Pentagon denies targeting mosque in Syria, says al-Qaeda militants were killed

Pentagon denies targeting mosque in Syria, says al-Qaeda militants were killed

By Loree Lewis   
A post-airstrike photo provided by the Defense Department the site of an al-Qaeda senior leader meeting in al-Jinah, Syria on Thursday. The mosque, to the left of the impact site does not appear to be damaged. (U.S. Defense Department)

WASHINGTON – The United States military carried out an airstrike against a building in Northern Syria Thursday where it assessed a meeting of al-Qaeda militants was taking place and is investigating reports that dozens of civilians were killed or injured in the attack, the Defense Department said Friday.

The Defense Department provided reporters with an aerial shot of the scene, appearing to show a mosque, with two minarets, still standing across the street from a building that had been reduced to rubble. The building reduced to rubble shared a wall with another building that appears to be largely intact. The photo was taken less than five minutes after the strike, according to Defense Department spokesperson Eric Pahon.

Photos and videos on social media show bloodied people emerging from the building that shared the wall and others being pulled from it after the strike, which took place during the evening. Pahon said that the Department had concluded based on close surveillance of the target area that evening prayers had ended.

The destroyed building was a partially-constructed community meeting hall that had been used as a gathering place and as a location to educate and indoctrinate al-Qaeda fighters, according to Pahon.

Videos posted to Twitter, by On The Ground reporter Bilal Abdul Kareem, show the structure the Defense Department identified as the mosque intact. Kareem says in one of the videos that the destroyed structure and the building that shared a wall with it are part of the greater mosque compound.

Defense Department spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters during a news briefing that the department had tracked the building for a length of time and knew that it was being used by al-Qaeda. He said the strike was timed with a meeting of al-Qaeda militants.

“We targeted an al-Qaeda gathering across the street from a mosque. The mosque does not appear to be damaged following the strike,” Davis said. “We are aware of the reports of civilian casualties and we are looking into it.”

Davis said the Defense Department deliberately did not target the building it identified as a mosque.

He said that the Department is not “not aware of any credible assessment of civilian casualties,” including on social media.

“We struck a meeting of senior al-Qaeda terrorists, some of these were likely high value individuals, we’re currently assessing that,” Davis said, including that dozens of militants were suspected to have been inside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group with a network of activists in Syria, said that more than 42 people, the majority of them civilians, were killed in the attack. Photos and videos posted to social media show members of the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise called the White Helmets, responding to the scene of the attack.

Davis said that manned and unmanned aircraft carried out the airstrikes, which would have used munitions including Hellfire missiles and bombs.

“We always seek to minimize civilian casualties whenever possible,” Davis said. “… We take into account that al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that has killed thousands of Americans on our own soil. It is a group that has reconstituted in western Syria and poses and clear and present threat to our nation. And, we will take action to stop them.”

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