the strike? On what basis was the target selected and how was it approved?
- Why do some U.S. officials reportedly believe that even though Misto was not the original target, he was nevertheless an al-Qaeda member?
- What evidence was there linking Misto to al-Qaeda pre-strike and post-strike? Does DOD assess that individuals are members of al-Qaeda based on their physical proximity to known terrorist locations, or other signatures associated with terrorist activity? What factors alone suffice to make such a determination both pre-strike and post-strike?
- What were the assessments of other agencies pre- and post-strike of the intended target and resulting casualty? At what level of confidence were any such determinations made?
- How have targeting procedures within DOD changed since the implementation of the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan? Were such safeguards adequate in this case and, if not, why not?
- Why did it take DOD nearly a month to review its initial assertion that it had killed a senior member of al-Qaeda? What triggered this review?
- How is DOD investigating claims that Misto was a civilian? When will the post-strike review be completed and is DOD considering information from external sources, such as media and civil society organizations, in its review?
- Does DOD include the same methods of verification as the outside experts referenced in the Washington Post report?
- If the review concludes Misto was a civilian, what steps will DOD take in terms of reparations? Will reparations include a formal apology and condolence payments, and what is the timeline for such actions?
- What will DOD do differently next time? What lessons have been learned from this incident that will inform future operations? What lessons have been learned that might bring into question the accuracy of past U.S. airstrikes in which external reporting may not have been available?