Pentagon’s airstrike investigations are incomplete and insufficient

On March 16th, 2017, more than 38 civilians were killed in a U.S. airstrike shortly before the night prayer at a mosque in al-Jinah area in Aleppo, Syria. While the airstrike was conducted to hit an Al-Qaeda meeting, the U.S. Central Command approved the strike without having a correct estimation of possible civilian casualties or accurate intelligence about the nature of the to-be-targeted building. Brigadier General Bontrager described the airstrike in a recent press briefing as “frustrating” and denied the Pentagon had any prior knowledge that the targeted building had a religious purpose.

In the article "Pentagon Admits Major Investigation Flaw: They Rarely Talk to Air Strike Witnesses or Victims," Sarah Knuckey, Ole Solvang, Jonathan Horowitz and Radhya Almutawakel argue that the Pentagon’s investigation methodology lacks crucial techniques that are essential to determining the reliability of pre-strike intelligence and obtaining correct information about the outcomes of the airstrikes. The article notes the importance of witness evidence in making accurate investigations of humanitarian law violations, as interviews with victims and eyewitnesses “provide important contextual details” and help to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation. In the case of al-Jinah strike investigation, Pentagon’s failure to speak with witnesses and family members of the victims degrades the value and effectiveness of the investigation and undermines its obligation to account for human rights abuses.

While conducting direct interviews with witnesses can be difficult due to security concerns or lack of access, several NGOs and human rights investigators have been able to overcome those challenges by conducting witness interviews in a foreign country or by collaborating with local researchers who are capable of speaking directly with the people who have first-hand knowledge about the attack and can provide informative details. The article affirms that the Pentagon holds the responsibility to carry our comprehensive and prompt investigation of serious allegations of humanitarian law violations regardless of how difficult witness interviews are in conflict areas.

Another important fact-finding technique the article notes is on-the-ground visits that can observe physical evidence and provide details about the interior of buildings. Pentagon’s failure to understand the nature of the to-be-struck building has caused civilian casualties that could be avoided if the Pentagon had talked with anyone on the ground. Local contacts, the article notes, could provide valuable photographic evidence and provide details on the use of the building. The article also notes that the United States should make reforms to its investigation methodology to be able to conduct prompt investigations and meet its international legal obligations.

“This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known. And that is something that we need to make sure does not happen in the future,” Brigadier General Bontrager said.

The article concludes that the U.S. government’s investigations are insufficient, and that the United States is required by international law to conduct “effective, thorough, independent, and transparent” investigations into possible violations of human rights and humanitarian law.