• A Washington Post investigation revealed US forces mistakenly killed a civilian in a drone strike.
  • The strike, conducted in Syria in 2023, was intended to hit an al-Qaeda operative.
  • Central Command maintains the strike complied with the law of armed conflict.

A Washington Post investigation revealed Thursday that US forces killed a shepherd in a drone strike after mistaking him for a top al-Qaeda official.

"On May 3, 2023, the United States conducted a unilateral counterterrorism air strike in Northwest Syria targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader," US Central Command said in statement on Thursday, almost a year after the incident. "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."

The Washington Post began its investigation in May 2023 following the fatal strike, calling into question the identity of the al-Qaeda operative who US officials said had been slain. A month later, the US military began its own investigation into the incident.

Central Command said its investigation revealed that there were "several issues" with the operation but did not explain exactly how it failed to identify its target.

Masto, a shepherd, was 56 years old and living in the Syrian town of Qorqanya. On the day he died, an American Predator drone tracked him down and fired Hellfire missile, which landed behind his home.

According to Central Command's investigation, the strike was conducted in compliance with Central Command and Department of Defense policies, as well as the law of armed conflict.

A defense official told The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity that the American drone strike was botched due to the decision-making and accuracy, or "confirmation bias and insufficient red teaming" issues among personnel.

The Washington Posted determined that it's still unclear who the intended target was and whether anyone will be held accountable for the inaccurate strike.

Central Command said in its statement Thursday that it "acknowledges and regrets the civilian harm that resulted from the airstrike," adding that CENTCOM takes "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."

This isn't a first. The US military has made other similar mistakes in the past, such as when it initially celebrated eliminating an imminent threat with a fatal drone strike during the Afghanistan withdrawal only to discover later that it actually killed an aid worker and nine others, including seven children.

A New York Times investigation first brought that deadly incident to light. None of the service members involved in that strike were punished. Civilians have, on many occasions, been collateral damage in the wars in the Middle East.

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