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.
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In the United States, the presidential election was entering the home stretch. While President Obama and Mitt Romney stumped for last-minute votes, drones from a secret base in either Saudi Arabia or Djibouti followed Qadhi’s every move. As soon as Qadhi put on his coat and U.S. forces got a lock on him, it didn’t matter whether he found the electronic tracking chip or even whether he never wore his coat again. He had been marked. (Chips like this are supposed to help ensure that drone strikes hit only the target sought, and not a civilian who happens to be in the same location.)

Early in the morning on November 6, the polls in the U.S. opened. By 11 p.m. eastern standard time, the election was over. President Obama had won a second term. Less than two hours later, the first family made its entrance at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Obama walked out onto the stage hand in hand with his 11-year-old daughter, Sasha, followed by the first lady and 14-year-old Malia, waving and smiling to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”

By the time Obama finished speaking, it was nearly 1 a.m. in Chicago. Halfway around the world, in Yemen, where it was just before 9 in the morning on November 7, Adnan al-Qadhi was starting his day.

Several hours later, at about 6:30 p.m. local time, Qadhi walked out the front door of his house and climbed into a sport-utility vehicle with a man named Abu Radwan. Overhead, one of the drones that had been tracking Qadhi fired a missile, destroying the vehicle and instantly killing both men.

Two months later, on January 15, 2013, Barq was traveling with his father when an al-Qaeda operative, identified by sources close to al-Qaeda in Yemen as Rabi’a Lahib, managed to kidnap both of them. Lahib, who had been erroneously reported killed in the strike on Qadhi, turned the pair over to al-Qaeda commanders in a remote region east of Sanaa. On January 23, another American drone strike killed Lahib. But that was eight days too late for Barq and his father.

When pressed for comment, a senior White House official told The Atlantic, “The claim that the U.S. government was in any way involved in purportedly using an 8-year-old in this incident is unequivocally wrong.” (The Yemeni government did not respond to a request for comment.)

Could the video be bogus, or the confessions coerced? The potency of the video as propaganda is obvious: if Yemenis can be convinced that the Republican Guard is recruiting 8-year-olds to help paint targets for U.S. drone strikes, that would likely rally support for al-Qaeda. But local tribesmen, as well as the source familiar with the operation, believe Barq’s testimony to be accurate, and in interviews they provided details and background information that cannot be gleaned from the video. For his part, Himyar al-Qadhi, Adnan’s brother, says he believes that what Barq says on the video is accurate. (Himyar says he does not blame Barq for the death of his brother; he blames the Yemeni and U.S. governments, whom he is planning to sue.) Moreover, if the narrative laid out by Barq and his father in the video is false, that would be a departure for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Since its founding in 2009, this group has developed a local reputation built in part around truthfulness. In a country where many people distrust official government statements, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken pains to establish itself as a viable and accurate alternative information source. A Yemeni government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the group “tends to be more credible than the military.”

Although it has not been possible to independently verify the identity of the Republican Guard members involved in Barq’s recruitment, one thing is definitively true: someone exploited an 8-year-old boy. Either U.S. allies in Yemen used him to abet a killing, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula used him as a pawn in its propaganda strategy, or both. The evidence strongly suggests that America’s allies in Yemen recruited the boy, but there is nothing to indicate that U.S. officials knew anything about Barq’s role as a child spy. U.S. officials are aware, however, that Yemen uses children in conflicts, a practice the State Department annually documents in its Trafficking in Persons report. In 2008, Congress passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which prohibits the United States from financing the militaries of countries that use child soldiers, or providing training to those militaries. Every year since the law took effect in 2010, President Obama has signed a waiver exempting Yemen. The U.S. has cited both “national interests” and a belief that continued engagement with countries like Yemen could “solve this problem.” Yemen is the only country that has received a full exemption each year.

Near the end of the confession video, after Barq and his father have admitted their roles in the killing of Adnan al-Qadhi, Arabic text scrolls across the screen.

An unseen narrator explains that in light of the confessions, al-Qaeda’s Sharia committee has decided the following:

1. Hafizallah al-Kulaybi is guilty of spying on al-Qaeda.

2. Hafizallah al-Kulaybi bears responsibility for the deaths of Adnan al-Qadhi and Abu Radwan.

3. The four Republican Guard officers who recruited and “trained” Barq are “wanted for justice.”

As the narrator’s voice trails off, the chanting of a jihadi anthem is heard in the background, and a single line of English flashes across the screen: “Every spy is killed after he’s been filmed!”

The video doesn’t show the execution—al-Qaeda has been wary of broadcasting executions since the bloody excesses in Iraq—but it leaves little doubt about what transpired. Though independent confirmation of Hafizallah al-Kulaybi’s death has not been established, multiple tribal sources say that they believe Kulaybi was executed.

In the video, al-Qaeda declared that Barq’s father had exploited his son’s “innocence.” According to a source close to al-Qaeda, the group later pardoned Barq because of his age, but his family, which has refused all requests for interviews, has yet to confirm his status.

Gregory D. Johnsen is the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.
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