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?

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.

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.

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.