Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.
Confidential documents obtained by NPR provide new details about one of the most celebrated U.S. military operations in recent history — and reveal flaws in the Pentagon's claim that deadly airstrikes did not hit civilians.
In 2019, U.S. special operations forces raided the Syrian hideout of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leading him to blow himself up. Then-President Donald Trump called the raid "impeccable," and military officials said troops protected noncombatants.
The U.S. Defense Department dismissed the accounts reported by NPR of U.S. helicopter fire killing and maiming Syrian civilians during the raid. The Pentagon said those men were enemy combatants who ignored warning shots.
NPR sued the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act to release documentation of the airstrikes, and it obtained a redacted copy of the Defense Department's confidential 2020 report on the incident. The report was originally classified as secret with no foreign distribution. NPR's review of the documents, including aerial imagery from the operation, finds:
- U.S. troops fired warning shots mere seconds before launching airstrikes on the Syrian men's van. This undermines the military's assertion that the men demonstrated hostility by failing to stop or change course.
- The Pentagon provided no evidence that the victims were enemy combatants beyond the split-second assessment by U.S. troops on the dark night of the raid.
- U.S. officials did not compile an intelligence dossier, as recommended in the report, to support the claim that the victims were "unlawful enemy belligerents."
- The Pentagon questioned the veracity of accounts given to NPR by the airstrike survivor and families of the victims, but it did not contact the survivor or conduct a full formal investigation.
Editor's note: The following documents contain graphic images.
"Over the past 20 years, the U.S. military has struggled with escalation of force and many civilians were killed when they were falsely viewed as a threat. This incident appears to be one of many such cases," says Larry Lewis of the Center for Naval Analyses, who has advised the U.S. on how to reduce civilian casualties.
When NPR presented its findings to the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command issued a written statement from a spokesperson, Maj. John Moore, saying it did not order a formal investigation because it "deemed the civilian casualty allegations not credible." It said it had no plans to reassess the allegations. "We have nothing additional to offer," the statement said.
But last month, after NPR's query to the Pentagon, an advocacy group said it had been notified by the Pentagon that the department would look into the group's request to reopen the case.
Here is a summary of NPR's investigation.
Wrong place, wrong time: A Syrian says he was on his way home
Days after the Oct. 26, 2019, raid, the commander of the operation, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said that militants unaffiliated with ISIS, the group known as the Islamic State, had headed to the scene and that the van "displayed hostile intent, came toward us, and it was destroyed."
But the lone survivor of the airstrikes, Barakat Ahmad Barakat, now 39, told NPR that he and two friends were working as agricultural laborers at an olive press and that the friends were driving him home in their van. The shortest route to his village, Hatan, took them through the village of Barisha.
Barakat says they were not aware that Baghdadi was hiding in a home a few hundred yards up the road or that U.S. troops were present. He says they were startled to come under U.S. airstrikes, fled the van and were targeted again.
"There was nothing suspicious at all. We kept moving normally. There was nothing ahead of us on the road," Barakat said. "Suddenly I felt something hit us."
Barakat's two friends, Khaled Mustafa Qurmo, 27, and Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo, 30, were killed in the airstrikes. Barakat's right hand was blown off and his left hand was badly injured.
The report redacts what kind of aircraft targeted the van, but military officials have said attack helicopters were used in the operation.
The military says it fired warning shots. But the shots provided little warning
The U.S. civilian casualty credibility assessment report, dated June 9, 2020, concludes that the men posed a threat because they did not heed warning fire. But the warning fire provided little warning, according to NPR's analysis.
The report says at the beginning of the nighttime operation, troops provided two volleys of "terrain denial fires" near the village the van would pass through, as a preliminary warning to keep civilians indoors. But Barakat told NPR that he and his two friends saw no such warning.
At 11:26 p.m. local time, the report says, the troops saw the men's van approach an intersection where U.S. forces had engaged combatants moments before. The van turned onto a road in the direction of Baghdadi's compound — with ground troops stationed about 344 meters (376 yards) ahead of the van. Troops observed the van drive down that road for 165 meters (180 yards) — without U.S. forces doing anything to ward off the van.
Then, at 11:27 p.m., an aircraft fired warning shots across the road "approximately 15 meters [49 feet] in front of the van which was struck as it continued to travel [west]," the Pentagon report says. Aerial photographs in the report indicate the warning shots were 15 to 20 meters (49 to 66 feet) ahead of the van. Even if the van had been going just 15 miles per hour, that would have given the driver only about two or three seconds to react on the unlit road.
"They want the van to stop. But what do they use? They use lethal force ... so you get this escalation based on misunderstandings," says Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department advisor who led several studies for the Defense Department on civilian casualties in military operations.
