How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria

The military never conducted an independent investigation into a 2019 bombing on the last bastion of the Islamic State, despite concerns about a secretive commando force.

In the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once-fierce caliphate were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a U.S. military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank.

Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.

It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there.

“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

An initial battle damage assessment quickly found that the number of dead was actually about 70.

The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military. The details, reported here for the first time, show that the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.

The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike.

“Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate, an evaluator who worked on the case for the inspector general’s office and agreed to discuss the aspects that were not classified. “It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what’s right but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it.”

Mr. Tate, a former Navy officer who had worked for years as a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center before moving to the inspector general’s office, said he criticized the lack of action and was eventually forced out of his job.

The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times over months from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved, and officials with top secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named.

The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.

In the minutes after the strike, an alarmed Air Force intelligence officer in the operations center called over an Air Force lawyer in charge of determining the legality of strikes. The lawyer ordered the F-15E squadron and the drone crew to preserve all video and other evidence, according to documents obtained by The Times. He went upstairs and reported the strike to his chain of command, saying it was a possible violation of the law of armed conflict — a war crime — and regulations required a thorough, independent investigation.

But a thorough, independent investigation never happened.

This week, after The New York Times sent its findings to U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, the command acknowledged the strikes for the first time, saying 80 people were killed but the airstrikes were justified. It said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said in the statement. “In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

But the Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed his leadership and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they did not, he alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the watchdog agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling its staff that he had top secret material to discuss and adding, “I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this.”

“Senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Times. Much of the material was classified and would need to be discussed through secure communications, he said. He wrote that a unit had intentionally entered false strike log entries, “clearly seeking to cover up the incidents.” Calling the classified death toll “shockingly high,” he said the military did not follow its own requirements to report and investigate the strike.

There was a good chance, he wrote, that “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground.”

Colonel Korsak did not respond to requests for comment.

The United States portrayed the air war against the Islamic State as the most precise and humane bombing campaign in its history. The military said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the findings reported publicly, creating what the military called a model of accountability.

But the strikes on Baghuz tell a different story.

The details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force repeatedly used other rules to skirt them. The military teams counting casualties rarely had the time, resources or incentive to do accurate work. And troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.

Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even in the extraordinary case of Baghuz — which would rank third on the military’s worst civilian casualty events in Syria if 64 civilian deaths were acknowledged — regulations for reporting and investigating the potential crime were not followed, and no one was held accountable.

The military recently admitted that a botched strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August killed 10 civilians, including seven children. But that kind of public reckoning is unusual, observers say. More often, civilian deaths are undercounted even in classified reports. Nearly 1,000 strikes hit targets in Syria and Iraq in 2019, using 4,729 bombs and missiles. The official military tally of civilian dead for that entire year is only 22, and the strikes from March 18 are nowhere on the list.

The battle at Baghuz represented the end of a nearly five-year United States-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and was a foreign policy triumph for President Donald J. Trump.

At the height of its rule in 2014, the Islamic State controlled an area of Syria and Iraq about the size of Tennessee. A fleet of coalition drones, jets, attack helicopters and heavy bombers hit enemy positions with about 35,000 strikes over the next five years, plowing a path for local Kurdish and Arab militias to reclaim ground.

At the end of the grinding fight, airstrikes corralled the last Islamic State fighters in a scrap of farmland against the Euphrates River near Baghuz. Coalition air power forced thousands to surrender, sparing the lives of untold numbers of Kurdish and Arab allies.

On the ground, Task Force 9 coordinated offensives and airstrikes. The unit included soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group and the Army’s elite commando team Delta Force, several officials said.

Over time, some officials overseeing the air campaign began to believe that the task force was systematically circumventing the safeguards created to limit civilian deaths.

The process was supposed to run through several checks and balances. Drones with high-definition cameras studied potential targets, sometimes for days or weeks. Analysts pored over intelligence data to differentiate combatants from civilians. And military lawyers were embedded with strike teams to ensure that targeting complied with the law of armed conflict. In combat situations, the process might take only minutes, but even then the rules required teams to identify military targets and minimize civilian harm. At times, when the task force failed to meet those requirements, commanders in Qatar and elsewhere denied permission to strike.

But there was a quick and easy way to skip much of that oversight: claiming imminent danger.

