The U.S. military has launched a formal investigation into claims of civilian casualties during the U.S. raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a military spokesman told NPR.
The investigation was prompted by an NPR report about a Syrian farmer who said his arm was blown off and his two friends were killed by U.S. helicopter fire in the village where American special forces were attacking Baghdadi's compound in October.
"Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I'm just a civilian. I didn't have any weapons. We're farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I'm handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves," the injured farmer, Barakat Barakat, said after the incident.
The investigation comes months after the U.S. announced special forces had carefully executed the Baghdadi operation. "The assault force was engaged in small arms fire and the threats were quickly eliminated. Our forces isolated the compound and protected all of the non-combatants," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters on Oct. 28.
NPR learned of the possible civilian casualties from one of the victims' relatives the day of the raid, then collected evidence of the claim over the course of several weeks. A former Pentagon official who investigated strikes in Syria for the United Nations reviewed photos of shrapnel from the scene that relatives provided to NPR, and said it appeared the attack could have come only from Hydra-70 rockets, a type fired by U.S. military helicopters.
Relatives contacted by NPR said the men did not belong to an armed group.
In response to an NPR query in November, a U.S. defense official said initial reports suggested individuals in a van had fired at U.S. helicopters, but that the military would review the case to determine if an investigation was warranted. For three months, the military said there was no progress on the review.
In late February, when NPR sought comment for a follow-up report, a spokesman said the military's Central Command had opened an investigation. It is still ongoing, and could take weeks or months.
"U.S. Central Command has initiated a credibility assessment into an allegation of civilian casualties during the operation that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Oct. 26-27, 2019, and that assessment is ongoing," said Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman of U.S. Central Command.
A credibility assessment is a preliminary investigation following an informal review. Investigators assess an allegation before launching a fuller investigation, said Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.
"They could look at things like surveillance video of the operation. They could also speak with military personnel who were involved in that operation to get a sense of what happened," said Motaparthy. "This is kind of an intermediate step."
Barakat, who survived the attack, said last week he did not know the U.S. had launched an investigation into his case.
"I thought the issue had been forgotten. I did not expect it was possible the American people would forget this issue," he said by phone from northwest Syria. "Now I feel there is someone caring about my life. There is humanity in the American people."
Barakat has struggled to get used to his new life. His right arm is gone, and his left arm was hit by shrapnel, leaving only his pinky finger functioning. "When I want to wash my face, my wife washes it. When I want to eat, my wife rolls up the piece of bread and feeds me," said Barakat.
His friend, Mostafa Mirshid Shabaan, held up the cellphone for Barakat while he spoke. "We used to play cards together. Now it is not easy to drink tea with him," Shabaan said. He contacted several aid groups to get help for Barakat, he said, but none gave any assistance.
Barakat lives near Idlib, a rebel-held area under attack for months by the Syrian regime. There are no U.S. troops in the area for him to contact with an appeal. He won't approach a hospital to seek medical treatment, because hospitals in the area have been bombed.
More than a million Syrians have been displaced from Idlib province since December, some of them now in tents surrounding Barakat's home in the village of Hattan. It's the biggest humanitarian crisis of the long-running civil war.
He says his two friends who were killed in the attack left behind wives to take care of their kids.
Barakat refuses to tell his five young children what happened to him. He tells them he got into a fight with a friend. He doesn't want them to think about war. He is ashamed he can no longer work to support them.
"I lost my hand. God determined my destiny. But what is the sin my kids committed that now their future isn't guaranteed?" he said.
Before ending the phone call, he asked if there were any chances the U.S. would help him provide for his children.
"I am asking you, is there any hope for any help for me?" Barakat said. "If there is no hope, please tell me, I'd like things to be clear. If there is no hope, tell me, so I do not live in despair."
The U.S. has taken responsibility for past civilian casualties in Syria, but experts say very few families have received money.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. military has opened a formal investigation into claims that it killed civilians during its raid last year on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The military's probe was prompted by an NPR report, and now NPR's Daniel Estrin has this update.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: In December, we broadcast the story of a Syrian farmer who says he and his friends happened to be driving through the village where al-Baghdadi was hiding when U.S. helicopter fire hit their van. They stumbled out of the van and came under fire a second time. His arm was blown off, and his two friends were killed. Here's what he told us back then.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BARAKAT BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I'm just a civilian. I didn't have any weapons. We're farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I'm handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.
ESTRIN: Photos of shrapnel and their damaged van supported the account. And several relatives said the men were not part of any armed group. We took this to the U.S. military. Officials said initial reports were that the van had fired on U.S. helicopters. But the military agreed to review the case. Three months later, in February, Captain Bill Urban told us they were doing a credibility assessment. That's a formal investigation. Priyanka Motaparthy of Columbia Law School explains how it works.
PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: They could look at things like surveillance video of the operation. They could also speak with military personnel who were involved in that operation to get a sense of what happened. This is kind of an intermediate step where they determine, is it more credible than not?
ESTRIN: We reached out again to the Syrian wounded in the strike, Barakat Barakat. He didn't know the U.S. was investigating his case.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I thought the issue had been forgotten. I did not expect it. I wondered, is it possible the American people would forget this issue? Now I feel there is someone caring about my life. There is humanity in the American people.
ESTRIN: He's struggled to get used to his new life. His right arm is gone. His left arm was hit with shrapnel, and he can only use his pinky finger. His friend held up the cellphone for him while we spoke. He can't do much by himself.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) When I want to wash my face, my wife washes it. When I want to eat, my wife rolls up the piece of bread and feeds me.
ESTRIN: He has the bad luck of living Idlib. For one thing, there are no U.S. troops there for him to appeal to. And it's a rebel-held area under attack by the Syrian regime for months. He's afraid to go to the hospital because hospitals have been bombed. Displaced people in tents surround his house. He's ashamed he can no longer work to support his young children.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I lost my hand. God determined my destiny. But what is the sin my kids committed that their future isn't guaranteed?
ESTRIN: He asked if there were any chances the U.S. could help him provide for his children.
BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I am asking now, is there any hope for - any help for me? If there is no hope, please tell me. I'd like things to be clear.
ESTRIN: The U.S. has taken responsibility for past civilian casualties in Syria, but experts say very few families have received money. In Barakat's case, a formal investigation could take weeks or months.
Daniel Estrin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.