A few days ago, the New York Times published a report, based on hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, detailing civilian casualties from U.S. drone and missile strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Writing shortly before Times’s report appeared, Thomas Joscelyn addressed the case of a December 3 drone attack in Syria on a man in motorcycle; a family of six that happened to be driving by were injured along with the target. The problem, in Joscelyn’s evaluation, isn’t just one of intelligence and targeting, but also of messaging:
The U.S. military has hunted senior al-Qaeda personnel in Syria for years, but often provides few details concerning those targeted. This is a problem. Civilians are being killed in U.S. drone strikes in Syria and elsewhere, but the U.S. government often does not provide clear justifications for those bombings in the first place. Sometimes it is clear why an al-Qaeda figure was targeted. On other occasions, however, it isn’t obvious at all.
The December 3 air strike is a case in point. During a press briefing on December 6, the Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby explained that the target was a man known as Musab Kinan and he was “a senior leader with Hurras al-Din, which is an al-Qaeda affiliated group.”
Hurras al-Din (HAD), meaning the “Guardians of Religion,” is indeed an al-Qaeda group. HAD openly signals its loyalty to al-Qaeda’s top men in its media and messaging. And while Kinan was an obscure figure and previously unknown to the public, other HAD leaders are well-known al-Qaeda veterans. . . . HAD is thought to have a few thousand members in Syria.
Why did Kinan command the U.S. government’s attention? We don’t know. Beyond his alleged role within HAD, the U.S. military hasn’t offered any details concerning his activities. Did he specifically threaten the U.S. or American interests in some fashion? Again, we don’t know. And this isn’t the first time the U.S. has offered little information about a target in Syria or elsewhere. The U.S. government does an exceptionally poor job of explaining al-Qaeda to the public.