File photo of Gen. Erik Kurilla.
CNN  — 

The senior general in charge of US forces in the Middle East ordered that his command announce on Twitter that a senior al Qaeda leader had been targeted by an American drone strike in Syria earlier this month – despite not yet having confirmation of who was actually killed in the strike, according to multiple defense officials.

Nearly three weeks later, US Central Command still does not know whether a civilian died instead, officials said. CENTCOM did not open a review of the incident, officially known as a civilian-casualty credibility assessment report, until May 15 – twelve days after the strike. That review is ongoing.

One defense official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN that some of CENTCOM Commander Gen. Erik Kurilla’s subordinates urged him to hold off on the tweet until there was more clarity on who was actually killed.

Two other officials denied that, and said they were not aware of any staffers voicing consternation or disagreement with the announcement.

Either way, the statement ultimately posted to Twitter from the official CENTCOM Twitter account did not identify the supposed senior al Qaeda leader, raising more questions about what had occurred.

“At 11:42 am local Syrian time on 3 May, US Central Command Forces conducted a unilateral strike in Northwest Syria targeting a senior Al Qaeda leader,” the tweet read. “We will provide more information as operational details become available.”

The tweet has not been taken down and CENTCOM has not tweeted about the strike again.

The episode raises questions about how thoroughly CENTCOM has implemented the military’s civilian harm mitigation policy – a process for preventing, mitigating and responding to civilian casualties caused by US military operations.

The policy was developed in 2022 after a botched US drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians in August 2021.

Austin confident in efforts to avoid civilian harm

Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Tuesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is “absolutely” confident in the Defense Department’s civilian harm mitigation efforts.

“In terms of CENTCOM’s strike, as you know, they conducted that strike on the third of May. They are investigating the allegations of civilian casualties,” Ryder said at a Pentagon news briefing. “So, you know, I think our record speaks for itself in terms of how seriously we take these. Very few countries around the world do that. The secretary has complete confidence that we will continue to abide by the policies that we put into place.”

CENTCOM acknowledged last week following a Washington Post report questioning the strike that the operation may have resulted in a civilian casualty and said in a statement that it was “investigating” the incident. The civilian casualty review was not launched until a week after the Post began presenting information to CENTCOM suggesting that the strike had killed a civilian.

CENTCOM still has not opened a formal investigation into the strike, known as a 15-6 investigation, defense officials told CNN. The officials said the civilian casualty review first needs to determine that a noncombatant was indeed killed in the strike. Then, a commander needs to decide that there are other unanswered questions remaining about the operation that require a more thorough investigation. A 15-6 investigation was launched less than a week after the errant Kabul strike.

Defense officials told CNN that in the immediate aftermath of the strike, Kurilla and his staff had high confidence that they had killed the senior al-Qaeda leader, though they declined to say why they were so convinced. But they also knew it would likely take a few days to confirm the person’s identity definitively. The US has no military footprint in northwest Syria, an area still recovering from the effects of a devastating earthquake.

But as the days passed, CENTCOM still could not determine the identity of who they had killed. Some defense officials considered that a red flag, they told CNN.

By May 8, CENTCOM still had not confirmed the person’s identity, and began receiving information from the Washington Post that raised questions about whether a civilian had been killed, defense officials said. The Post’s information led CENTCOM to open a review into the strike, and whether it had killed a civilian, on May 15.

There is still some disagreement within the administration about the identity of the person killed, defense officials told CNN. Some intelligence officials continue to believe that the target of the strike was a member of al-Qaeda, even if he wasn’t a senior leader. But there is a growing belief inside the Pentagon that the man – identified by his family as Loutfi Hassan Mesto, a 56-year-old father of ten – was a farmer with no ties to terrorism.

Mesto’s family told CNN that he had been out grazing his sheep when he was killed. Loutfi never left his village during the Syrian uprisings and did not support any political faction, his brother said.

‘Impossible that he was with al Qaeda’

Mohamed Sajee, a distant relative living in Qurqaniya, also told CNN that Loutfi was never known to be in favor or against the Syrian regime.

“It’s impossible that he was with al Qaeda, he doesn’t even have a beard,” he said.

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, told CNN they arrived on the scene of the strike after being contacted on their local emergency number.

“The team noticed only one crater caused by the missile, which was next to the man’s body,” the White Helmets said, also confirming that the man had been grazing his sheep.

“When the team arrived, his wife, neighbors, and other people were at the location,” the group added.

The White Helmets tweeted on May 3 that they had recovered the body of Mesto, who they described as “a civilian aged 60” who was killed in a missile strike while grazing sheep. CENTCOM was aware of the White Helmets’ tweet, officials said, but the group’s information was not considered solid enough yet to open a review.

The May 3 incident bears a stunning similarity to another CENTCOM operation: a US drone strike in Kabul during the closing days of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which killed 10 Afghan civilians, including 7 children. The Pentagon initially claimed it had eliminated an ISIS-K threat and defended the operation for weeks, with Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley going as far as to call it a “righteous” strike in a Pentagon briefing two days later.

A suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport three days earlier, which killed 13 US service members, had added pressure on CENTCOM to act against any potential threats, and officials believed at the time that another attack was imminent.

Austin ultimately decided no one would be punished over the botched operation, even as he instructed Central Command and Special Operations Command to improve policies and procedures to prevent civilian harm more effectively.

Austin committed to adjusting Defense Department policies to better protect civilians, even establishing a civilian protection center of excellence in 2022.

“Leaders in this department should be held to account for high standards of conduct and leadership,” Austin said at the time.