The law of armed conflict — the rule book that lays out the military’s legal conduct in war — allows troops in life-threatening situations to sidestep the strike team lawyers, analysts and other bureaucracy and call in strikes directly from aircraft under what military regulations call an “inherent right of self-defense.”

Task Force 9 typically played only an advisory role in Syria, and its soldiers were usually well behind the front lines. Even so, by late 2018, about 80 percent of all airstrikes it was calling in claimed self-defense, according to an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes.

The rules allowed U.S. troops and local allies to invoke it when facing not just direct enemy fire, but anyone displaying “hostile intent,” according to a former officer who deployed with the unit numerous times. Under that definition, something as mundane as a car driving miles from friendly forces could in some cases be targeted. The task force interpreted the rules broadly, the former officer said.

The aftermath of that approach was plain to see. A number of Syrian towns, including the regional capital, Raqqa, were reduced to little more than rubble. Human rights organizations reported that the coalition caused thousands of civilian deaths during the war. Hundreds of military assessment reports examined by The Times show the task force was implicated in nearly one in five coalition civilian casualty incidents in the region.

Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Publicly, the coalition insisted the numbers were much lower. Privately, it became overwhelmed by the volume of civilian casualty claims reported by locals, humanitarian groups and the news media, and a backlog of civilian casualty assessment reports sat unexamined for months, two people who compiled the reports said.

But even when completed, the military teams making those assessments were not equipped to make an accurate count, the former task force officer said, because the personnel doing the counting did not investigate on the ground and often based their findings on how many dead civilians they could definitively identify from aerial footage of the rubble.

Mr. Tate, who wrote a classified report on the shortcomings of the process, said the assessment teams at times lacked training and some did not have security clearances to even view the evidence.

The assessments of the strike process were also flawed, three officials said, because they were done by the units that called in the strikes, meaning the task force was grading its own performance. Rarely did it find problems.

Human rights groups were not the only ones sounding the alarm. C.I.A. officers working in Syria grew so alarmed over the task force’s strikes that agents reported their concern to the Department of Defense inspector general, which investigated the claims and produced a report. The results of that report are top secret, but the former task force officer, who reviewed the report, said the C.I.A. officers alleged that in about 10 incidents, the secretive task force hit targets knowing civilians would be killed.

The former officer said the report determined that all the strikes were legal.

The inspector general declined to release the report or discuss its findings.

Staff in the operations center in Qatar, who oversaw the air war, also became concerned with task force strikes. Air Force lawyers started keeping a spreadsheet, recording the self-defense justifications the task force used to call strikes, then comparing them with drone footage and other evidence, according to one officer who viewed the data. The evidence appeared to show that the task force was adding details that would legally justify a strike, such as seeing a man with a gun, even when those details were not visible in the footage.

Though a number of officers in the operations center suspected that the task force was including misleading information in the logs to justify strikes, they did not feel they had enough evidence to press the issue, the officer said. That changed on March 18, 2019.

The camp at Baghuz was effectively the Islamic State’s Alamo — a last stand where hard-core militants vowed to fight to the death. For more than a month, they had been trapped in one square mile of burned-over farm fields. Among the makeshift tents, bullet-pocked vehicles and hand-dug bunkers were tens of thousands of women and children. Some were there willingly; some were not.

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Only a small sliver of land remained of the Islamic State caliphate in March 2019.Satellite image: © 2021 Maxar Technologies. Data: Jane’s Conflict Monitor.

The coalition had laid siege, hoping to starve the fighters out. In six weeks, 29,000 people, most of them women and children, surrendered. On March 18, drone footage showed the camp still harbored large numbers of people suspected of being fighters and their families.

Coalition drones had scoured the camp 24 hours a day for weeks and knew nearly every inch, officers said, including the daily movements of groups of women and children who gathered to eat, pray and sleep near a steep river bank that provided cover.

What happened on the morning of March 18 is in dispute.

That day Islamic State fighters trapped in the camp launched a predawn counteroffensive, according to Central Command, which oversaw Task Force 9. It said hundreds of Islamic State fighters started firing rifles and grenade launchers and sending forward fighters with suicide vests. The coalition pummeled the fighters with airstrikes — so many that by midmorning the coalition had used all the missiles on its drones. Only one American drone, controlled by the task force, was left in the area, and it was unarmed.

