The Sunday Story: NPR challenges U.S. denial of civilian harm in raid on ISIS leader : Up First Today on The Sunday Story, NPR's Daniel Estrin talks about his four-year long investigation into the night that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, founder of ISIS, died. The Pentagon maintains troops did not harm noncombatants. But Estrin's investigation challenges that account. Now the Pentagon says it will review new information brought to light about the incident.

The Sunday Story: NPR challenges U.S. denial of civilian harm in raid on ISIS leader

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I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and this is The Sunday Story.


RASCOE: On October 27, 2019, America woke up to the news that the leader of ISIS was dead. Then-President Donald Trump told Americans the operation had been a big success.


DONALD TRUMP: Last night, the United States brought the world's No. 1 terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.

RASCOE: But NPR's Daniel Estrin has a different story about that raid - a story that challenges parts of the official U.S. narrative. For the last four years, he's been looking into the story of two men who were killed and another who was seriously wounded that night. It's a story about the human cost of American military operations and whether our government is telling us the truth.


RASCOE: Daniel, you're joining us right now. Thank you so much for being here.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So I want to start with, like, how did you get involved in this story? I mean, I was covering it at the White House from the White House side. But you were kind of on the ground.

ESTRIN: Yeah. It was a Sunday morning. I was in Lebanon, so across the border from Syria, where I woke up. I was tired from a late night of reporting the night before. I looked at my phone, and I saw the huge news. So my producer and I got straight to work, and we were reporting about, you know, why this was so significant. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had, of course, declared an Islamic caliphate, took over parts of Iraq and Syria. He recruited fighters from around the world.

But at that time, we were calling our Syrian sources to just try to understand, like, how did this operation actually unfold on the ground? And that very morning, one of our sources told us that two of his own relatives were killed by U.S. troops in that operation - Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid Qurmo. And he said they were noncombatants, which contradicted everything that we had heard from U.S. officials until that point.


TRUMP: This raid was impeccable.


MARK MILLEY: Our forces isolated the compound and protected all the noncombatants.

RASCOE: So you are hearing something that is very different than what is being said from the bully pulpit of the White House and the Defense Department. Why was this contradiction, to you, worth diving into?

ESTRIN: Well, I think because there are enormous consequences when you don't acknowledge civilian casualties. And I was speaking about this with a former Pentagon official who said, look - if you try to explain to an average person in the United States why they should care that two people are killed in an operation that kills such a high-profile target - the leader of ISIS - he says, well, the answer is, what if the deaths of those people then just lead to someone in their family becoming the new leader of ISIS, and this becomes a death spiral for everybody?

RASCOE: You know, administrations, whether they're on the right, the left, in the center - they don't like to be questioned when they're taking this victory lap and saying kind of, quote, unquote, "that they got the bad guy." They got the terrorists. You know, I covered every day of the Trump administration. And the first year of the Biden administration. And I remember during the Biden administration, I was on Air Force One. And I asked then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki about this operation in Syria. Basically, the administration said that all the casualties that happened from this operation was because this man who replaced Baghdadi as the leader of ISIS blew himself up. And so I just asked, well, is the U.S. going to offer any evidence for that?


RASCOE: Evidence because there may be people that are skeptical of the events that took place, and...

And she was very defensive.


JEN PSAKI: Skeptical of the U.S. military's assessment when they went and took out an ISIS terror - the leader of ISIS?


PSAKI: That they are not providing accurate information, and ISIS is providing accurate information?

RASCOE: Well, not ISIS, but, I mean, the U.S. has not always been straightforward about what happens with civilians. And, I mean, that is a fact.

PSAKI: Well, as you know, there's...

ESTRIN: Yeah, I remember this exchange you had. This made big headlines. And, I mean, basically, the White House was telling you, you know, if you don't believe us, well, then that means you believe ISIS. But we do know there are examples where the U.S. has said its airstrikes killed militants when, actually, we find out later, no, it actually killed innocent civilians.

RASCOE: And that's what this story that you're investigating and have investigated is all about.

ESTRIN: Yeah. So when we got that tip that civilians were killed in the U.S. operation going after Baghdadi, we wanted to look into it. And we got in touch with Ratiba Qurmo. She is the mother of one of the victims. We spoke to her on video chat, and this was three days after her son was killed. I remember hearing women and children gathered at her home. They were in mourning.

