Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America?

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Gregory D. Johnsen, The Atlantic
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Gregory D. Johnsen, The Atlantic
Aug. 15, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

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

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-Qaida 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-Qaida, 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-Qaida 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-Qaida’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-Qaida 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-Qaida. 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-Qaida. “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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida. 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-Qaida 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-Qaida, 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-Qaida, 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-Qaida’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-Qaida. 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida.

“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 Qaida 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-Qaida, 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.

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.

Ac­cord­ing to U.S. in­tel­li­gence, Qadhi was a seni­or op­er­a­tion­al lead­er in al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida — 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-Qaida’s loc­al com­mand­er in Bayt al-Ah­mar, point­ing to the fact that he had a gi­ant mur­al of the black flag as­so­ci­ated with al-Qaida painted on his house. But ac­cord­ing to one Ye­meni of­fi­cial who re­viewed the in­tel­li­gence, oth­ers ar­gued that Qadhi was a re­cruit­er for al-Qaida, not a seni­or op­er­a­tion­al lead­er. Whatever Qadhi’s ties to al-Qaida, 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-Qaida op­er­at­ive, iden­ti­fied by sources close to al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida. 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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-Qaida’s Sharia com­mit­tee has de­cided the fol­low­ing:

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

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-Qaida 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-Qaida de­clared that Barq’s fath­er had ex­ploited his son’s “in­no­cence.” Ac­cord­ing to a source close to al-Qaida, 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.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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