The Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, recover the body of Lutfi Hasan Masto who was killed by a U.S. drone strike on May 3, 2023.

The Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, recover the body of Lutfi Hasan Masto who was killed by a U.S. drone strike on May 3, 2023. (X)

A U.S. military drone strike last year that targeted a top al-Qaida leader in Syria killed a civilian instead, the Pentagon admitted Thursday.

An investigation launched in the wake of the May 3, 2023, attack determined the U.S. military mistook a civilian, Lufti Hasan Masto, for the senior al-Qaida leader it tried to kill in the strike in Qorqanya in northeastern Syria, U.S. Central Command officials said in a statement.

Army Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, CENTCOM’s commander, ordered the internal probe into the strike in June after The Washington Post published a story asserting the strike killed Masto, who was not affiliated with al-Qaida.

“U.S. Central Command acknowledges and regrets the civilian harm that resulted from the airstrike,” reads the statement from the command that oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East. “We take 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 process includes a thorough review and vetting of lawful targets prior to a strike and another review after each strike.”

Despite admitting to killing a civilian in the strike, the CENTCOM probe did not recommend punishment for any individuals involved. The investigation concluded the strike “was conducted in compliance with the law of armed conflict” and followed Pentagon and CENTCOM polices.

The probe did find “several issues could be improved,” but the statement did not provide additional details. The full report was not made public on Thursday.

Much of the investigation is classified and cannot be released, a CENTCOM spokesperson said, declining further comment.

Kurilla ordered the probe on June 6, 2023, after the May 18 story by the Post revealed family members of Masto — spelled Misto by the newspaper and Masto in the CENTCOM statement — had identified the 56-year-old former bricklayer as the man killed in the strike.

After initially expressing confidence that the strike killed its intended target — whose name was never made public — Pentagon officials by mid-May told reporters that they were no longer certain the strike killed a terrorist.

Kurilla tapped Army Brig. Gen. John Cogbill — a deputy CENTCOM commander not involved in the May 3, 2023, strike — to lead a team to investigate the incident. The team of 10 senior service members and civilians — who also were not involved in the strike — reviewed the incident, visiting locations in the United States, Iraq and Jordan and interviewing some 40 witnesses during their investigation.

The team completed the probe in November, according to CENTCOM. It was not immediately clear Thursday why the probe’s findings were not publicized for months.

In 2022, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a 36-page “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan” meant to improve the military’s ability to avoid civilian casualties in the wake of several strikes in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan found to have likely killed civilians.

Austin’s guidance was introduced about a year after a U.S. strike in Kabul during the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan killed seven children and three adults who were mistaken for Islamic State-Khorasan group terrorists.

An investigation into that Aug. 29, 2021, strike — just three days after an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops and some 170 Afghans at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport — found limited communications and “confirmation bias” led to the errant attack. The probe found no evidence of criminality in the U.S. attack.

Pentagon officials vowed they would do better in the wake of the Kabul strike.

“The protection of civilians is a strategic priority as well as a moral imperative,” Austin wrote in his 2022 civilian harm mitigation plan. “Our efforts to mitigate and respond to civilian harm directly reflect our values and also directly contribute to achieving mission success.” 

author picture
Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now