RATIBA QURMO: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: And the mother told us, the boy and the car are gone. The boy and the car are gone. So the car - you can actually go to Google right now, Ayesha. Do a Google image search of Baghdadi and car.

RASCOE: OK. And then go to images. Let me see. Well, OK. So I see, like, just this van that probably was white or looked white, and now it is - like, it's tore up. I mean, it's blown up to - you know, the windows are out. Parts of the back are out. It's black. It's charred. This is the van they were in.

ESTRIN: This is the van they were in. And this is the picture that was all over the news the day that we learned that the leader of ISIS was dead. And no one really understood why it was there.


ESTRIN: And so back in Washington, there was a press conference. And a journalist asked the U.S. commander who led the operation about this van.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: There's footage of a white van that was riddled with bullets that was right next to the scene.

KENNETH MCKENZIE: So the white van that you talk about was one of the vehicles that displayed hostile intent, came towards us, and it was destroyed.

ESTRIN: And this got my attention because now we've got two different versions of what happened. You've got the Pentagon saying this van came toward troops, displayed hostility, and it was taken out. The family, though, is saying, our boys in this van were not militants. They were civilians just driving through this village after work.


RASCOE: So two different stories. How did you go about figuring out which one was true?

ESTRIN: Well, I started by trying to find anyone I could who knew these men in the van. Were they ISIS fighters? Were they militants? Were they civilians? So I went on Facebook, and I started searching in Arabic for people in that area in Syria. And I found some posts in Arabic. And I found some people, and I started friending them on Facebook and sending them voice messages.

RASCOE: I mean, a lot of people may not understand this, but as a reporter, a lot of what we do is just reaching out to people with a hope and a prayer.


ESTRIN: Right. Yeah. No shame. Yeah. And I would just say hi and introduce myself. And I started hearing back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: That was Ahmed Abdelsalem Qurmo (ph) and Mahmun Juma Qurmo (ph). They're all cousins of the victims. And I also heard from two other men named Ahmed Qurmo, one an uncle, another a cousin. They're all saying the same thing. They said these men had nothing at all to do with ISIS or any armed group. And then I heard from a brother of one of the deceased. His name is Ahmed Mustafa Qurmo.

AHMED MUSTAFA QURMO: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said he saw his brother that very morning. He went out to work in the olive harvest. He was working with his cousin and a friend. And at the end of the day, they were driving the friend back home when they suddenly got caught up in this U.S. operation.

RASCOE: I do wonder, though - or what some people may say hearing this is like, well, these are the relatives, and relatives can be biased. So how helpful, then, were the interviews in terms of getting you closer to what actually happened?

ESTRIN: I mean, you make an important point, right? Essentially, the question is, could they have all just gotten together and said, you know, let's tell this American journalist that our relatives were civilians and not combatants? But the thing is I found nearly all of these men on my own. No one brought them to me. I contacted seven different relatives in total. Some were close family. Some were distant cousins. I spoke to each of them separately, individually, asked them open-ended questions. And each of them gave me the same information. They all knew basic personal details about the men, like how many sons and daughters they had. They all identified these dead men as having been agricultural workers. So all of these, of course, are personal accounts. But then I received something more. One of the relatives gave me very graphic cellphone video from the scene of the airstrikes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: This is in the village of Barisha. And the person filming this on their cellphone is showing two bodies on the ground.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: And then you see a severed hand.


RASCOE: After the break, Daniel tracks down the only survivor from the strike on the van. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


RASCOE: We're back, talking to Daniel Estrin about his reporting on civilian deaths during the U.S. raid on the leader of ISIS. So what we know right now is that two men who - cousins - were killed, but there's another passenger in the van that we're hearing about - the one who lost his hand. So what happened to him?

ESTRIN: So his name is Barakat Ahmad Barakat - in his mid-30s. We reached out to him. And all this reporting, by the way, I'm doing very closely with my producer, Lama Al-Arian. She was really essential in all of this. And at the time, Barakat was recuperating from his injuries. Three and a half weeks after the raid, we finally got to speak to him.

