On December 3, the U.S. military targeted a suspected “senior al-Qaeda leader and planner” in a drone strike near the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. The bombing proved to be controversial almost immediately. The alleged jihadist was traveling on a motorbike near a car carrying a family of six, all of whom were wounded in the blast. A 10-year-old boy reportedly suffered the worst injuries, including to his head.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) quickly recognized that the drone strike, launched by a MQ-9 Reaper, may have caused unintended civilian casualties. “We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, a CENTCOM spokesperson, said in a statement. “We are initiating a full investigation of the allegations and will release the results when appropriate.” Before CENTCOM could release its findings, pictures of the family and their damaged car circulated online, meaning the public could draw its own conclusions.
The U.S. military has hunted senior al-Qaeda personnel in Syria for years, but often provides few details concerning those targeted. This is a problem. Civilians are being killed in U.S. drone strikes in Syria and elsewhere, but the U.S. government often does not provide clear justifications for those bombings in the first place. Sometimes it is clear why an al-Qaeda figure was targeted. On other occasions, however, it isn’t obvious at all.
The December 3 air strike is a case in point. During a press briefing on December 6, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby explained that the target was a man known as Musab Kinan and he was “a senior leader with Hurras al-Din, which is an al-Qaeda affiliated group.” Other reports disputed this version, saying Kinan was a former member of Hurras al-Din, but not currently active within the organization.