ISTANBUL—Mahmoud al Birkawi remembers the moment the U.S. airstrikes began in a north Syrian village. He was in the kitchen of a community building preparing the evening meal for worshippers in the main mosque who were attending the weekly religious lessons given by a moderate Islamist proselytizing group.
“We were thrown against the walls by the first strike, and then a few seconds later came the second, and the ceiling fell on us,” he said. He and others were buried under three meters of dust and debris, he said.
The miracle on March 16 was that the religious lesson had gone on 15 minutes longer than expected, delaying the arrival of 200 worshippers at dinner. “If they’d all been at the restaurant, no one would have come out alive,” said Birkawi.
At least 29 people died and 26 were wounded in the attacks on Al Jinah village, according to the White Helmets rescue group. Two independent Syrian news agencies put the death toll at 50, as did the Local Coordination Committee in nearby Al Atarib.
It did not attract much international attention—certainly not like the U.S.-led bombing of the hard-fought battleground in Mosul, where Amnesty International has said the Coalition has done too little to protect civilians, and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has declared that nobody tries harder than the U.S. military to avoid such casualties.
Perhaps. But the evidence suggests that something went very wrong in Al Jinah.
The U.S. Central Command said the attack was “an airstrike on an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location” in Idlib that killed “several terrorists.” Idlib has “been a significant haven for Al Qaeda in recent years,” the statement added. (In fact, the airstrike occurred in Aleppo province.)
Col. John Thomas, the CENTCOM spokesman, said it had been a “precision strike,” and there was no indication that civilians were in the building. “We knew there was going to be a meeting of Al Qaeda operatives in a significant number,” he said. “What we expected to happen happened. We took the strike.” But he said CENTCOM is looking carefully into reports of civilian casualties.
The Daily Beast spoke with three eyewitnesses, and all say the event was a religious meeting organized weekly by the Da’awe and Tabligh—or missionary and propagation—order. Da’awa had built the community building, which housed the restaurant, a second mosque and had space where internally displaced people from Aleppo and elsewhere were living.
Human Rights Watch investigators contacted a different set of eyewitnesses, and all described the gathering in Al Jinah on March 16 as a religious event, a senior HRW researcher said. Did the U.S. military do due diligence before selecting the target?
“The question is what intelligence did they have, who was providing it, and what they did to verify it,” researcher Ole Solvang told The Daily Beast. “It seems they failed to take the necessary precautions.”
But Central Command was adamant. “We struck who we intended to strike,” said Thomas. “We had good intelligence on who they were and when the meeting was going to be.”