BARAKAT AHMAD BARAKAT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: We spoke to him on video chat. He was at home. He was sitting on his couch. His friend was holding up the phone for him because he couldn't hold it up himself. And I remember just asking him, can you tell me what happened? And he told his story.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I was with my best friends. They wanted to drop me off at home. We had pumpkin seeds and bought coffee on the road and were having fun. We were driving through the village of Barisha. And at that moment, the helicopters arrived. Suddenly, we were hit. I didn't know what was going on. I was just trying to escape death.

ESTRIN: So he says they rushed out of the van. And one of the men fell, and his legs filled with shrapnel. And Barakat says he took his other friend in his arms.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) He told me, I am dying. I told him, no. Just say God's name. And I held him in my lap. There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I'm just a civilian. I didn't have any weapons. We're farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I'm handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.

RASCOE: I mean, I cannot imagine this - you know, listening and hearing this conversation. Like, what are you thinking at this point?

ESTRIN: It was really excruciating, Ayesha. I mean, you're sitting there listening to this raw narrative of what had just happened to this man a few weeks before. And I remember at the time being nervous because, you know, the - I'm talking to him on video chat. I can only see his face. And I know that I'm going to have to ask him to show me his missing arm and his wounds to prove that he was wounded. You know, and I'm an American. And it was the American forces who just allegedly did this to him. So I asked him gently, would you please show us your wounds? And he showed us his right arm. It was bandaged. It was missing his hand and most of the forearm. It was amputated after the attack. And then he showed us his left arm, and he said he couldn't move most of his fingers on his left hand - that his tendons were slashed.

RASCOE: I mean, I - it's just - it's so shocking. But getting that visual evidence, it shows you this person was really seriously injured, and you got the visual confirmation of that, right?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Right.

RASCOE: Did you ever ask Barakat if he knew about Baghdadi and if he knew that his compound was right there on the road that they were traveling?

ESTRIN: Yeah, I asked him, and he said no, I had absolutely no clue. And that's exactly what the U.S. military has said, too. Locals on the ground had no idea that Baghdadi was hiding in that secret compound of his.

RASCOE: Daniel, you'd spoken to the relatives of the two men who died in the attack. Was it the fact that you now have a living witness - did that make all the difference? Because I imagine that if you - that if all three of them had died, it would be a very different story. And it would be, I would imagine, much harder to report.

ESTRIN: Yeah, it made a huge difference he survived. This was our only on-the-ground eyewitness account of what they saw and what happened. And if he would have died, we would have only had the U.S. military's account.

RASCOE: What did you do next?

ESTRIN: Well, I felt like we had enough information to approach the Pentagon, so I emailed them. And I said, we have these claims of civilian casualties in the raid against the leader of ISIS. And they said this was the first that they had heard of possible civilian casualties in the U.S. operation. A U.S. defense official wrote that initial reports were that the van had fired on U.S. helicopters, but he said the Pentagon would conduct a review. They'd look at surveillance footage, and they would determine whether an investigation was needed. I kept emailing the Pentagon every couple weeks, every month or two. Three months later, I finally got some news.


AILSA CHANG: The U.S. military has opened a formal investigation into claims that it killed civilians during its raid last year on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

ESTRIN: And this was a really big development. The Pentagon actually decided, yes, it's going to conduct a formal review. It's going to see, did civilians really get killed and injured in this strike? So I called Barakat to tell him the news.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I thought the issue had been forgotten. I did not expect it. I wondered, is it possible the American people would forget this issue? Now I feel there is someone caring about my life. There is humanity in the American people.

RASCOE: What was it like for you to hear that, especially after that first conversation was so intense?

ESTRIN: You know, Ayesha, I think I felt mixed because it was really hard to hear him express that optimism and that excitement. You know, he's sitting there, and he's telling me he can only use his left pinkie finger. He says his wife has to wash his face. His wife has to hand-feed him. He can't support his young kids. He's out of work because of his injuries. And then he asks, what are the chances that the U.S. could help provide for his children?

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I'm asking you, is there any hope for any help for me? If there is no hope, please tell me. I'd like things to be clear.

ESTRIN: I remember feeling - and I didn't want to give Barakat false hope because the truth is, you know, Congress does allocate millions of dollars to pay civilians harmed in U.S. operations, but the Pentagon has made very, very few of those payments in recent years. So, you know, all I could tell him was be patient. Let's see what the Pentagon says.

RASCOE: So what happened with the Pentagon investigation? What did they find?

