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Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America? U.S. Drone Killed Yemeni Man After Boy Planted Tracking Chip

StoryAugust 16, 2013
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The United States was reportedly able to target an alleged al-Qaeda operative named Adnan al-Qadhi for a drone strike after U.S. allies in Yemen convinced an eight-year-old boy to place a tracking chip in the pocket of the man he considered to be his surrogate father. Shortly after the child planted the device, a U.S. drone tracked and killed al-Qadhi with a missile. He was killed last November, less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama’s re-election. Gregory Johnsen writes about the case in his new article “Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America?” published in The Atlantic.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a shocking new story out of Yemen. The article is called “Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America?” and it’s written by Gregory Johnsen for The Atlantic magazine. In it, Johnsen writes that the United States was able to target an alleged al-Qaeda operative named Adnan al-Qadhi for an American drone strike after U.S. allies in Yemen convinced an eight-year-old boy to place a tracking chip in the pocket of a man he considered to be his surrogate father. Shortly after the child planted the device, a U.S. drone tracked and killed al-Qadhi with a missile.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Gregory Johnsen, author of a new book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. A former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, he’s a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton University.

Gregory Johnsen, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us this story.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. So this is—it’s a heartbreaking, it’s a tragic story, obviously, any time a little boy is used as a pawn between different sides. The drone war that’s been going on in Yemen is a very shadowy war. So this is a case where a little boy was living in this village. He was taken in by this individual, a man named Adnan al-Qadhi, who for a long time was a military officer in the Yemeni military. And at a certain point, the U.S. felt that this individual had become a leader in al-Qaeda, he was one of the imminent threats, the individuals that the U.S. wants to target and kill in Yemen. And so, allies in Yemen, apparently without the knowledge of the United States, convinced this little boy to plant a tracking chip on Adnan al-Qadhi. He was then killed, actually the day after President Obama won re-election last fall. So, on November 7, 2012, this particular individual, Adnan al-Qadhi, was targeted and killed by a drone strike.

And then the story goes on, and it gets even worse, because this little boy and his biological father, who helped convince him to plant the chip on his surrogate father, were then kidnapped by al-Qaeda. And we believe that his biological father was later executed. So this is a situation where the eight-year-old boy lost both his surrogate father and he lost his biological father. It’s tragic and heartbreaking.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there’s actually a jihadist video where both the father and the boy are—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —are heard confessing to what they had done?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Yeah, so there is a confession video that came out back in April in which al-Qaeda put together this sort of—it’s a propaganda video, and it has clips of both the boy and his father telling the story of what they claim to have done.

AMY GOODMAN: Who were the allies that got the little boy to plant this chip?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, this is Yemeni intelligence. This is the Republican Guard. These are the people that the U.S. works with on the ground. And the reason I think this is so important is because we often talk about drones as this amazing piece of technology, and we all know, from reporting that people like Jeremy Scahill and others have done, that the U.S. has been carrying out strikes in Yemen for the past three-and-a-half years, and drones are something that the U.S. continues to argue are this scalpel-like approach which we can go and get only the bad guys and no one else. The problem with that is that drones are a dependent piece of technology, which means they rely on intelligence from the ground. And the U.S. is very, very weak in human intelligence on the ground in places like Yemen, so they often rely on partners like Yemeni intelligence, like Saudi intelligence, and these groups don’t have the same moral and ethical framework that we often take for granted. And so, the U.S. is really getting into bed with some very questionable people here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the whole issue of Yemen’s track record in terms of using children in war, in combat?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. This is something that the State Department documents every year in its Trafficking in Persons Report. And, in fact, in 2008, Congress passed a law, the Child Soldier Prevention Act. And this has been—this is a law that’s been in effect since 2010. And basically what it says it that any country that the U.S. designates as using children in conflict, the U.S. cannot then provide military training, and they can’t provide military weapons. Now, this is something that impacts a lot of different countries, but President Obama, for the past three years, has signed—each and every year that the law has been in effect, he’s signed a waiver exempting Yemen from that. And Yemen is the only country in the world that’s received a waiver each and every year, a full waiver.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in essence, that waiver then allows Yemen to do something like they did in this case and employee an eight-year-old boy.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right, so there’s a little bit of willful ignorance going on. So the U.S. is aware that Yemen uses children in conflict, but Yemen is also very important for counterterrorism. And so, this is one of those issues where an ethical and a moral claim comes up against what the U.S. considers to be a security claim, and the U.S., on this side, has decided, “Well, we know Yemen does this, but we’ll sign a waiver, and we’ll continue to support them, because Yemen is such an important country in our fight against al-Qaeda, in our fight against terrorism.”

