Syrians Say Innocent Civilians Were Killed In U.S. Raid On Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

Dec 3, 2019
Originally published on December 3, 2019 7:38 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. has said its troops did not kill any civilians in the raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But NPR has spoken to Syrians who say two civilians were killed and a third was wounded. Our reporting has prompted the military to take another look at what did happen. NPR's Daniel Estrin reveals the story here. And just a warning - some of the details in it are graphic.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The day the U.S. announced the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northwest Syria, we called a Syrian contact who's outside the country but helps provide information on airstrikes and casualties inside Syria. My colleague Lama Al-Arian was seeking eyewitnesses to the raid on Baghdadi, and our contact said two of his relatives were killed in the attack. We called the mother of one of those men.

RATIBA QURMO: (Through interpreter, crying) The boy and the car are gone. The boy and the car are gone.

ESTRIN: Ratiba Qurmo speaks to us from Syria on video chat three days after her son was killed. Mourners are still in her house. She says her son and his cousin were driving through the village of Barisha when their van was hit. Do a Google Image search of Baghdadi and car, and you'll see pictures of the mangled van.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Several days later, the victim's relative sends us this cellphone video of the scene filmed shortly after the attack. You hear a man muttering prayers as he films.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Arabic).

ESTRIN: You see the destroyed van and two bodies in the dirt, pockmarked and bloodied. Relatives identify them as Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo; cousins, 27 and 30 years old. Their relatives say another man named Barakat was also in the car, and his hand was blown off. In the video, you see a severed hand on the ground. But he survived. Thirty-five-year-old Barakat Barakat. After a couple weeks of recuperating, he spoke to us on video chat from his couch at home.

BARAKAT BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I was with my best friends. They wanted to drop me off at home. We had pumpkin seeds and bought coffee on the road and were having fun. We were driving through the village of Barisha. And at that moment, the helicopters arrived. Suddenly, we were hit. I didn't know what was going on. I was just trying to escape death.

ESTRIN: He says they rushed out of the car, but one of them fell. His legs filled with shrapnel. Barakat took his other friend in his arms.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) He told me, I am dying. I told him, no, just say God's name. And I held him in my lap. There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled's head, got cut off.

ESTRIN: He shows us his right arm, bandaged and missing his hand and part of his forearm. He lifts up his left arm and says he can't move most of his fingers. His tendons were slashed. All of this, he says, because they happened to be driving through the village where U.S. forces attacked ISIS leader Baghdadi.

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: We spoke to seven of the victims' relatives. They said the cousins were farmers and minibus drivers, not part of an armed group. And two Syrians working with aid groups told us they'd heard the people in the van were civilians, but they weren't there themselves and don't want to be named for their own safety. We took this to the U.S. military's Central Command and received a written response from a defense official who asked not to be named. He said it was the first they'd heard of possible civilian casualties. He said that initial reports were that the van had fired on U.S. helicopters but that the U.S. would conduct a review of surveillance footage to determine if an investigation is needed. He wouldn't say if U.S. helicopters did attack the van, but we sent photos from the scene to Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official who's recently investigated strikes in Syria for the U.N. He said the shrapnel could only have come from a type of rocket fired by U.S. military helicopters. And if these were civilians who were killed, he says Americans should not dismiss it as collateral damage.

MARC GARLASCO: I mean, it's hard, you know? You want to talk to Joe Sixpack (ph) and explain to him why he cares that two people were killed when nearby, some very high-value target was killed. Well, the problem is what if the deaths of those two people then lead to someone in that family eventually becoming the new Baghdadi? When people are resentful, then they join ISIS, and this just becomes a death spiral for everyone.

ESTRIN: Barakat, the survivor of the attack, says he'd like to register a complaint with the U.S. military and seek compensation for himself and his friends' children. But he doesn't know how.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.