Mohammad Na’us was one of the most respected men in al Bab. He was the undertaker who washed the bodies of the dead prior to burial, a pious Quranic scholar who issued the sundown call to prayer in the Syrian town near the Turkish border, and for the past year, a seller of bread in his neighborhood.
But on Dec. 28, the bakery’s delivery was late and he missed the prayers at sundown. Religious police arrested Na’us, a father of five in his 50s, and ordered him to spend one night in prison.
It was his last.
At 7:20 p.m., a U.S. airstrike leveled al Bab’s al Saraya government center. Townspeople say dozens of people, including Na’us, died in the strike. U.S. officials, while acknowledging the strike, deny that any civilians died.
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“That night you could hear the screams and wailing of women in the town when they heard al Saraya was bombed,” said Abu Hussein, who lived near the government center and passed it daily on his way to pray at the local mosque. “They knew their sons and relatives were in the building.”
The speaker, a 55-year-old man interviewed in Antakya, Turkey, asked to be identified by a pseudonym that means “Hussein’s father,” fearing retribution by the Islamic State should he return to al Bab.
McClatchy first reported on Jan. 11 that at least 50 civilians in the prison had died in the U.S. airstrike. Three days after that report, the U.S. Central Command said a review of the airstrike had determined that allegations of civilian casualties “are not credible.”
McClatchy, however, has found more substantiation for its initial report from refugees who fled al Bab and now inhabit towns in southern Turkey. With the help of relatives, neighbors and friends, McClatchy has assembled a list of the full names of 10 civilians who reportedly died in the airstrike and the family names of another 14.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group aligned with opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said it has a verified list of 24 civilians killed. Spokeswoman Huda al Ali said the network estimates that a minimum of 55 civilians died.
Another opposition monitoring group, the Violations Documentation Center, said more than 60 detainees, including some children, died in the attack and that 20 injured civilians were extracted alive from the rubble.
Nearly every one of the more than 40 townspeople from al Bab and nearby towns interviewed by McClatchy reporters said the number of dead was several times higher.
The difference between the new information and the U.S. military’s insistence that there was no evidence to back reports of the civilian deaths takes on added significance in the wake of the killing of Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker from Arizona who died last week in Syria.
The Islamic State claimed Mueller was killed Feb. 6 when Jordanian planes bombed a building outside Raqqa, Syria, where she was being held prisoner. U.S. officials earlier this week acknowledged that Jordanian aircraft, “with the support of U.S. military crews,” had struck the building on that date, but they denied there was any evidence that civilians or Islamic State militants had been present.
The al Bab case, however, raises questions about how much information U.S. air crews have about the targets they hit.
To protect relatives, who could face arrest, torture and even death from the Islamic State for speaking to reporters, McClatchy is not publishing its list of victims in al Bab, nor are the Syrian Network or the Violations Documentation Center. The network examined McClatchy’s list of 10 full names and confirmed that three were also on its list, Ali said.
U.S. Central Command said it bases its conclusion that reports of civilian casualties were not credible on a variety of sources. “We analyzed (relevant) intelligence and information related to the coalition airstrike and other acts in the area (e.g. a potential Syrian airstrike), to include press reports and third-party source information,” Air Force Col. Patrick S. Ryder, Centcom’s director of public affairs, said in an email.
Ryder also suggested that local witnesses were confusing the U.S. strike with a Syrian government attack that took place two days earlier. The timing of the two strikes “could have contributed to erroneous reporting from the scene thus confusing the issue of where and when civilians may have been killed,” he said.
But townspeople told McClatchy they had not confused the Syrian government assault with the U.S. strike, which Ryder acknowledged took place on Dec. 28.
How closely the U.S. monitors Syrian government attacks was unclear. Ryder said he could not provide a “tally of Syrian government airstrikes,” and he said aerial photographs of the site before and after the Dec. 28 bombing were classified and would require a lengthy process to declassify and release. He said, however, that Centcom would reopen its investigation into the case if new information became available.
According to Abu Hussein and other townspeople, Islamic State guards blocked the streets surrounding the site for four days after the U.S. airstrike and brought in bulldozers to clear the rubble of the two-story building. They returned many of the bodies to the families of the victims but prohibited any announcement of the dead or any memorial services, townspeople said.
As he and other witnesses describe it, life in al Bab, a town of 150,000 close to the Turkish border, has been a reign of terror under the Islamic State. The extremist group, which took control of the town from moderate rebels in early 2014, kept hundreds of people in any of three prisons at any time, he said. There were regular executions in the town square, and the bodies of those executed would be left hanging for two days, often with a sign across the chest stating the alleged crime.
Townspeople could be arrested for the clothes they wear, the style of their hair or for asking too many questions, he said. Abu Hussein was held in a different prison near the center of al Bab for 30 days for what he said was being caught smoking.
“You could be arrested for allowing your wife to go out without a niqab,” he said, referring to a conservative Islamic women’s face covering. “They might arrest someone for talking with his female cousin. If someone is wearing narrow pants, they cut them off and take you to prison.”
Islamic State fighters would stop children in the street and ask if their fathers attended prayers or if they smoked, townspeople said. But many children would mock the Islamic State fighters, chasing their cars and shouting “Daash,” the somewhat pejorative Arabic nickname for the extremist group.
Abu Hussein said he had witnessed townspeople being taken to the Saraya building to be imprisoned. They would arrive in a convoy consisting of an American-made Humvee and a four-door sedan, guarded by men wearing camouflage uniforms and wearing masks, carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, he said.
“You are not allowed to stop and watch,” he said. And at the mosque, where he regularly attended prayers, no one would discuss what they saw. “Of course not,” he said. “You cannot open your mouth. They will arrest you.”
One of the most frequent infractions leading to arrest and detention was smoking, or even the possession of cigarettes.
Abdula Ilah Najjar, 18, was not even smoking when he was arrested, according to relatives and friends, but he had gone out to buy a pack of cigarettes for his uncle. He was arrested with the cigarettes in hand and sent to Saraya, where he died in the U.S. airstrike, they said.
Cigarettes also proved to be the undoing of three brothers from the nearby town of Bza’a, relatives said. Muhammad, Ahmad and Mahmoud Kirdyieh also had been arrested by the Islamic State for selling cigarettes and were detained in the Saraya building, they said. A judge had set a bail of 1 million Syrian pounds, about $5,000, and on the evening of Dec. 28, three cousins of the brothers went to the site to pay the fine. All six were killed.