The Drone Debate September 2013

Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America?

When U.S. allies in Yemen needed help targeting an alleged al-Qaeda operative for an American drone strike, evidence suggests they turned to one of the people closest to him.
Frank Stockton

On Thursday, October 25, 2012, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney crisscrossed America in a final mad scramble along the campaign trail, three officers from Yemen’s elite Republican Guard were holding an unusual meeting half a world away, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. That day was Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which in the Islamic tradition commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Eid al-Adha is one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar, but the men had likely forgone the traditional meal with their families to join the meeting that evening.

Standing in front of them was the reason for their clandestine gathering: an 8-year-old boy. Shy, frail, a little grimy, and in need of a haircut, he looked as vulnerable as he would several months later while describing this meeting on video.

At the time of the meeting, the boy didn’t know that the United States had decided to kill a man named Adnan al-Qadhi, and had turned to its allies in Yemen for assistance. Now the Yemeni government needed the child’s help. The Republican Guard officers told him what they wanted him to do: plant tiny electronic chips on the man he had come to think of as a surrogate father. The boy knew and trusted the officers; they were his biological father’s friends. He told them he would try. He would be their spy.

By the time President Obama gave the order to attack Adnan al-Qadhi, the U.S. had been killing al-Qaeda fighters for years, in places ranging from the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the deserts of Yemen and Somalia. The strikes had taken a toll on the terrorist organization. More than a decade after September 11, Osama bin Laden and many of the most obvious targets were already dead.

Qadhi, a burly Yemeni military officer, was a less obvious target. But as the U.S. entered the second decade of its war against al-Qaeda, it increasingly found itself going after men like Qadhi, who were targeted not so much for what they had done as for what they might do.

The U.S. became aware of Qadhi in late 2008, after seven suicide bombers in a pair of modified Suzuki jeeps attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Only the quick reaction of a Yemeni security guard, who blocked their path just as he was shot in the chest, prevented the al-Qaeda bombers from breaching the inner walls of the compound and massacring the Americans hiding inside. Forced away from the main gate, the attackers detonated their bombs in the street outside the embassy, killing at least a dozen Yemenis, including some who were waiting in line for early-morning visa appointments. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen claimed responsibility.

After the attack, the deadliest on a U.S. embassy in a decade, the United States increased its security in Sanaa and the Yemeni government started arresting people. One of the names that Yemeni intelligence uncovered was Adnan al-Qadhi’s. Investigators believed that Qadhi had provided military license plates to the bombers, which they used to breeze through the initial checkpoints around the embassy. Qadhi, it turned out, was a military officer in Yemen’s 33rd Armored Brigade. He was still on the army’s payroll even though he hadn’t shown up for work in more than a year, ever since his commanding officer and father-in-law was removed from active duty after allegedly organizing a diesel-and-alcohol-smuggling ring, according to Yemeni newspapers. More distressing for the local investigators were Qadhi’s tribal connections, which linked him to the top of Yemen’s bizarre and byzantine power pyramid.

President Ali Abdullah Salih, an American ally who in 2008 was completing his third decade in office, was a fellow Sanhan tribesman. So was General Ali Muhsin, the regime’s “iron fist,” who fought Salih’s domestic wars and made sure he remained in power. Like his two powerful clansmen, Qadhi had been born in the tiny village of Bayt al-Ahmar, barely 10 miles outside greater Sanaa.

This impoverished cluster of huts and houses, which for centuries had produced only peasant farmers and foot soldiers, changed under Salih’s patronage. The president built himself a fortified palace overlooking the dusty fields and wadis where he had played as a child. So too did Ali Muhsin, who had risen alongside Salih to become an indispensable part of preserving the power of what critics referred to as the “Bayt al-Ahmar gang.”

Yemeni politics can be rough and wild, rife with suspicious car crashes and untimely accidents. Salih’s two immediate predecessors had been assassinated within eight months of each other in the late 1970s—one went down in what appeared to be a gory gangland hit in which he was murdered along with his brother and two women, their bodies doused with alcohol; the other was killed by a briefcase bomb. When Salih, who was then a military commander, was elected president after the second assassination, CIA analysts took bets on how long he would last in office (six months or less, one wagered). But he held on to power by relying on the only people he could trust: his tribe. Adnan al-Qadhi was part of this presidential insurance policy—one of the dozen or so commissioned military officers, nearly all members of the Sanhan tribe, who formed Ali Muhsin’s inner circle.

