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.

According to a confession video later released by al-Qaeda, the man tasked with locating Qadhi was Abdullah al-Jubari, a Republican Guard veteran with years of experience. Evidently without the knowledge of the United States, he called an enlisted man named Hafizallah al-Kulaybi—Barq’s biological father.

Jubari told Kulaybi that he was sending another military officer to meet with him in Sanaa. “Major Khalid Ghalays will visit you,” Jubari said. “Carry out everything he dictates.”

The Republican Guard seems to have known that Kulaybi was short of money and that Barq was living with Adnan al-Qadhi in the village outside Sanaa. Kulaybi would later say on the video that someone, presumably Major Ghalays, explained that if Kulaybi could persuade his son to cooperate, by planting electronic chips on Qadhi, the Yemeni government would give the family a new car, a new house, and 50,000 Yemeni riyals (about $230). This would ease the family’s financial troubles, while giving young Barq the chance to “serve his country.”

Kulaybi’s superior officer ordered him to retrieve his son from Adnan al-Qadhi’s house. Kulaybi had sent Barq away because he could not afford to feed him. But now the top officials in the Yemeni military wanted the 8-year-old’s help, and they were willing to pay for it. On October 22, 2012, Kulaybi drove the few miles through Sanaa’s congested suburbs and past the military checkpoints that ring the city to collect the boy.

Father and son drove back to Sanaa that night, and the Kulaybi family was reunited. For the first time in months, Barq slept next to his brothers and sister and ate with his family. Three days later, on October 25, the feast night of Eid al-Adha, according to the video confession, a trio of Republican Guard officers visited Barq and his father.

A few months later, sometime early this year, Hafizallah al-Kulaybi, Barq’s father, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a shiny silver backdrop, talking into a camera that was recording high-quality video. On the video, Kulaybi pauses periodically, as if trying to remember everything he is supposed to say. Dressed in a sky-blue shirt with dark vertical stripes and a maroon headdress, he looks tired. The bottom button of his shirt is undone; when he moves, the shirt splits open, revealing a black undershirt and the outlines of a sizable paunch. Sitting beside him is Barq, who fidgets while his father confesses to spying on al-Qaeda, an organization that had already executed several spies in Yemen, including one by crucifixion.

In the confession, which was posted on April 19 to jihadi forums by al‑Malahim, al-Qaeda’s media wing in Yemen, Kulaybi named both Abdullah al-Jubari and Khalid Ghalays as the men who’d recruited him and Barq for the mission. Two days later, both men denied the accusations. In a statement to Yemen Today, a local Arabic paper, Jubari said that he hadn’t had any contact with Kulaybi in five years, and he described the whole thing as a “sick farce.”

But parts of the story Kulaybi tells on the confession video have now been corroborated by several different sources in Yemen, including someone familiar with the operation. And numerous tribesmen, local journalists, and a nongovernmental organization have all independently stated that the story the Kulaybis tell aligns with what they believe to be true: 8-year-old Barq was a spy.

This wouldn’t have been the first time a Middle Eastern ally of the United States had used a child to spy on al-Qaeda. As Lawrence Wright recounts in his book The Looming Tower, in 1995, Egyptian intelligence agents lured two young boys into an apartment, drugged them, and then raped them. The agents photographed everything and used the photos as leverage to force the boys, who were sons of senior militants close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, to spy on al-Qaeda and try to kill the man who would go on to become Osama bin Laden’s deputy and eventually his successor. That plot failed when Zawahiri discovered what the boys were doing. A Sharia court convicted them, and Zawahiri had them both executed.

Near the end of the slickly produced 12-minute video—called “The Spider’s Web,” after a verse in the Koran, and complete with English subtitles—Barq speaks for the first time, giving his own version of the story. During his father’s portion of the confession, Barq was restless, rocking in place, alternately staring into the camera and looking down at his lap. Once, he even appeared to stifle a smile at the man behind the camera. When it’s his turn to speak, however, he becomes poised and still, staring straight into the camera with wide eyes. He starts by saying his name, but his voice is so soft that his father interrupts. “Sawt,” he tells his son with an impatient gesture—“your voice.” Barq’s eyes don’t move from the camera, but he gradually speaks louder.

His performance is disconcerting. With his tiny head framed by big, looping curls, he looks like a typical 8-year-old rapidly reciting the lines he’s memorized for an elementary-school play. But he’s in an al-Qaeda confession video, not a school play, and he’s explaining how he helped U.S. drone operators kill a man.

At the meeting on October 25, Barq explains, his father gave him the electronic tracking chips, and the Republican Guard officers showed him how to activate them. “They trained me,” the boy says. A Yemeni official later confirmed to me that electronic tracking chips, which the U.S. has reportedly used in Afghanistan, are sometimes used for drone strikes in Yemen as well.

In the video, Barq explains that as the officers walked him through the process of using the chips, they stressed how important it was that he plant the chips on Adnan al-Qadhi on either Wednesday, October 31, or Thursday, November 1.

“Who told you?” his father interrupts.

Without shifting his gaze from the camera, Barq dutifully lists the names of three officers: Major Khalid Ghalays, Major Kahalid al-Awbali, and an adjutant named Jawwaas.

“But who was the first one to train you?” his father asks again, suddenly his son’s interrogator. His insistent question seems to be an attempt to shift blame back onto the Republican Guard officers who enlisted his son to spy on al-Qaeda.

“Officer Khalid,” the boy stutters in reply. “Your friend.”

His father doesn’t interrupt again.

Barq continues, explaining that once the officers were convinced that he was capable of activating the tiny chips, and that he understood the importance of keeping them a secret from Qadhi, they had his father take him back to the village. Barq was ready for his mission.

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