When President Trump announced the U.S. military raid that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi one year ago on Oct. 27, officials praised the nighttime operation and said civilians were protected.
But in December, NPR reported claims that forces had killed two Syrian civilians and maimed a third during the raid, prompting the military to investigate.
Now U.S. Central Command says it has completed its investigation and cleared its troops of any wrongdoing, classifying the Syrian men they attacked as combatants.
Relatives of the Syrian victims reject the military's assertion.
"It's an investigation of lies," said Majida Qurmo, the widow of one of the Syrian men killed.
The military's account of events, shared with NPR, offers no evidence the men were combatants or intended to threaten troops, raising the question of whether the U.S. is mischaracterizing innocent civilians as the enemy as it protects the official narrative of a celebrated operation against one of the military's most-wanted targets.
"I was just trying to escape death"
Late at night on Oct. 26, 2019, U.S. forces slipped into northwest Syria by helicopter, descending upon Baghdadi's secret compound in the village of Barisha, near Idlib. That night, cousins Khaled Mustafa Qurmo, 27, and Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo, 30, were driving home a friend, Barakat Barakat, in their olive-green van.
"We had pumpkin seeds and bought coffee on the road and were having fun," Barakat, now 36, told NPR. "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."
The men fled the van, but one of them collapsed with shrapnel in his legs. Barakat said he cradled his friend outside the van when helicopter fire hit them again, killing the cousins and tearing off Barakat's hand that had been holding up his friend's head.
A relative of the victims sent NPR a video filmed at night of the destroyed van, turned white after the explosion, and nearby, two pockmarked bodies and a severed hand. Autopsy reports by a Syrian doctor with an international medical group concluded the men died of shrapnel wounds to the chest. A former Pentagon official reviewed shrapnel photos provided by relatives and assessed they had come from Hydra-70 rockets, a type fired by U.S. military helicopters.
The victims' relatives told NPR the cousins had operated a van service and were not combatants. Barakat said there were no weapons in the van.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who commanded the Baghdadi operation, told reporters a few days after the raid that "every effort was made to avoid civilian casualties." In his step-by-step recounting, McKenzie spoke about combatants whom U.S. forces encountered, but he did not mention the van incident until a reporter asked him about the damaged van that had appeared in news images. McKenzie responded that it was "one of the vehicles that displayed hostile intent, came toward us and it was destroyed."
In November, a Pentagon official said that NPR's reporting was the first it had heard of possible civilian casualties and that it would review surveillance footage to determine if an investigation was warranted. In February, the military said it opened a formal investigation, called a credibility assessment, into the allegations.
In July, CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Bill Urban told NPR the military had completed its assessment and determined U.S. forces "employed appropriate, necessary and proportionately scaled use of force in response to actions against U.S. forces, which turned lethal after warnings were not heeded."
Urban gave NPR additional details on Saturday. As the van approached, a U.S. helicopter fired warning shots, he said. "A normal reaction to warning shots in the middle of the night from a helicopter would be to stop and turn around if you had no business being there," Urban said. "But they proceeded towards the helicopter and accelerated."
The helicopter fired on the van, and the men fled, running in the direction of the ISIS compound without raising their hands, so forces perceived them to "demonstrate hostile intent" and the helicopter fired at them, Urban said. The military investigation determined they were "enemy combatants," not civilians, he said, though they did not open fire and the military found no evidence they had weapons.
"What do you expect at night?"
Retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, who helped lead the fight against ISIS in Iraq and left the Army before the Baghdadi raid, said the forces were justified in protecting themselves from an approaching van of Syrians with unknown intentions. But he said the Syrians' actions were understandable, too.
"I assume it was dark, and you see a shot out there," said Pittard, who co-authored the book Hunting the Caliphate. "What is your inclination? Just put your foot on the pedal and keep going. So you don't know the direction of the shot. ... I mean, what do you expect at night?"
The U.S. sets aside about $3 million a year to pay the families of civilians killed or wounded in U.S. attacks abroad, but Urban said such a payment "is not appropriate in cases like this, where someone demonstrates hostile intent or commits a hostile act against U.S. forces."
Pittard said he thinks the Army should pay. "Could they not find it, you know, in their hearts to have some kind of restitution and then move on?" he asked.
Experts have criticized the U.S. military in past wars for labeling ordinary civilian responses to warning shots as demonstrations of "hostile intent."
Hostile intent, which the military defines as the threat of imminent use of force, is "too vague and subjective" and "dangerously broad," said Bonnie Docherty, a lecturer at Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic.
A review by Thomas Gregory, a senior lecturer at New Zealand's University of Auckland, of hundreds of incident reports of Iraqi civilians targeted by U.S. forces found that the majority were innocent. "Soldiers had simply misinterpreted perfectly innocent or innocuous behavior as a demonstration of hostile intent," Gregory said.
Urban said the Syrian men would not have been deemed threatening if they had run away from the compound. Yet, according to Gregory, in other cases, soldiers have targeted civilians fleeing the area of an attack because they were perceived to be combatants escaping U.S. troops.
"If the U.S. military were serious about investigating this incident, they would reopen this case," said Azmat Khan, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer and author of a forthcoming book on U.S. airstrikes and civilian deaths. Unlike many other similar incidents, she said, "the U.S. military has a unique opportunity to understand what really happened, because NPR tracked down survivors and family members and interviewed them."
Urban said the military would consider reopening the case if new evidence warranted it.
"The whole world turned its back on me"
CENTCOM said its investigators did not speak with the Syrian family members or Barakat, the attack's sole survivor. He said he wished the military had contacted him for his side of the story.
He said there is a risk Syrian armed groups might retaliate against him, suspecting him of connections with ISIS or another armed group because he was targeted by U.S. forces.
What worries him most is how to provide for his five children. He cannot work. Part of his right arm is gone, he can only use two fingers on his left hand, and doctors tell him he needs surgery. He is ashamed to have to beg for bread.
"Sometimes I cry," Barakat said in a Facebook voice message. "I think of my kids in that I'm unable to do anything for them. I'm ashamed. I can't work. I'm crippled. The whole world turned its back on me."
He has lost hope anything good will come out of telling his story to a journalist.
"I know already what's going to be on the Internet, the comments of the American people. 'God forbid,' and so on. We know all that talk. We've memorized that routine," Barakat said.
He added, "God damn the hour Baghdadi came here."