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, is only growing as the drone strikes grow.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. This is one barometer. It’s only one barometer of how strong it is, but the U.S. has been carrying out strikes since December of 2009. And in December 2009, this is, of course, when they put the underwear bomber on the plane bound for Detroit. He came very close to bringing down that airliner. At that point, the group was about 200 or 300 individuals. The U.S. has been bombing the three-and-a-half years since. Instead of the group getting smaller, like we’d think, the group has actually more than tripled in size. So it’s well over a thousand members today. And Senator Susan Collins, back when John Brennan was giving his confirmation hearing, Senator Collins asked Brennan what I think is really the important question. And she said, “Look, if al-Qaeda is growing, instead of getting smaller, shouldn’t we re-evaluate our approach to how it is that we’re fighting this group around the world?”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and it’s just—it’s not just in Yemen.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re having the same situation in Syria, increasingly again in Iraq, and now of course in Egypt. Now, the—I would be stunned if the current spate of violence in Egypt doesn’t end up creating many more jihadists who recognize that the United States is financing this slaughter by the Egyptian military.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. You look around the globe, you look in North Africa, you look in the Middle East, and it’s a very frightening situation right now. We just had prison breaks in Iraq. A number of trained jihadis got out of prison. This is like a shot in the arm to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Five hundred people escaped, and it was Abu Ghraib—


AMY GOODMAN: —the famous prison where the U.S. was involved with torture.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: And then we see what’s happening in Libya, with a prison break there, and in Pakistan. We see what’s happening today with the Day of Rage in Egypt. It’s a time where the Obama administration has claimed—and I think rightly—they’ve claimed that they’ve sort of disrupted and dismantled the organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but now the organization is much longer in Yemen, in Libya, in Iraq, in Syria. It’s a very worrying development.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the closing of the consulates, embassies, diplomatic posts throughout the Middle East. This was unprecedented—still in Yemen.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. I think what we have here is that the U.S. took this—the State Department said it took this step out of an abundance of caution. So what’s happened apparently is that U.S. intelligence analysts intercepted some electronic chatter between Ayman al-Zawahiri, who’s the head of al-Qaeda’s global network, and the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. But the problem is, is that intelligence analysts, they’re essentially trying to put together a puzzle, but they don’t know what the puzzle looks like.

AMY GOODMAN: Doesn’t that mean they know where they each are now?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: I don’t think—I don’t think that means that. I think what it means is that they have some indication that something might have been happening. So we saw, by how many embassies, how many consulates were closed, that the threat itself was very vague. And I think this is something that we’ll continue to live with, and particularly in the aftermath of Benghazi. The United States is really going to have to determine where it goes on the risk management versus risk aversion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your book is entitled The Last Refuge: Yemen…. Could you talk about the—Yemen’s role right now in the Arab world in terms of al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement, and especially after the—Yemen participated in the Arab Spring—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in the protest against the—Abdullah Saleh?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about its role now?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Yeah, absolutely. So, President Obama and most U.S. national security officials continue to say that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, this group that’s based, that’s headquartered in Yemen, they continue to be the most active and the most dangerous node of al-Qaeda. And I think they’re correct. This is an organization—we talked about them putting the bomb on the plane on Christmas Day. In 2010, they attempted to send cartridge bombs to the U.S. And in 2012, there was this underwear bomb 2.0, which, thankfully, they gave to an undercover agent who was working for Western and Saudi intelligence. But what we’ve seen is that in 2004, 2005—you know, one of the most frustrating things for me and, I think, for a lot of people is that, look, the U.S. has more money, the U.S. has more men, it has better technology, it has better weapons, and it’s self-evidently right in this war, and yet, in a place like Yemen, it appears to be losing on the ground. And that’s really, really frustrating. And I think that begs a number of interesting questions about how it is that the U.S. handles this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I don’t know if people realize the U.S. has launched 21 air strikes in Yemen, vast majority drones, displacing Pakistan as the epicenter of the covert air war—

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. What we’ve seen—

AMY GOODMAN: —so far this year.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Yeah. What we’ve seen just in the past two weeks, there have been nine or 10 strikes. And the U.S. says that they killed the four guys that they were looking for. The problem is, is that they also killed 33 other people, who we’re still struggling to identify. And that’s really important. Who are these individuals that the U.S. has killed? It’s great if you kill the guys that you’re going for. No one in Yemen is upset when a high-value target is killed. What they’re upset about are the women and the children and the tribesmen, the civilian casualties. And that’s really driving recruitment for al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregory Johnsen, thanks so much for your amazing book, The Last Refuge. We will link to it at democracynow.org.

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