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Documents show flaws in Pentagon's claim that U.S. spared civilians in 2019 ISIS raid

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What really happened in Syria the night of October 26, 2019? Well, the U.S. military tells one version - a daring and successful U.S. raid against the founder of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The U.S. said its troops killed no civilians in that raid.

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DONALD TRUMP: This raid was impeccable.

TRUMP: Then-President Donald Trump praised the operation. And here's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.

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MARK MILLEY: Our forces isolated the compound and protected all the non-combatants.

CHANG: Syrians tell another story about that night - that U.S. airstrikes actually did kill and maim civilians. NPR reported those claims back in 2019. The Pentagon reviewed the claims and rejected them. So we sued the Pentagon for a copy of its confidential review.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

NPR's Daniel Estrin reports there are flaws in the Pentagon's conclusions. And a warning - this report includes some graphic details.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It was nighttime, and Barakat Ahmad Barakat says his two friends were giving him a ride home after work at an olive oil press.

BARAKAT AHMED BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) There was nothing suspicious at all. We kept moving normally. There was nothing ahead of us on the road. Suddenly, I felt something hit us.

ESTRIN: Airstrikes targeted their van. As it turned out, they were approaching the hideout of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just as U.S. forces were raiding it.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) My friend was wounded all over his body and fell over onto the dashboard.

ESTRIN: Do a Google image search of Baghdadi and car, and you'll see photos of their mangled van seen around the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: There's footage of a white van that was riddled with bullets that was right next to the scene.

ESTRIN: A journalist asked about this in a press conference after the raid. Here's what General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversaw the operation, said.

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KENNETH MCKENZIE: So the white van that you talk about was one of the vehicles that displayed hostile intent, came towards us, and it was destroyed.

ESTRIN: The men fled the van. Barakat says he carried his wounded friend across his chest and reached the side of the road when they were targeted with more airstrikes.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I was so terrified that I didn't understand what exactly was striking us or what was happening.

ESTRIN: That's Barakat speaking this month at the very spot where this happened in 2019. AFP's Omar Haj Kadour filmed him for NPR. In the airstrikes, Barakat's two friends were killed, and his right hand was blown off.

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ESTRIN: Cellphone video that surfaced after the attack shows a destroyed van, two pockmarked bodies and a severed hand. NPR learned about this account at the time of the raid and brought these claims to the Pentagon - that Syrian civilians were hit in U.S. airstrikes. The Pentagon launched a confidential review of the incident and told us the airstrikes were necessary. It said the men were enemy combatants who threatened forces because they didn't stop their car when troops fired warning shots.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I didn't know what was going on. I was just trying to escape death.

ESTRIN: NPR sued the Pentagon to release its confidential review under the Freedom of Information Act, and the Pentagon released a redacted copy. We showed it to experts, including Larry Lewis from the federally funded Center for Naval Analyses. He's advised the military on how to reduce civilian casualties, and he thinks the military got it wrong here.

LARRY LEWIS: When I read it - and this is based on reading literally thousands of these cases - it seems very familiar. There are civilians going about their daily lives, and then they suddenly encounter a military force unexpectedly.

ESTRIN: The report redacts what kind of aircraft carried out the airstrikes, but military officials have said attack helicopters were used in the operation. Here's the timeline, according to the Pentagon report. First, there were combatants who opened fire on U.S. troops, and the troops fired back. Then Barakat's van passed through that spot and drove in the direction of ground troops further down the road. The report says a U.S. aircraft fired warning shots about 50 feet in front of the van, but the van kept going, so the aircraft targeted it directly.

This is the core of the Pentagon's claim. The van demonstrated hostile intent because it didn't stop or alter course following warning shots. But NPR's investigation found there was hardly any time to respond between the warning shots and the airstrike on the van. Here's how we reached that conclusion. The aerial photos in the report show that the aircraft struck the van in the same place it fired the warning shots. Looking at the photos, the van had only traveled about 50 feet or maybe as much as 70. Barakat says they were going slowly. So say as an estimate, the van was traveling just 15 miles an hour. They only had two or three seconds before the van was hit. Lewis says all this would have been a blur to someone driving in the dark.

