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NPR investigation finds flaws in U.S. claims about civilian deaths in raid that killed ISIS leader

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

On October 27, 2019, America woke up to the news that the leader of ISIS was dead. Then-President Donald Trump told Americans the operation was a big success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Last night, the United States brought the world's No. 1 terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.

RASCOE: The administration said U.S. troops protected noncombatants, but NPR's Daniel Estrin uncovered a different version of events. He's investigated this for four years, and it all began with a tip he got the morning the U.S. announced that al-Baghdadi was dead.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: And that very morning, one of our sources told us that two of his own relatives were killed by U.S. troops in that operation - Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo. And he said they were noncombatants, which contradicted everything that we had heard from U.S. officials until that point.

RASCOE: Why was this contradiction, to you, worth diving into?

ESTRIN: Well, I think because there are enormous consequences when you don't acknowledge civilian casualties. And I was speaking about this with a former Pentagon official who said, look. If you try to explain to an average person in the United States why they should care that two people are killed in an operation that kills such a high-profile target, the leader of ISIS, he says, well, the answer is, what if the deaths of those people then just lead to someone in their family becoming the new leader of ISIS? And this becomes a death spiral for everybody.

So when we got that tip that civilians were killed in the U.S. operation going after Baghdadi, we wanted to look into it. And we got in touch with Ratiba Qurmo. She is the mother of one of the victims, and this was three days after her son was killed. I remember hearing women and children gathered at her home. They were in mourning.

RATIBA QURMO: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: And the mother told us, the boy and the car are gone. So the car - you can do a Google image search of Baghdadi and car.

RASCOE: And then go to the images. Let me see. OK. So I see, like, just this van that probably was white or looked white and now it is, like - it's tore up.

ESTRIN: This is the van they were in, and this is the picture that was all over the news the day that we learned that the leader of ISIS was dead. And no one really understood why it was there. And so back in Washington, there was a press conference, and a journalist asked the U.S. commander who led the operation about this van.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

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

ESTRIN: And this got my attention because now we've got two different versions of what happened.

RASCOE: So how did you go about figuring out which one was true?

ESTRIN: Well, I started by trying to find anyone I could who knew these men in the van. Were they ISIS fighters? Were they militants? Were they civilians? So I went on Facebook, and I started searching in Arabic for people in that area in Syria. And I found some people, and I started friending them on Facebook and introduced myself. And I started hearing back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: That was Ahmed Abdelsalem Qurmo (ph), Mahmun Juma Qurmo. They're cousins of the victims. And I also heard from two other men named Ahmed Qurmo, one an uncle, another a cousin. They're all saying the same thing. They said these men had nothing at all to do with ISIS or any armed group. And then I heard from a brother of one of the deceased. His name is Ahmed Mustafa Qurmo.

AHMED MUSTAFA QURMO: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said he saw his brother that very morning. He went out to work in the olive harvest. And at the end of the day, they were driving the friend back home when they suddenly got caught up in this U.S. operation.

RASCOE: I do wonder, though - or what some people may say hearing this is, like, well, these are the relatives, and relatives can be biased.

ESTRIN: But the thing is I found nearly all of these men on my own. No one brought them to me. I contacted seven different relatives in total, and each of them gave me the same information. They all knew basic personal details about the men. They all identified these dead men as having been agricultural workers, but then I received something more. One of the relatives gave me very graphic cellphone video from the scene of the airstrikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: This is in the village of Barisha, and the person filming this on their cellphone is showing two bodies on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: And then you see a severed hand.

RASCOE: But there's another passenger in the van that we're hearing about, the one who lost his hand. So what happened to him?

ESTRIN: So his name is Barakat Ahmad Barakat, in his mid-30s. We reached out to him, and at the time, Barakat was recuperating from his injuries. We spoke to him on video chat, and I remember just asking him, can you tell me what happened?

BARAKAT AHMAD 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: So he says they rushed out of the van. And one of the men fell, and his legs filled with shrapnel. And Barakat says he 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. 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.

RASCOE: What did you do next?

ESTRIN: Well, I felt like we had enough information to approach the Pentagon. So I emailed them, and they said this was the first that they had heard of possible civilian casualties in the U.S. operation. A U.S. defense official wrote that initial reports were that the van had fired on U.S. helicopters, but he said the Pentagon would conduct a review. They'd look at surveillance footage, and they would determine whether an investigation was needed. Three months later, I finally got some news. The Pentagon actually decided, yes, it's going to conduct a formal review. It's going to see, did civilians really get killed and injured in this strike?

