In the final days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once ferocious Caliphate were cornered in a muddy field near a town called Baguz, an American military drone circled high overhead, hunting military targets. But he saw only a large crowd of women and children curled up on the banks of the river.
Without warning, an American F-15E attack aircraft flew through the drone’s field of view and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, which swallowed it in a quivering explosion. When the smoke cleared, several people backed away for cover. The plane tracking them then dropped one 2000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.
It was March 18, 2019. At the overcrowded US Joint Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, an officer who was stationed there said military personnel watching live from a drone watched with stunned disbelief.
“Who dropped that?” Wrote a bewildered analyst who typed into a secure chat system used by those who track the drone, recalling two people who viewed the chat log. Another replied, “We have just killed 50 women and children.”
An initial estimate of combat casualties quickly revealed that the actual death toll was around 70.
The Baguz strike was one of the largest civilian casualties in the war against the Islamic State, but it was never publicly acknowledged by the US military. The details presented here for the first time show that the death toll became known to military officials almost immediately. A legal official described the bombing as a possible war crime requiring investigation. But at almost every step, the military took steps to conceal a catastrophic blow. The death toll has been downplayed. The reports were detained, processed and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And the top management was not notified.
The Independent Inspector General of the Department of Defense launched an investigation, but the report containing his findings stalled and lost any mention of the bombing.
“The management just seemed so determined to bury it. Nobody wanted anything to do with it, ”said Gene Tate, an appraiser who worked on the case for the inspector general’s office and agreed to discuss aspects that were not classified. “It makes you lose faith in the system when people try to do what’s right, but no one in leadership positions wants to hear it.”
The Times investigation revealed that the explosion was triggered by the secret American special operations unit Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force worked in such secrecy that sometimes even its military partners did not report its actions. “In the case of the bombing of Baguz, the US Air Force command in Qatar had no idea that an attack was coming,” said an officer serving at the command center.
Minutes after the strike, an alarmed Air Force intelligence officer at the operations center called the lawyer in charge of determining the legality of the strikes. According to documents obtained by The Times, the lawyer ordered the F-15E squadron and the drone crew to keep all video and other evidence. He went upstairs and reported the bombing to his subordinates, stating that it was a possible violation of the law on armed conflict, a war crime, and that the rulings required a thorough independent investigation. But it never happened.
This week after The New York Times sent its findings to the US Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, the command for the first time acknowledged the strikes, saying that 80 people were killed, but the airstrikes were justified. The bomb blast reportedly killed 16 militants and four civilians. As for the other 60 killed, the statement said it was unclear if they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.
The United States has described the air war against the Islamic State as the most accurate and humane bombing campaign in its history. The military said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the results reported publicly, creating what the military called a model of accountability.
But the blows on Baguz speak of something else.