A U.S. Central Command investigation found that a March US airstrike in northern Syria did in fact strike a building that was part of a "mosque complex," two US defense officials told CNN Thursday.
For days following the March 16 strike, the Pentagon adamantly rejected the notion that a mosque was hit and that there were civilian casualties -- even as numerous social media reports showed images of bodies being taken out of the rubble.
Instead, in the initial hours following the strike by US drones and aircraft, the Pentagon insisted that it hit only a building some 40 feet away from the mosque, where it said al Qaeda members were holding a meeting.
It is that building that the US unwittingly bombed at the time of the strike, according the defense officials. As a result of the investigation, officials found that the facility had been used for religious purposes in the past.
Typically any religious structure would be on a so-called no-strike list, along with hospitals and schools. There are procedures to move structures off the no-strike list if it is clear they have lost their protected status because terrorists are using them and there are no civilians present.
At the time of the strike, the US still believed the building was being used by al Qaeda, according to the officials. But neither would say if the building had ever been on a no-strike list, or had been removed from such a list.
It is also not clear if the building was listed as a religious site on a database that the mission planners were unaware of.
One official said the investigation found that "religious use" was a primary function of the building at times.
The day after the strike, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters: "We do not currently assess there were any civilian casualties."
He continued, "As always, you know, we take extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life in our operations."
Davis showed a photo of a still-standing mosque and a larger building a short distance away. Half of that building had been clearly destroyed in an airstrike.
At that time, the Pentagon could not say if that larger building had any religious use and would only point out officials were certain a meeting of al Qaeda operatives was underway when it was struck. Defense officials said then that they were convinced the target was legitimate and no civilians were present based on lengthy overhead surveillance before and after the strike.