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.

How did Adnan al-Qadhi, who was officially still an officer in the Yemeni military, end up on the American kill list years after his release from prison?

For much of President Obama’s first term, intelligence officials from across the federal government gathered once a week, usually on a Tuesday, to discuss the kill list. These secret “Terror Tuesday” meetings, as administration officials called them, were designed to be rigorous debates about who would live or die half a world away.

In a series of preliminary meetings, dozens of officials argued the merits of each case. “What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, according to a 2012 New York Times article. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?”

These officials struggled to be conscientious and fair. No one wanted to make a mistake and nominate an innocent person for death. But as spirited as the discussions could be, with officials interrogating one another over why a particular individual should be targeted for killing, there was no outside oversight—all decisions were made and reviewed within the executive branch. The public’s knowledge of the Obama administration’s legal thinking regarding drone-strike targeting became slightly less murky earlier this year, when someone leaked a copy of a Justice Department white paper to Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter at NBC News. The document, which focuses on the question of when it is legal to kill U.S. citizens abroad, states that if “an informed, high-level official” in the U.S. government determines that a citizen is a “senior operational leader” in al-Qaeda, then that person can be killed. The paper delineates two key restrictions. First, the U.S. has to determine that capture is not feasible. Second, whomever the U.S. wants to kill has to pose an “imminent” threat. The criteria for justifying a strike on a non-U.S. citizen are presumably the same, if not less stringent. (See Mark Bowden’s accompanying story on page 58.)

But feasibility of capture is a judgment call. How many Americans or American allies must be exposed to potential danger to make a capture unfeasible? A drone is cleaner than an on-the-ground operation; it can kill from the sky without exposing a single U.S. soldier to danger.

The issue of imminence is similarly fuzzy. Government attorneys stretched the definition from “about to happen” to something much broader. According to the Justice Department white paper, an individual doesn’t have to be on the verge of attacking, or even in the midst of a particular plot, to be a legitimate target. A person could be an imminent threat solely by virtue of being labeled a “senior operational leader,” someone whom the U.S. believes is actively planning to kill Americans. In other words, once someone is identified that way, he is deemed an imminent threat and, as such, a fair target.

“I climbed on the table where his coat was and put [a tracking chip] in his pocket,” the boy said. A week later, Adnan al-Qadhi was dead, killed by a U.S. drone strike.

According to U.S. intelligence, Qadhi was a senior operational leader in al-Qaeda who met both requirements for lawful killing: he was an imminent threat, and he couldn’t be captured. Yemeni intelligence was less certain. After all, the Yemenis had captured Qadhi once before, when they arrested him in 2008. And in January 2012, he had been part of a tribal mediation team sent at the behest of the government to negotiate with al-Qaeda fighters who had taken control of a city fewer than 100 miles south of Sanaa. Besides, Qadhi wasn’t hiding in the mountains with the rest of al-Qaeda—he was living in his house in Bayt al-Ahmar, a stone’s throw from former President Salih’s hilltop palace.

Still, when the U.S. asked the Yemenis for permission to strike, the government agreed. Some officials even concurred with the American assessment that Qadhi was al-Qaeda’s local commander in Bayt al-Ahmar, pointing to the fact that he had a giant mural of the black flag associated with al-Qaeda painted on his house. But according to one Yemeni official who reviewed the intelligence, others argued that Qadhi was a recruiter for al-Qaeda, not a senior operational leader. Whatever Qadhi’s ties to al-Qaeda, one thing was clear: he had yet to carry out an attack. Thus, any strike against him would by definition be a preemptive one.

According to the video confession, when Barq’s father dropped him off back in Bayt al-Ahmar, the young spy did what the officers in the Republican Guard had instructed during their evening meeting. He reestablished contact with Qadhi, his surrogate father in the village, and waited. On Wednesday, October 31, when Qadhi went to the bathroom, the boy made his move.

“I climbed on the table where his coat was and put [a tracking chip] in his pocket,” Barq says. Scrambling to complete his mission before Qadhi came out of the bathroom, he slipped back to the floor and slid a second chip under a freestanding cupboard, just as he had been taught.

Later that day, apparently worried that the chip under the cupboard was too obvious, Barq removed it. But the first chip, the one in the pocket of Qadhi’s coat, was still in place and emitting a signal.

Neither the boy nor the man who had taken him in off the street could have known it yet, but by that point, Adnan al-Qadhi was effectively dead. All that was left was for a drone operator to push a button that would fire a missile.

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