Officials at the Pentagon are starting to doubt whether a drone strike earlier this month killed the Al-Qaeda leader they originally touted and instead are facing pushback from locals that a civilian with no ties to the organization was instead the unintended target.
Sources at U.S. Central Command, speaking on background with the Washington Post, are walking back claims that the May 3rd strike killed a “senior Al-Qaeda leader” after facing intense pushback from the neighbors of Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, a bricklayer in northwest Syria who died in the attack.
“We are no longer confident we killed a senior AQ official,” one official said. The other, offering a slightly different view, said “though we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person to be al-Qaeda.”
Misto’s family identified his body after the Hellfire missile strike and maintained he had no ties to Al-Qaeda and that the terrorist organization does not have any affiliates in the area. The attack raises questions about the reliability of U.S. intelligence that supported the strike, but military officials have been coy about releasing their methodology to the wider public for scrutiny.
Misto was “old fashioned,” according to his family, did not own a phone and tended to his chicken farm. He was a father of 10 children.
“He was born here and died here,” said a neighbor who called himself Abu Zaid. Misto’s brother was more pointed. “If they claim that he’s a terrorist, or that they got someone from al-Qaeda,” he said, “they’re all liars.”
Typically terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda announce the death of significant leaders in such instances, celebrating their “martyrdom.” In this case, “there was nothing,” according to Jerome Drevon, a senior analyst on jihad and modern conflict with the International Crisis Group.
Last year the Biden administration promised greater transparency around its drone strikes following accusations of coverups when errors led to civilian casualties or missed intended targets. The Post and other media outlets have examined how “confirmation bias” has affected the military’s ability to successfully carry out such attacks, a scenario blamed by Air Force and Pentagon officials after an errant strike in 2021 killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.