RASCOE: So what happened with the Pentagon investigation? What did they find?

ESTRIN: Well, four months went by, and the Pentagon completed its report. And they told me that their conclusion was that the men in that van were enemy combatants. So I wrote the Pentagon, and I asked, under the Freedom of Information Act, can you give us a copy of your review and any documentation, any emails where you discuss this incident? We waited and waited, didn't get any documents, so NPR sued. We sued the Pentagon for failing to comply in a timely fashion. And three years after the raid, we finally got the Pentagon's documents.

RASCOE: What did these documents say?

ESTRIN: So there are a lot of things that stood out to us. One of them was a declassified Pentagon email that admitted that, actually, the van had not fired on U.S. troops, as they claimed initially. But the central thing that we looked at was the actual report that walks through the events as the military saw them that night. So the report says U.S. troops arrived in Syria by helicopter. As they arrived near Baghdadi's secret compound, they are fired upon, and the troops fire back. And then after that firefight, our van comes on to the scene. So the van turns right at an intersection, and it starts driving up a village road in the direction of the Baghdadi compound.

And then what the Pentagon report says happened next is that a U.S. aircraft fired warning shots in front of the van, about 50 feet in front of the van. But the report says that the van kept going, and so the aircraft targeted the van directly. Now, this is the core of the Pentagon's claim. The van, it says, did not slow down, did not stop at the warning shots. And so the troops employed necessary force and targeted the van and then, when the men fled the van, targeted the men themselves.

RASCOE: OK. So, I mean, the first thing that pops into my head is because you had said this was at night, and they're firing warning shots. And so I'm thinking, did they see the shots? How, you know, would you have time to see the shots? So that's my first thought about this.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. And I said, OK, let's reconstruct this. I took the Pentagon report and the pictures and the aerial surveillance photos and what they said had happened. And I started creating my own Google map, and I put pins in the various spots. So I found that intersection where the van arrives, and then I put a pin in the spot where the troops fired the warning shots. And then I put a pin in the spot where the troops actually hit the van after it kept moving.

And I look at this map that I've reconstructed, and I say, wait a minute, the warning shots and the direct shots are in the same place on the road. So let's say the van was driving very slowly, 15 miles an hour. How long would it have taken between those warning shots and the moment when the van is hit? And we determined that the van would have only had two or three seconds to respond.

RASCOE: So what you have uncovered is that the men in the van really didn't get a real warning at all.

ESTRIN: Exactly. I mean, you know, from Barakat's perspective, it's dark. He's in a van. As he says, suddenly, he comes under fire. And then two or three seconds later, the van takes a direct hit. But, you know, in the report, the Pentagon says the troops saw this van coming and thought that it was posing a threat.

RASCOE: Daniel, you also reported that the government really didn't have evidence for the claims to show, yes, they were combatants, and this is how we know.

ESTRIN: That's right. I mean, we found all kinds of examples of this. They said that a pilot thought that he saw a secondary explosion from the van, maybe indicating that there were weapons or explosives in the van. But, you know, the Pentagon admits, yeah, we don't know if there were weapons. And then in the Pentagon report itself, there's a recommendation that they provide intelligence in a top-secret document, intelligence to show that these men were combatants. We asked the Pentagon about that. There is no record that they ever did put that evidence together.

RASCOE: So is this a cover-up by the Pentagon?

ESTRIN: I don't know. It's a question that some experts - you know, they said Trump called this raid impeccable. So maybe there was pressure inside the Pentagon not to contradict the president. But we have taken our findings to several Democratic members of Congress who have taken an interest in civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military. And some senators and House representatives said that they were troubled by what we found. And this summer, prompted by our reporting, House Representative Sara Jacobs introduced a bill that would make the Pentagon reinvestigate all past cases of civilian harm over the last decade.

And I have an update here. The Pentagon says it is willing to consider new information in this case from NPR or from any others. This is part of a bigger picture. The Pentagon has been under a lot of pressure to do better when it comes to civilian casualties. And they have announced a new center for civilian protection, an entirely new approach to tackle the issue of civilian casualties in military operations. So the Pentagon says it is open to reviewing new information. Let's see if they reopen this case.

RASCOE: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin. You can listen to a longer version of our conversation on today's episode of Up First. Find it wherever you get your podcasts. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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