ESTRIN: Well, four months went by, and the Pentagon completed its report, and they told me that their conclusion was that the men in that van were enemy combatants. So I wrote the Pentagon, and I asked, under the Freedom of Information Act, can you give us a copy of your review and any documentation, any emails, where you discuss this incident? We waited and waited - didn't get any documents. So NPR sued. We sued the Pentagon for failing to comply in a timely fashion. And three years after the raid, we finally got the Pentagon's documents.

RASCOE: What did these documents say?

ESTRIN: So there are a lot of things that stood out to us. One of them was a declassified Pentagon email that admitted that, actually, the van had not fired on U.S. troops as they claimed initially. But the central thing that we looked at was the actual report that walks through the events as the military saw them that night. So the report says U.S. troops arrived in Syria by helicopter. As they arrive near Baghdadi's secret compound, they are fired upon, and the troops fire back. And then - and you follow along in the report - there are aerial surveillance photos of this. After that firefight, our van comes onto the scene.

RASCOE: OK, so this feels like the moment of truth. The van pulls up, and then what happens?

ESTRIN: Yeah, this is where things get interesting. So the van turns right at an intersection, and it starts driving up a village road in the direction of the Baghdadi compound. And then what the Pentagon report says happened next is that a U.S. aircraft fired warning shots in front of the van - about 50 feet in front of the van. But the report says that the van kept going, and so the aircraft targeted the van directly. Now, this is the core of the Pentagon's claim. The van, it says, did not slow down, did not stop at the warning shots, and so the troops employed necessary force and targeted the van and then, when the men fled the van, targeted the men themselves.

RASCOE: OK, so, I mean, the first thing that pops into my head is - 'cause you had said this was at night, and they're firing warning shots. And so I'm thinking, well, did they see the shots? How - you know, would you have time to see the shots? So that's my first thought about this.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. And I said, OK, let's reconstruct this.


ESTRIN: I started making my own map. I took the Pentagon report and the pictures and the aerial surveillance photos and what they said had happened, and I started creating my own Google map. And I put pins in the various spots. So I found that intersection where the van arrived, and I put a pin in that. And then I put a pin in the spot where the troops fired the warning shots. There's a picture of that in the report. And then I put a pin in the spot where the troops actually hit the van after it kept moving. And I look at this map that I've reconstructed, and I say to myself, wait a minute. The warning shots and the direct shots are in the same place on the road.

So I said, OK, let's give it a conservative estimate. Let's say the van was driving very slowly - 15 miles an hour. How long would it have taken between those warning shots and the moment when the van is hit? And we determined that the van would have only had two or three seconds to respond.

RASCOE: You've reconstructed this. And what you're saying, if I'm getting this straight, is that between the time the American aircraft in the sky, you know, fired these warning shots - it's only, like, two or three seconds, which - I don't even know. My brain doesn't work that fast. I think most people's - like, it takes a few seconds to respond. So what you have uncovered is that the men in the van really didn't get a real warning at all.

ESTRIN: Exactly. I mean, you know, from Barakat's perspective, it's dark. He's in a van. And he - as he says, suddenly, he comes under fire. And then two or three seconds later, the van takes a direct hit. But, you know, in the report, the Pentagon says, the troops saw this van coming and thought that it was posing a threat.

RASCOE: It reminds me of, like, domestically - like, the police - like, police in neighborhoods and how sometimes there's this idea that, you know, the police - they're worried. They're scared, and they see someone, and they think the person is a danger or a threat. And so they shoot and injure or kill someone who maybe is unarmed or whatever, but they say they had to make a split-second decision, and they had to protect themselves, and they want to - you know, and that they're just trying to keep everyone safe. Like, to me, that's what this almost sounds like.

ESTRIN: Yeah. I mean, this - it's a good comparison because this is exactly how the Pentagon has portrayed this. You know, this is the heat of the moment. The troops see this van coming, and they feel it's a threat. And, you know, that might sound reasonable. But I spoke with an expert, Larry Lewis. He's from the Center for Naval Analyses. He used to advise the Pentagon on how to prevent civilian casualties. And he says he's literally looked at thousands of these kinds of cases, and he says that civilian deaths are preventable.

LARRY LEWIS: Tragically, what happens too often is that the military does not effectively communicate what it really wants. They want the van to stop, but what do they use? They use lethal force. So you get this escalation based on misunderstandings.