Thus, in the aftermath of the 2008 embassy bombings, any arrest of Qadhi would have needed to be handled delicately, requiring the approval of Qadhi’s powerful clansmen. Both Salih and Ali Muhsin eventually gave their consent for his arrest on suspicion that he had aided the attack, but Qadhi spent only a few months in jail before his patrons intervened. He was secretly released in early 2009, and no charges were ever filed.

But sometime recently, Qadhi’s name came up again. U.S. intelligence had come to believe that Qadhi, who was still receiving his military salary, had moved beyond merely supporting al-Qaeda to take a leadership role within the organization. As the Obama administration increased the pace of its drone strikes in Yemen, Qadhi’s name was added to the kill list.

When 8-year-old Barq al-Kulaybi was summoned to meet with members of the Yemeni Republican Guard last October, he probably didn’t know anything about Adnan al-Qadhi’s past, his time in prison, or his supposed links to al-Qaeda. What he did know was that the man had taken him in and given him a place to live when no one else would.

Barq was one of the unorphaned street children of Bayt al-Ahmar, Qadhi’s village. Barq had a mother and a father, but they lived back in Sanaa with his five brothers and sisters. His father was an enlisted man in Yemen’s Republican Guard whose salary wasn’t nearly enough to put food on the table for all of them.

How Barq came to be living as a street child isn’t entirely clear, but local residents say he first arrived in the village in 2011, after a wealthy member of his extended clan married into a prominent Bayt al-Ahmar family. The practice of sending children to stay with a more affluent branch of their extended family is common in Yemen, where poverty forces many families to make difficult decisions. But Barq’s family members evidently declined to take him in, and he ended up living on the street.

Stranded between a father in Sanaa who couldn’t provide for him and a clan in Bayt al-Ahmar that didn’t seem to want him, Barq made do as best he could in the hamlet. Villagers say that during the day he wandered dusty side roads looking for plastic bottles and other bits of trash that he could sell. At night he took shelter where he could find it. Sometimes villagers would give him some food, or offer him a night inside. One of these villagers was Adnan al-Qadhi, who, according to local tribesmen, took pity on the dirty little boy. After a few months, Qadhi invited Barq into his home. He gave the boy a place to sleep and treated him like one of his own five children, feeding him and helping to finance his education.

During the early months of the Arab Spring, as the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were sent to exile, prison, or death, the U.S. was hesitant to force President Salih out of office, worrying what his fall would mean for the fight against al-Qaeda. “He’s been an important ally in the counterterrorism arena,” then–Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters in March 2011, adding that the U.S. hadn’t done any post-Salih planning.

But while the Yemeni president had been useful to the Americans in combatting terror, he had also been fickle. American diplomats spoke of two Salihs: the good Salih could be accommodating, allowing the U.S. to go after nearly any target it wanted; the other Salih fed the U.S. false intelligence, and got American forces to do his dirty work. Most of the time, U.S. officials had no idea which Salih they were dealing with.

For instance, in May 2010, Yemeni officials passed along information to their American friends in the Joint Special Operations Command, alerting them that an al-Qaeda meeting would be taking place near an orange grove in the desert east of Sanaa. JSOC put drones in the area and, when the suspects were leaving, fired several missiles, killing most of the men present.

When the bodies were identified some hours later, JSOC realized it had made a mistake. Instead of the al-Qaeda suspect the group had been tracking for nearly a year, the strike had killed the deputy governor of the province, one of Salih’s political rivals, who had helped to arrange the meeting in an attempt to get the al-Qaeda fighters to surrender. “We think we got played,” a U.S. official involved in the strike later told The Wall Street Journal, though other U.S. officials disagreed that they had been set up. (The Yemeni government denied any wrongdoing.)

Despite the games and double-dealing, the U.S. remained convinced that it needed Salih in the fight against al-Qaeda. In 33 years of rule, Salih had made his tribe indispensable; his family effectively was the Yemeni military. But as the brutal cycle of Arab Spring protests and crackdowns continued throughout 2011, the U.S. gradually accepted the inevitable: Salih had to go. Worried that al-Qaeda would fill the vacuum of a government collapse, the Obama administration threw its support behind a transfer of power that gave Salih immunity and his deputy the presidency—leaving Salih’s relatives and tribesmen in place throughout the military, at least for the time being. These were the people the U.S. had been working with for years; counterterrorism wouldn’t suffer during the transition.

When Adnan al-Qadhi landed on the kill list, U.S. officials reached out to some of these compliant partners in Yemen, requesting assistance in locating their target. Could they help?

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