US airstrike in Al-Jinah, Syria: Architectural assessment confirms building targeted was a functioning mosque, US misidentification possibly the cause for civilian casualties.
Forensic Architecture has undertaken an architectural analysis of the 16 March 2017 US Airstrike in Al-Jinah, Syria. We conducted interviews with survivors, first responders and with the building’s contractor, and examined available and sourced videos and photographs in order to produce a model of the building both before and after the strike. Our analysis reveals that, contrary to US statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions, and the Imam’s residence. We believe that the civilian casualties caused by this strike are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.
On the evening of 16 March 2017, a major unilateral US drone strike targeted Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque in Al-Jinah, in the province of Aleppo, Syria. According to witnesses, the strike took place when close to 300 people were in the building. Most were gathering for the Isha’a night prayer while 50 others remained in the smaller ‘winter prayer hall’ where a religious seminar had just finished. The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, claimed to have recovered the bodies of 38 civilians. Five of them were children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 42 dead, but the actual death toll might still be higher.
US Central Command claimed responsibility for the airstrike, stating, ‘US forces conducted an airstrike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting on March 16th, killing several terrorists’. It wrongly identified the mosque as a ‘partially constructed community meeting hall’; wrongly located it in the province of Idlib; and claimed that there was no indication of civilian casualties. The Pentagon has later released an image showing the destroyed mosque and insisting it ‘deliberately did not target the mosque at the left edge of the photo’. This statement omits the fact that the targeted building also was a mosque that was in frequent use by locals.
Update (5 May 2017): Despite initial denials from the Pentagon that the building hit was a mosque and that there were civilian casualties, US defense officials told CNN that the results of a US Central Command investigation found that a March US airstrike in northern Syria did, in fact, strike a building that was part of a ‘mosque complex’.
Update (7 June 2017): In a press conference, the U.S. Defense Department told the New York Times that their investigation concluded that the strike was ‘legal and appropriate’. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager told the Washington Post that the Special Operations Task Force that ordered the strike ‘complied with operational and legal requirements’ and that they were ‘confident this was a meeting of al-Qaeda members and leaders; this was not a meeting of civilians’.
Update (8 August 2017): A United Nations Syria Commission report concludes that US forces ‘lacked an understanding of the actual target’, ‘failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life’, and was ‘in violation of international humanitarian law’ (p.13).
In engaging with this case, Forensic Architecture focused on the architectural questions raised by the strike: What was the function of the building targeted? What can its architectural characteristics before the strike, and the state of the ruin afterwards, reveal about the incident? Where civilian casualties to be expected in such a building?
Method of Investigation
Forensic Architecture constructed a detailed model of the building before and after the strike. In order to obtain the necessary information to do so, we undertook remote interviews with the mosque’s original contractor, several survivors of the US attack, and the director of the rescue operation Mohammad Halak of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets). We then cross-referenced and confirmed our findings against available photographs, videos and satellite imagery of the building, and further commissioned several photographic surveys on the ground. In the preparation of this report Forensic Architecture was in continuous contact with Bellingcat, who helped provide much of the source imagery, and with HRW, who worked with us to corroborate finds, identify munitions, and locate witnesses. We have also benefited from research and advice provided by Airwars.
Our report, presented as a video (above), confirms that the building was not a ‘partially constructed community meeting hall’ but a large, functional mosque. The concrete and cinder block building was divided into two parts, north and south, separated by an entrance, a passageway and stairwells. It had two levels, with the upper level still incomplete in parts.
On the ground floor, the south part of the building contained the main prayer hall. The upper floor above it was still incomplete. The south part of the building was damaged in the strike but remained largely intact.
The northern part of the building contained a set of typical auxiliary functions of a mosque: a communal kitchen with a dining area, the toilets, a ritual wash area and the secondary, smaller prayer room, also know as the ‘winter prayer room’. A residential flat used by the Imam and his family was located above these functions on the upper floor of the northern part of the building. This part was completely destroyed in the strike.
As a result of the strike, the passageways connecting the two parts of the building were partially blocked by rubble. The stairwells connecting the ground level with the upper floor were also destroyed.
Witness testimonies and photographs of the building taken before the strike show that there were no doors separating the ‘winter prayer room’, the main passageway and the wash area. These rooms were accessible, as well as acoustically and visibly exposed.
Given that the building was open to the public, that a large number of local residents were free to move through and around it as they gathered for prayer, and that there was a publically accessible religious lesson with 50 people present, raises doubts regarding the likelihood that an Al-Qaeda meeting was taking place in the building at the time.
The architectural reconstruction has also allowed us to understand the sequence of events that took place in and around the mosque following the strike. The strike began when two bombs completely demolished the northern part of the building. The layout of the rubble in the deep craters is consistent with ground penetrating bombs. In order to escape, worshippers in the main prayer hall in the south part of the building had to climb over the rubble that partially blocked the doorways and passageways and destroyed the stairs. While people exited the building and immediately afterwards they were targeted by further missile strikes. Examining images of munitions remains, Chris Cobb-Smith (who assists Forensic Architecture on weapon analysis), Bellingcat, and HRW’s experts identified the munitions fired outside the mosque as likely to be Hellfire missiles. This is consistent with an anonymous US official who, when speaking to the Washington Post, confirmed that ‘the attack involved two Reaper drones, which fired more than four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound guided bomb in a follow-up strike.’
Sharing screens in a Skype call with Halak, the head of the rescue team, we identified the location of the casualties pulled out of the rubble. There were eleven people injured and eight killed as a result of the first two blasts within the northern part of the building, he said. They included the Imam’s wife, Ghassun Makansi, a fourteen-year-old boy named Mohammad Khalad Orabi, and his ten-year-old brother Hassan Omar Orabi. The rest of the casualties were caused by the secondary missile strikes outside the building. We identified traces of missiles on a nearby road and these traces support witness testimonies regarding the secondary strikes on evacuees.
‘Exchanging architectural plans and photographic analysis with people on the ground we managed to reconstruct a detailed model of the mosque. We believe that the US forces that targeted the building misidentified the nature of the building, leading to high levels of civilian casualties.’
-Omar Ferwati, Project Coordinator
While undertaking this investigation, we exchanged information with Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, and Airwars.
Video footage without voiceover and subtitles as well as the Arabic/English timecoded script is available upon request from Forensic Architecture.
Our video report is also available on our YouTube channel.
This analysis was produced at Forensic Architecture’s own expense.
Forensic Architecture team
- Eyal Weizman (principal investigator)
- Christina Varvia
- Omar Ferwati (project coordinator)
- Nick Masterton
- Simone Rowat
- Stefanos Levidis
- Sarah Nankivell
Pentagon investigation: US hit mosque complex in Syria | CNN, 5 May 2017
Forensic Architecture speaks to BBC World Update (starts at 5:39) | BBC World Service, 25 April 2017
U.S. Bombed a Mosque in Syria, Killing Dozens of Civilians, Investigators Conclude | The Intercept, 19 April 2017
US Airstrike in Syria killed dozens | CNN, 19 April 2017
‘Deadly US airstrike in Syria hit peaceful mosque’ | Al-Jazeera, 18 April 2017
Omar Ferwati speaks to BBC Newsday (starts at 11:22) | BBC World Service, 18 April 2017