At about 10 a.m., local Syrian forces reported they were under fire and in danger of being overrun, and called for an airstrike, Central Command said. The task force drone tracked a group of fighters as they made their way through the camp to the area where the women and children sheltered.

A 5th Special Forces Group officer in the task force looked at the drone footage and didn’t see any civilians, a task force officer said. But the drone he relied on had only a standard-definition camera. Central Command said there were no high-definition drones in the area that could get a better view of the target.

The Special Forces officer gave the order to fire. With no precision missiles left, the command said, the ground commander called in 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The strike log classified the strike as self-defense.

In fact, a high-definition drone was available. The task force did not use it. Circling above, it was streaming footage of the same patch of ground to the operations center in Qatar. Because the task force operated at a high level of secrecy, two officers said, the people in Qatar watching the high-definition drone were not aware the task force was about to call in a strike.

Central Command said the task force did not know that the better drone was overhead.

The high-definition drone recorded a very different scene from what was described by Central Command this past week, three people who viewed the footage said. In it, two or three men — not 16 — wander through the frame near the crowd. They have rifles but do not appear to be maneuvering, engaging coalition forces or acting in a way that would seem to justify a self-defense strike with 2,000-pound bombs. A chat log used by analysts who were watching the footage noted the presence of women, children and a man with a gun, but did not mention any active combat, two people who viewed the log said.

The Visual Investigations team at The Times reviewed hundreds of photos, videos and satellite images of the Islamic State camp in Baghuz. The reported strike point lies between two aqueducts, which the team used as reference features to pinpoint the location.

A photograph taken the previous day shows several makeshift tents in the area.

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Makeshift tents are visible in the reported strike location one day earlier on March 17, 2019.Satellite image: © 2021 Maxar Technologies. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP — Getty Images

What is not in dispute is that moments after the task force called in the strike, an F-15E attack plane hit the spot with a 500-pound bomb. Five minutes later, when ground forces saw people fleeing the blast site, the F-15E dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on the survivors. The entire attack took 12 minutes.

A Syrian videographer, Gihad Darwish, captured airstrikes in the area matching that description as he filmed from a rocky bluff above the camp. The footage shows that ground troops may not have been able to see the group of civilians.

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An airstrike that matches the area and timing of the reported airstrike on March 18.The New York Times. Video: Gihad Darwish/AFP

Defense Department regulations require any “possible, suspected or alleged” violation of the law of armed conflict to be reported immediately to the combatant commander in charge, as well as criminal investigators, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Army.

After viewing the footage, the Air Force lawyer, Colonel Korsak, ordered the units involved to preserve nine pieces of evidence, including video, and reported the strike to his chain of command, according to the email he later sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee staff. He also notified the command of concerns that the unit appeared to be covering up the alleged war crimes violations by adding details to the strike log that would justify a self-defense strike.

He told the committee staff that commanders did not take action.

Coalition forces overran the camp that day and defeated the Islamic State a few days later. The yearslong air war was hailed as a triumph. The commander of the operations center in Qatar authorized all personnel to have four drinks at the base bar, lifting the normal three-drink limit.

Civilian observers who came to the area of the strike the next day found piles of dead women and children. The human rights organization Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently posted photos of the bodies, calling it a “terrible massacre.”

Satellite images from four days later show the sheltered bank and area around it, which were in the control of the coalition, appeared to have been bulldozed.

David Eubank, a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who now runs the humanitarian organization Free Burma Rangers, walked through the area about a week later. “The place had been pulverized by airstrikes,” he said in an interview. “There was a lot of freshly bulldozed earth and the stink of bodies underneath, a lot of bodies.”

Concerned that details of the airstrike would be buried as well, Colonel Korsak alerted the Air Force’s version of the F.B.I., the Office of Special Investigations. In an email Colonel Korsak shared with the Senate Armed Services Committee, a major responded that agents probably would not look into it, saying the office typically investigated civilian casualty reports only when there was “potential for high media attention, concern with outcry from local community/government, concern sensitive images may get out.”

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations declined to comment.

Colonel Korsak again pressed his chain of command to act, informing his command’s chief legal officer in a memo in May 2019 that regulations required an investigation. He later told the Senate committee’s staff that his superiors did not open an investigation.