The U.S. says troops targeted the fleeing men after it appeared the van had weapons — but says it has no evidence
After hitting the van, the report says, a U.S. pilot "assessed secondary explosions emitted from the vehicle, indicating weapons and explosive devices were on board the panel van." After the strike, the men fled the van and forces fired at them again.
But the Pentagon report says looking back later, it could not conclude what that explosion was, and there is no indication investigators visited the site. Barakat says the van was not carrying weapons.
The U.S. also backed away from claims that there was shooting from the van. In 2019, a U.S. defense official said "initial reports" were that the van had fired on U.S. helicopters, but in a declassified 2020 email obtained by NPR, an official said there was no shooting from the van.
"Military forces see a vehicle or an individual. They believe it is hostile, it's a threat, but they're mistaken — that it's actually civilian," says Lewis. "We call that misidentification. That's how I would characterize what is happening here."
In a drone strike that killed civilians during the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in 2021, the military made a similar claim of a secondary explosion and later admitted it was wrong.
U.S. officials did not compile an intelligence dossier as recommended in the report
In the final lines of an analyst summary enclosed in the Pentagon's report, the author, whose identity is redacted, writes, "I do recommend" that U.S. officials provide a "short, TS annex" — a top-secret document — "that further addresses the characterization of the individuals killed and injured as unlawful enemy belligerents, if the existing intelligence so supports. Given the high-visibility of this strike and allegation, this information, if available, could be used to better inform key decision makers" in the Defense Department.
Lewis, the former Pentagon adviser, says this reflects uncertainty about the Pentagon's central claim.
"It does indicate, kind of, this question in the person that was writing this," Lewis says. "'Why are we so insistent that these people that we used force on, what is the real evidence that they were in fact combatants, that they weren't civilians that were caught in, in the wrong place at the wrong time?'"
In March 2023, following a query by NPR, Central Command said it found no record that this top-secret document was ever produced.
The Pentagon questioned the survivor's account but did not talk with him
The Pentagon report dismissed NPR's reporting, noting inconsistencies between the number of casualties NPR cited and numbers cited in other reports. Those reports could have been counting additional casualties in the overall raid. The Pentagon questioned the "veracity" of the sources NPR interviewed, but it apparently did not contact Barakat or any of them.
"They don't seem to have really assessed the status of these men and engaged in serious investigations as to whether or not they could have been civilians," says Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School. "Given the high-profile nature of the incident and the claims of civilian casualties, they could have done more to assess whether those claims were valid."
A former Defense Department legal adviser, Ryan Goodman, says the Pentagon analysis focuses on whether troops acted reasonably with the information they had "under the fog of war," and does not properly assess whether troops had made a mistake and ended up killing civilians misidentified as combatants.
The U.S. is taking a new approach to reducing civilian casualties
Barakat, whose right hand was blown off in the strike and whose right arm was later partially amputated, says he had surgery this year to remove shrapnel from his left arm.
But he can no longer afford physical therapy sessions, which cost about $8 each, says the Zomia Center, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for civilian victims of military strikes. His injuries make him unable to work and provide enough food for his five young children.
"I was wounded. My future is destroyed. I have a family — I have kids. How is this their fault?" Barakat says. He hopes for compensation from the United States.
Last year, following New York Times investigations into U.S. military airstrikes killing civilians, the Defense Department released a new plan to reduce civilian casualties and create new ways to pay victims.
The Zomia Center has receipts showing Barakat was transporting olives to an olive press in the days before the airstrikes. The group says it asked the Defense Department last year to review the case again, but it got no response. After NPR inquired about the request last month, the Defense Department told the center it was looking into the matter, says Joanna Naples-Mitchell, director of the center's redress program.
"The military owes [Barakat] a lot more," she says. "They owe him a real explanation for what happened to him because the military has not even taken basic steps to check their own assumptions from that night."
Photos, video and additional reporting by Omar Haj Kadour of the Agence France-Presse for NPR; additional reporting also by Tom Bowman; and Lama Al-Arian contributed to earlier reporting.
Visual design and development by Alyson Hurt; photo edit by Virginia Lozano; video edit by Virginia Lozano and Alyson Hurt.
Story edit by Larry Kaplow, Alex Leff and Hannah Bloch; and copy edit by Preeti Aroon.
Arabic translation in Washington, D.C., by Majd Al-Waheidi; and Arabic edit by Suha Halife. Arabic interpreting by Nuha Musleh and Anas Baba.
Social media edit by Dylan Scott, Bronson Arcuri and Danielle Nett.
Radio edit by Nishant Dahiya and Larry Kaplow; radio production by Connor Donevan; and voiceover by Danny Hensel. And Didi Schanche is NPR's chief international editor.