Just before 7 p.m. on March 16, 2017, US aircraft attacked the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque near al-Jinah, a village in Aleppo province in northern Syria, where about 300 people had gathered for religious lectures and the Muslim Isha'a, or night prayer. The attack completely destroyed the service section of the mosque and killed at least 38 people.
US military authorities have acknowledged that they carried out the strike, saying that they targeted a meeting of al-Qaeda members. A US military spokesperson said that the US military carried out extensive surveillance before the attack and that they take “extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life” in such operations. However, Human Rights Watch research suggests that US authorities failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in the attack, a requirement under the laws of war.
While US officials acknowledged that there was a mosque nearby, they claimed that the targeted building was a partially constructed community hall. But information from local residents, photographs, and video footage of the building before and after the attack show that the targeted building was also a mosque. While the mosque did not have a minaret or a dome that would have been visible by aerial surveillance, local residents said that dozens, if not hundreds, of people were gathering in the building at prayer times. Aerial surveillance of the building should have shown this. Local residents also said that the mosque was well known and widely used by people in the area. Any attempt to verify through people with local knowledge what kind of building this was would have likely established that the building was a mosque.
While the US authorities appear to have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the building they attacked, they also appear to have inadequately understood the pattern of life in the area. A US official said that the attack happened after evening prayer had concluded, implying that civilians had left the area. While it is not clear which prayer the official referred to, US statements about when the attack happened and information from those present at the mosque show that the attack happened at about 6:55 p.m., just 15 minutes before night prayer on that day. The fact that the night time prayer was about to begin is relevant even if US authorities believed that the targeted building was a community hall since they knew that a mosque was nearby. Information about prayer times is easily accessible online and should have been well known by US authorities.
Local residents also said that it was well known in the area that the religious group in charge of the mosque was holding religious lectures in the targeted building every Thursday between sunset prayer and evening prayer, around the time of the attack. Any attempt to gather pattern of life information about the targeted building from people with local knowledge might also have alerted US authorities to this fact.
Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 14 people with first-hand knowledge of the attack, including four who were in the mosque at the time of the attack; eight local residents, first responders, and local journalists who arrived at the site shortly after the attack; and two medical personnel who treated people injured in the attack. In carrying out the investigation, Human Rights Watch used some of the research provided by the open source investigative group Bellingcat which analyzed video footage and photographs from the attack, and Forensic Architecture which created models of the mosque and a reconstruction of the attack. However, Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, and Forensic Architecture conducted separate investigations into the attack.
The people who were in the mosque said that a religious lecture in the service section of the mosque, held every Thursday, had just finished so people were spreading out in the mosque, getting ready for night prayer, when the attack happened. The first wave of attacks struck the service section of the mosque, completely reducing it to rubble. One mosque employee who was in the service section said:
My lower half was buried under the rubble. I couldn’t move my head. Someone’s legs were beneath me. Half an hour later we started hearing a faint voice, people were calling out, so we shouted back. The civil defense started digging us out, using only their hands. Two hours later they got to us through a hole. There was rubble as high as four meters above us. They stayed there working till the following morning, trying to rescue as many people as possible. I had wounds all over.
A second wave of attacks killed and injured people who were trying to flee.
Human Rights Watch has not found evidence to support the allegation that members of al-Qaeda or any other armed group were meeting in the mosque. Local residents said that there were no members of armed groups at the mosque or in the area at the time of the attack. They said that the victims were all civilians and local residents. First responders said the dead and injured wore civilian clothes and that they saw no weapons at the site. US authorities have so far released no information to support their claims.
Even if there were armed group members in the mosque, understanding the nature of the targeted building and the pattern of life around the building would be crucial to assess the risk to civilians and take necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties. Striking a mosque just before prayer and then attacking people attempting to flee the area without knowing whether they were civilians or combatants may well have been disproportionate and a violation of the laws of war even if there were armed group members in the mosque.
Syria Civil Defense, a search and rescue group operating in opposition-controlled territory, said that they recovered 38 bodies from the site. The group published the names of 28 who were identified by relatives at the site, including five children, saying that 10 bodies were unidentified.
The laws of war strictly prohibit attacks targeting civilians or civilian structures (including mosques unless they were being used for military purposes), indiscriminate attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets, and disproportionate attacks where the civilian casualties or damage to civilian buildings is excessive to the military advantage gained.
Serious violations of the laws of war can amount to war crimes. These include deliberately targeting civilians or civilian objects (including mosques), knowingly launching indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians, or being criminally reckless in so doing. The US authorities’ failure to understand the most fundamental aspects of the target and pattern of life around the target raises the question whether officers were criminally reckless in authorizing the attack.
US authorities have said they will investigate both whether civilians were killed in the attack and whether the building hit was part of a complex belonging to a mosque.
Human Rights Watch calls on US military authorities to conduct an objective and thorough investigation, make public the detailed findings of the investigation, and provide adequate redress to civilian victims or their families. If the authorities find serious violations of the laws of war, they should refer those responsible for appropriate criminal prosecution. The findings should include information on accountability measures taken with explanations, and the redress provided to victims or their families.