Three independent investigations into a controversial U.S. airstrike in Syria last month hold the United States responsible for killing dozens of civilians after misidentifying a mosque as an Al-Qaeda meeting place.
A Human Right Watch report published on Tuesday finds that U.S. forces “failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties” while carrying out a series of unilateral drone strikes in western Aleppo, the first wave of which reportedly struck and destroyed the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque near the village of al-Jinah. A second wave of attacks reportedly targeted civilians attempting to flee the collapsed building, the report states.
Those findings are backed up by two other investigations into the al-Jinah bombing—conducted by Bellingcat, an open-source investigative group, and Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which interviewed survivors and first responders, in addition to the building’s contractor.
“Our analysis reveals that, contrary to U.S. statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions, and the Imam’s residence,” Forensic Architecture said in a statement. “We believe the civilian casualties caused by this strike are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.”
U.S. authorities have acknowledged carrying out the attack on March 16, but claim the intended targets were members of Al-Qaeda. That assertion is not currently supported by any publicly available data.
HRW also conducted interviews with 14 people who either witnessed the attack or its immediate aftermath, including four mosque-goers whom the rights group identified as being inside the complex during the attack. Local residents told HRW that there were no armed men inside the mosque and that only civilians were killed.
Syria Civil Defense—volunteer search and rescue workers nicknamed “the White Helmets”—reportedly pulled 38 bodies from the rubble. Twenty-eight of the bodies were identified by relatives, according to HRW, including five children. Ten bodies remain unidentified, the group said.
Information gathered by HRW sharply contradicts the assertions of U.S. officials who last month denied that the exploded building was a mosque. “We did not target any mosques,” a spokesman for U.S. Central Command told the New York Times.
Local residents, however, say that the building was used as a mosque by dozens if not hundreds of people whose regular attendance during scheduled prayer times should have been noticed by U.S. surveillance. The initial airstrike reportedly hit the building at about 6:55pm local time, HRW said, roughly 15 minutes before the nightly Isha’a prayers.
HRW said it believes that statements by U.S. officials indicate that the Americans “failed to understand that the targeted building was a mosque, that prayer was about to begin, and that a religious lecture was taking place at the time of the attack.”
Forensic Architecture, assessing the statements of U.S. officials, writes:
“The US Central Command claimed responsibility for the airstrike, stating, ‘US forces conducted an airstrike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting on March 16th, killing several terrorists.’ It wrongly identified the mosque as a ‘partially constructed community meeting hall;’ wrongly located it in the province of Idlib; and claimed that there was no indication of civilian casualties. The Pentagon has later released an image showing the destroyed mosque and insisting it ‘deliberately did not target the mosque at the left edge of the photo.’ This statement omits the fact that the targeted building also was a mosque that was in frequent use by locals.”
In March, the U.S. military pledged to investigate whether innocent civilians were killed in the attack. HRW urged the Trump administration to “make public the detailed findings of its investigation, provide adequate redress to civilian victims or their families, and hold those responsible for the attack to account.”
The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.