“The topic and incidents were dead on arrival,” he wrote. “My supervisor refused to discuss the matter with me.”

The chief legal officer, Colonel Matthew P. Stoffel, did not respond to requests for comment.

The task force finished up a civilian casualty report on the strike that month and determined that four civilians were killed. But two and a half years later, on the military’s website for its campaign against the Islamic State, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, the military still publicly lists the case as “open.”

Unwilling to let the issue drop, Colonel Korsak filed a hotline complaint with the inspector general’s office in August 2019.

A four-person team in the office was already looking into shortcomings in the civilian casualty reporting processes in Syria and quickly set up an interview in a secure setting. After reviewing the high-definition footage and interviewing Colonel Korsak, the team, which included Mr. Tate, told superiors in the inspector general’s office that the allegation of a war crime was “extremely credible.”

“When he came to us, he wanted to make it very clear he had tried everything else first,” Mr. Tate said. “He felt that the I.G. hotline was the only option remaining.”

But like the Air Force lawyer’s earlier effort, Mr. Tate’s team soon hit roadblocks. Central Command was slow to turn over evidence, he said. Mr. Tate obtained video from several drones flying over Baghuz that day, but could not locate the footage from the task force drone that called in the strike.

The inspector general’s office received a second complaint on the hotline about the strike, a spokeswoman said, but Mr. Tate said his team was never told.

Mr. Tate studied the task force’s casualty report, but it didn’t match what he saw on video. The civilian deaths stated in the report were “an impossibly small number,” he said.

The final section of the casualty report was reserved for the legal opinion. In one version of the report that Mr. Tate was sent by the staff at Operation Inherent Resolve, the Baghdad-based military command overseeing operations in Iraq and Syria, a task force lawyer and an operations officer wrote that a violation of the law of armed conflict may have taken place. In another copy that came from Central Command, he said, that opinion had been removed.

Mr. Tate could find no evidence that the Joint Chiefs, the defense secretary or criminal investigators had been alerted, as required.

Within days of interviewing Colonel Korsak, Mr. Tate’s team took their findings to supervisors and told them the office was required to alert those officials and criminal investigation agencies. Mr. Tate said his supervisors took no action. The team pressed leaders numerous times over the next several months, and in January 2020, Mr. Tate’s team leader drafted a memo that would formally alert authorities. It only needed to be signed by the deputy inspector general overseeing the team. Mr. Tate said the supervisor did not sign it.

Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the months that followed in 2020, the team finished its report on broader issues in the civilian casualty reporting process, but as it went through the editing and approval process, which included comments from Central Command, all mentions of the Baghuz strike were cut.

Mr. Tate became increasingly pointed in criticizing the leadership of the inspector general’s office. In October 2020, he said he was forced out of his position and escorted from the building by security.

The inspector general report on civilian casualties was formally released this spring to select members of Congress and the military with the proper security clearances. The office refused to release a public copy or discuss the classified findings, but acknowledged it did not mention Baghuz.

A spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office disputed Mr. Tate’s account. She said that it alerted the proper authorities at Central Command shortly after receiving the first hotline complaint in 2019. The spokeswoman said the office also notified criminal investigators about the strike in October 2020, 14 months after receiving the hotline call — around the time that Mr. Tate was terminated.

A spokeswoman for the office said a new evaluation of Special Operations Command’s adherence to the law of war was expected be completed this month, and that it would include the Baghuz strike. That report will also be classified.

After leaving the office, Mr. Tate refused to give up. He contacted the Senate Armed Services Committee in May and sent a 10-page letter describing the strike and what he viewed as a “systematic failure” on civilian casualty reporting. The committee then contacted Colonel Korsak, who replied with a detailed email.

When asked by The Times about the March 2019 strike, Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to comment on details of the incident, about which the Central Command has briefed the committee.

He did, however, provide a broader assessment: “When tragic errors occur on the battlefield, the United States, as the leader of the free world, has an obligation to be transparent, take responsibility, and do everything we can to learn from and prevent future mistakes.”

Mr. Tate waited for months for the committee to call back and give him an indication that it was actively looking at the case. This week, he said with a sigh that he was still waiting.

Azmat Khan, Christoph Koettl and Haley Willis contributed reporting. Drew Jordan contributed production.