Eight months ago, on December 28, a warplane from the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS, struck a building in the Syrian town of al-Bab that had been identified as a local headquarters for the militant group. It was just one of over a thousand airstrikes the coalition had launched up to that point. However, this building wasn’t simply a gathering place for militants or a storehouse for weapons. It was also being used as a makeshift prison for local civilians whom ISIS had accused of petty offenses like smoking cigarettes and wearing jeans.
The jail was a symptom of the harsh rule the Islamic State had imposed in early 2014. When ISIS took over the town, in the Aleppo region near the Turkish border, ordinary life gave way to a reign of terror. Executions were regularly carried out in the town square, with the bodies of victims being left out for days, often with signs hanging from their chests stating their alleged crimes. Islamic State members would stop children in the street and ask them if their fathers had gone to prayer. Hundreds of locals were held in prison at any given time.
When the coalition bomb hit on that December evening, one witness said, the explosion shook the entire city. In the hours that followed, there was shooting in the streets; the Islamic State could be heard making announcements over loudspeakers; and sirens wailed into the night. The witness said he could hear women in the town screaming and crying when they found out that the building where their relatives were being held had been hit. The prison was leveled, and it was days before the rubble was cleared and all the bodies were extracted and returned to the victims’ families. At least 58 civilians were killed, including a number of teenagers. So far, it is one of the worst mass-casualty incidents attributed to the US-led coalition.
The Pentagon didn’t disclose the airstrike publicly, but a week later, reporters at McClatchy got a tip from one of their partners in Syria. After persistent questioning, the Pentagon admitted it had carried out the attack. McClatchy published a story, backed up by photographic evidence, NGO corroboration, and witness accounts. If it hadn’t been for the doggedness of the McClatchy reporters, the story might not have been reported at all.
But even after McClatchy’s report, very few news outlets picked it up. Even the most avid reader of The New York Times or The Washington Post would never have heard of the incident. News of the strike apparently did create a stir among Pentagon reporters when it was first released, but for one reason or another, the topic was eventually dropped. Roy Gutman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign correspondent and one of the authors of the McClatchy piece, says only one reporter ever called him hoping to follow up on the story.
“The lack of contacts from colleagues was definitely surprising. It was amazing,” he said, adding, “It’s absolutely essential that all news organizations follow up on these things.”