Biden Admin Originally Said Drone Strike Killed al Qaeda Leader. Now It's Not Sure.

(Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)
May 19, 2023

The Biden administration said it targeted a "senior al Qaeda leader" in northwest Syria in a Hellfire missile attack on May 3. Now, U.S. military officials are questioning whether the victim of the attack was actually a leader of the terrorist group.

"We are no longer confident we killed a senior [al Qaeda] official," one official told the Washington Post.

The victim, Lotfi Hassan Misto, 56, was a bricklayer and farmer in Qorqanya, Syria, which is near a "known area of interest" to al Qaeda. After surveying online discussions by jihadists about the attack, however, four terrorism experts who spoke with the Post found no "references indicating Misto was affiliated with a terrorist group." They also said it would be "very unusual" for an al Qaeda leader to operate in Misto's particular area because it is controlled by a rival group.

After facing accusations of covering up past failed attacks on terrorist leaders last year, the Biden administration vowed to take steps to "reduce such risks while promising greater transparency when unintended killings do occur." The promise came in the wake of the administration's botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, when an errant drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians. The Pentagon originally reported it had only resulted in the death of a suicide bomber but later admitted to the failure.

The Biden administration has failed, though, to disclose the details of Misto's death, with military officials refusing to identify publicly "who their target was, how the apparent error occurred, whether a legitimate terrorist leader escaped, and why some in the Pentagon maintain Misto was a member of al Qaeda despite his family's denials," the Post reported.

Central Command spokesman Michael Lawhorn said officials are still assessing the outcome of the strike and the reports of a civilian casualty.

The command "takes all such allegations seriously and is investigating to determine whether or not the action may have unintentionally resulted in harm to civilians," Lawhorn said Thursday.

There is still disagreement within the Pentagon, with another official telling the Post, "Though we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person to be al Qaeda."