On May 3, a US drone launched a Hellfire missile at Lotfi Hassan Masto while he was tending sheep on his land in the northern Syrian town of Qurqanyah. Recent reports from The Washington Post suggest that several counterterrorism analysts and US officials are questioning whether the strike actually killed a “senior Al Qaeda (AQ) leader,” as previously asserted by US Central Command (CENTCOM).
While a statement from CENTCOM on May 11 hinted at potential uncertainties regarding the identity of the victim and his affiliation, casting doubt on whether he was indeed a leader or member of AQ, local sources, including his family and neighbors, have stated that Masto was simply a farmer with no ties to any military factions or groups.
According to The Washington Post, two US officials hold differing views on Masto’s affiliations. One official stated, “We are no longer confident that we killed a senior AQ official,” while the other maintained that Masto was an AQ member but was not the intended target.
Prominent analysts, such as Charles Lister, Jerome Drevon, and Rita Katz, were consulted regarding the strike and unanimously agreed that the aftermath of Masto’s death did not align with the established patterns associated with an AQ member. There was also a notable absence of the usual “online chatter” that is typically observed following a strike on a “senior” member of a prominent jihadist group.
Lister emphasized, “Soon after the strike, the White Helmets identified the individual by name and profession. Local sources came forward to assert that this individual had always been a farmer and had never engaged in any political activities or had any affiliations with armed groups.” The director of Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism supported this assessment, deeming it “quite unusual.”
Despite official claims by the US government, Masto’s relatives and friends unwaveringly maintain that the US made a grave mistake that cost their loved one his life. Muhammad, Masto’s brother, exclaimed, “If they assert that he was a terrorist or that they targeted someone from al-Qaeda, they are all liars.”