LEWIS: Tragically, what happens too often is that the military does not effectively communicate what it really wants. They want the van to stop, but what do they use? They use lethal force. So you get this escalation based on misunderstandings.

ESTRIN: Here's another claim. The military report says after the airstrikes hit the van, the pilot thought there were explosions from the van, which could mean it was carrying explosives or weapons. And the pilot fired a rocket at the men as they fled. But the report says, looking back, the Pentagon could not confirm what caused the explosions. There's no record the Pentagon contacted the airstrike survivor. Barakat says they never did. Larry Lewis again.

LEWIS: Military forces see a vehicle or an individual. They believe it is hostile. It's a threat. But they're mistaken - that it's actually civilian. And we call that misidentification. That's how I would characterize what is happening here.

ESTRIN: One of the Pentagon documents says something curious. It says, given the high visibility of this strike and allegation, it recommends the military provide a top secret document that, quote, "further addresses the characterization of the individuals killed and injured as unlawful enemy belligerents if the existing intelligence so supports." I asked Lewis, what does the author mean by this?

LEWIS: He does indicate kind of this question in the person that was writing this, like, you know, why are we so insistent that these people that we used force on - what is the real evidence that they were, in fact, combatants, that they weren't civilians that were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

ESTRIN: We asked the Pentagon. It said there is no record officials ever compiled any top secret document. So the Pentagon didn't provide the intelligence to support its own conclusion. We showed the Pentagon report to former Defense Department special counsel Ryan Goodman.

RYAN GOODMAN: There are several red flags that raise concerns. The analysis in these documents conflates or muddles an assessment of the decision-making at the time under the fog of war versus the post-strike analysis that they may have gotten it wrong.

ESTRIN: In other words, it's one thing to say that troops acted reasonably in the heat of the moment. They saw a van approaching, decided in a matter of seconds that it was hostile and fired on it. But it's another thing for the Pentagon to look at this months later and still rely on the initial judgment troops made during the fog of war - one, that there were combatants in the area even though the van did not open fire and, two, that the van ignored the Army's warning shots, even though we know those shots provided the van little time to react.

In response to NPR's findings, U.S. Central Command spokesman Major John Moore said there was no formal investigation into the incident because the Pentagon found the allegations that U.S. troops killed civilians to be not credible. And it had no plans to reassess the allegations and, quote, "nothing additional to offer." I brought all this to Barakat, whose hand was blown off in the strike. He's had surgery to remove shrapnel from his other hand. He says he can hold things again, but he cannot afford his $8 physical therapy sessions and can't find work to provide enough food for his five young children. He's 39 now. He wants compensation.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) My future is destroyed. I have a family, kids. How is this their fault?

ESTRIN: Last year the Defense Department introduced a new action plan to mitigate civilian casualties. And a U.S.-based nonprofit has taken up Barakat's case - the Zomia Center, which advocates for civilian victims of military strikes. Joanna Naples-Mitchell directs the group's redress program and wants the Defense Department to take a fresh look at this case. She's collected documentation showing what Barakat was doing in the area, receipts from his work at a nearby olive oil press.

JOANNA NAPLES-MITCHELL: The big takeaway from this is that two men are dead. Barakat is severely disabled. The military owes him a lot more. They owe him a real explanation for what happened to him because the military has not even taken basic steps to check their own assumptions from that night.

ESTRIN: She's requesting Barakat's case be reopened. And last month, after NPR inquired with the Pentagon, she says the Pentagon told her it's looking into the request. So the official U.S. narrative about civilian casualties in the raid against the head of ISIS may not be case closed. Daniel Estrin, NPR News.

CHANG: And you can see some of the Pentagon documents, photos of the survivor and maps and video of the route he took. We'll post all of that tomorrow on npr.org in English and Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "FIRE IN THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.