ESTRIN: There are ways for the military to better communicate to civilians and people on the ground, hey, don't come here. Don't approach. And a two-to-three-second warning, he says, is not one of them. And so, Ayesha, all these months later, I'm looking at the Pentagon's review, and you see right there that the military's decision - that these men were combatants - is still based on that split-second judgment that the troops made in that moment.

RASCOE: Daniel, you also reported that the government really didn't have evidence for the claims that these men were combatants. Like, they didn't provide anything to show, yes, this - they were combatants, and this is how we know.

ESTRIN: That's right. I mean, we found all kinds of examples of this. The Pentagon questioned the veracity of the sources that we interviewed in our reports, but we found no evidence that the Pentagon ever did their own interviews with Syrians on the ground. They said that a pilot thought that he saw a secondary explosion from the van, maybe indicating that there were weapons or explosives in the van, and then went on and fired directly on the men as they fled the van. But, you know, the Pentagon admits, yeah, we don't know if there were weapons or explosives in that car.

RASCOE: And certainly, you know, if you shoot at a van, like, it seems likely that it would explode like that if you're shooting at it from the air.

ESTRIN: That's right. And then, in the Pentagon report itself, there's a recommendation that they provide intelligence in a top-secret document - intelligence to show that these men were combatants. We asked the Pentagon about that. There is no record that they ever did put that evidence together. So basically, Ayesha, the Pentagon did have chances to provide more evidence, and they haven't.

RASCOE: So is this a cover-up by the Pentagon?

ESTRIN: I don't know. It's a question that some experts - you know, they said Trump called this raid impeccable, so maybe there was pressure inside the Pentagon not to contradict the president. But we have taken our findings to several Democratic members of Congress who have taken an interest in civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military. And some senators and House representatives said that they were troubled by what we found. They said it was inexcusable that the Pentagon's report was, in their words, flawed. They called on the Pentagon to reopen this case immediately. And this summer, prompted by our reporting, House Representative Sara Jacobs introduced a bill that would make the Pentagon reinvestigate all past cases of civilian harm over the last decade. And I have an update here. The Pentagon says it is willing to consider new information in this case from NPR or from any others. It may decide to reopen this case.


ESTRIN: This is part of a bigger picture. The Pentagon has been under a lot of pressure to do better when it comes to civilian casualties. And they have announced a new center for civilian protection - an entirely new approach to tackle the issue of civilian casualties in military operations. So this is a - it's a big issue for them. They seem to be taking it more seriously now. So we're going to have to see how they approach this case.


RASCOE: But ultimately, that's the policy picture. But how does all of this impact Barakat, and how is he doing?

ESTRIN: Yeah. I've been speaking with Barakat a lot. He has a lawyer in New York. It's a nonprofit group that is advocating his case that has provided some receipts of his work in that olive press in the days before the strike - provided that evidence to the Pentagon hoping that the Pentagon will reconsider. And Barakat has mixed feelings. He's grateful for his story being told, but he is feeling a lot of emotional pain.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) My future is destroyed. I have a family, kids. How is this their fault?

(Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He actually told me, you know, maybe if I were killed in that airstrike, it would have been better. He has young children, and he says he struggles to provide food for his family. He says, why should my children suffer? They're the ones who have been turned into victims here. So he is still hoping that the U.S. will acknowledge that they killed and wounded civilians and hoping that the U.S. will provide some compensation. So the Pentagon says it is open to reviewing new information. Let's see if they reopen this case.


RASCOE: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin. To see all the original documents mentioned in this story, go to We've got NPR's lawsuit files, plus the declassified Pentagon emails and documents. You can also see photos of Barakat and his children, plus maps and video of the road he took the night of the attack. It's all available in English and in Arabic on our website,

The reporting of this episode included many people. Thank you to Lama Al-Arian, Tom Bowman, Majd Al-Waheidi, Suha Halifa, Nuha Musleh, Anas Baba, Alyson Hurt, Virginia Lozano, Alex Leff, Hannah Bloch, Danny Hensel, NPR's Mideast editor Larry Kaplow and NPR chief international editor Didi Schanche. You're listening to The Sunday Story. This episode was produced by Ariana Gharib Lee and edited by Jenny Schmidt. Additional music in this episode by Ramtin Arablouei. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom, and Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. UP FIRST is back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.


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