The US military has rejected claims it killed a top al-Qaeda executive in a drone strike in Syria.
Officials changed their tone after the family of the man killed by a Hellfire missile said he had no ties to terrorists and was tending his sheep when he died.
The family identified the father of ten children, Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, as the man killed during the May 3 strike. Washington Post.
US Central Command, or CENTCOM, oversaw the operation and released a statement hours later that it had launched an attack “targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader.”
Officials have not provided further details and have not revealed the identity of the alleged terrorist leader they targeted in the attack.
Pictured: Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, a father of ten, who has been identified by his family as the man killed in the May 3 strike. They say it 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 May 3, U.S. Central Command forces conducted a unilateral attack in northwestern 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 ties to the notorious terror group. They said he was a kind, hard-working man whose “whole life was poor,” the publication reported.
Speaking to The Post on condition of anonymity, two officials backtracked on claims that the strike killed a senior al-Qaeda leader.
“We are no longer certain that we killed a senior AQ official,” one of them said, according to the newspaper. Another said, “While we believe the attack did not kill the original target, we believe the person is 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 declined to say how the alleged mistake came about, or whether an actual terrorist leader escaped.
A week after the attack, the US military said it was investigating reports that there had been a civilian casualty in the attack in rural northern Idlib province.
Major John Moore, a CENTCOM spokesman, said on May 9 that US forces are “in the process of confirming the identity of the person killed in the attack.”
“We are aware of the allegations of a civil accident and the outcome of the confirmation process will determine whether further investigation is necessary and how to proceed,” he said.
The local civil defense group in northwestern Syria, known as the White Helmets, said in a statement that they had responded to the site after hearing sounds of an explosion.
They said they found a drone strike 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 in a US military strike on Wednesday, May 3, in the village of Qorqanya, a rural area in Syria’s northern province of Idlib, Sunday, May 7, 2023
US Central Command, or CENTCOM, oversaw the operation and hours later released a statement (pictured) that it carried out an attack “targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader”
Masto’s brother, Mohamed Masto, told The Associated Press that reports that his brother was involved with al-Qaeda were “absolute lies” and that his killing was “unjust and aggressive.”
“He had nothing to do with the revolution. … He had nothing to do with the Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State or any of the other armed groups involved in Syria’s 12-year-old uprising that turned into civil war, Masto said.
Fayad Jamil Raji, a neighbour, 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 CENTCOM’s missions are “carefully planned and executed to maximize success and minimize the risk of collateral damage and harm to civilians.”
It is clear that the attack 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 tending to his animals.
The Hellfire missile killed him around 11:50 am near where he had been having tea with his brother some 20 minutes earlier. Residents described seeing a column of smoke rise from an explosion in the otherwise clear blue sky.
A resident contacted the White Helmets on an emergency line, and a team of emergency responders arrived within ten minutes of the attack.
The Washington Post said it saw video of the aftermath, in which Masto’s relatives cried and were pulled away from his severely disfigured body.
Terror experts quickly cast doubt on the U.S. military’s claim that Masto had ties to the terror group, citing the White Helmets’ quick response and the information they immediately learned about the victim in the aftermath.
Pictured: A US MQ-9 Reaper drone is seen on a combat mission in 2015 (file photo)
There is nothing to suggest he had any terrorist ties, they said.
On any given day, there are at least 900 US troops in Syria, along with an unknown number of contractors, working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
They are tasked with preventing a comeback of the Islamic State group, which swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, taking control of large swaths of territory, and at times targeting other militant groups.
In April, CENTCOM reported that it had taken part in 35 missions in Iraq and Syria, killing 13 suspected IS operatives and detaining 28.