WASHINGTON – The United States is investigating allegations that an airstrike it conducted Thursday targeting a meeting of al-Qaeda leaders in northern Syria killed dozens of civilians, the Defense Department said Monday.
The U.S.-led coalition airstrike, carried out by manned and unmanned aircraft, destroyed a building in the village of al-Jineh in the northern province of Aleppo. The destroyed building was situated across the street from a mosque, with two minarets, and adjacent to another building.
The United States has said that the strike targeted a partially constructed community meeting hall where a group of al-Qaeda leaders were meeting. The Defense Department said it had been closely monitoring the site of the strike and had concluded based on close surveillance of the target area that evening prayers had ended.
Local reports allege that civilians also were killed and wounded in the attack during a weekly religious meeting in the space. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a British-based monitoring group with a network of activists in Syria – put the death toll at more than 42 people.
U.S. officials initially concluded from a battle-damage assessment that there were no civilian deaths.
After reviewing public and classified information, the U.S. military command overseeing the Middle East, Central Command, launched a casualty “credibility assessment” over the weekend to determine if allegations of civilian deaths have merit.
“This is when there are allegations made about civilian casualties, they assess those allegations to determine if they are credible,” Davis said. “If they are determined to be credible, they take additional steps from there.”
Local reports indicate that both the building destroyed and the one adjacent to it were related to the mosque that the Defense Department said it deliberately avoided striking. Mosques are on the United States’ “no strike list” – locations that the U.S. military generally will not bomb, in line with the laws of war.
“Whether or not it was part of the mosque, I don’t know,” Davis said. “But the main mosque we purposefully avoided and this was extensively surveilled prior to the strike that we did, and we are confident that we disrupted a significant meeting of senior al-Qaeda leadership.”
During the civilian casualty credibility assessment, Central Command will do a “review of any available information related to the report, including information provided by third parties, the proximity of the location to an airstrike, and any other relevant information,” said Maj. Josh Jacques, a Central Command spokesperson.
“It is our goal to investigate as thoroughly as possible given the current environment and its limitations,” he said in an email.