Did a 13-year-old boy join Al-Qaeda?

Published on 29 January 2015 in Report
Ahlam Mohsen (author), Amal Al -Yarisi (author)

Ahlam Mohsen


Amal Al -Yarisi


In a dusty desert of Marib, a three-year-old child raises his fist to the sky and vows revenge for the death of his father and brother in a US drone strike.

"I'm going to fight them. I'm going to kill them. Just let me get bigger."

The Yemen Times visited the boy and his 25 siblings in late November 2014. On Monday, the child lost another brother, age 13, to a US drone strike.

The drone was operated by the CIA, American officials told The New York Times. The strike hit a vehicle in Wadi Harib, Marib, on Monday—ending any doubts that the US would continue counterterror operations after the resignation of Yemen’s pro-drone president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.

The strike killed two Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members, but also a teenage boy.

Mohammed Saleh Duaayman was 13 years old and in the sixth grade, according to his brother Mukhdad.  He was the third person in his family killed by a US drone. His father Saleh Duaayman and 17-year-old brother, Gallal, were killed in October 2011 while searching for a camel that had strayed from the family’s farm. A second brother, age 14, survived to give details of that initial strike.

An AQAP source told the Yemen Times on condition of anonymity that all three individuals killed on Monday were members of AQAP. But what does it mean for a barely pubescent boy to be a member of Al-Qaeda?

Since the killing of their father—the family's only breadwinner—his daughter told the Yemen Times in November that Al-Qaeda has financially supported the family, buying them food and school clothes, even pens and notebooks so the children can continue schooling. When money was tight for AQAP, she said they would leave a weapon on the family's property that they could sell to buy food.

"Who takes care of us? Al-Qaeda takes care of us now. It knows my father was killed because of them, so it takes care of the household. Not only that, they ask after us, ask us what we need, how we are. The government killed our father and gave us nothing. Twenty-six children, and they've never even asked how we're doing," Saleh's daughter Noor* said. 

The October 2011 strike was intended for AQAP militants that were on the mountains overlooking the valley where Saleh and his two teenage sons had laid their heads for the evening, after a tiring two days of searching for the camel.

"He herded the camel, but it was not ours," Noor said.

The surviving son of the October 2011 drone strike, Ezzadine, 14, had accompanied his father and brother on that search. The father jumped up when he saw a green light from the sky, Noor said. He woke his sons up, and told them to run. Ezzadine hid under a number of large rocks, while his father and brother kept running. He remained hidden from 9 p.m. until sunrise the next morning, when he heard the voices of men who had come to collect the bodies.

Noor told the Yemen Times that her father had fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan until returning to Yemen in 2001. When he returned, he cut a deal with the state, agreeing to forego any relations with Al-Qaeda and avoiding prosecution in return. She said security officials arranged for Saleh to receive a monthly salary of YR100,000 (about $500) from the state.

Repeated phone calls to numerous former and current security officials for the terms of that deal were not returned.  

"He left his old life behind," Noor said.

He also took on a number of odd jobs to support his large family of four wives and, at the time, 27 children—13 boys and 14 girls—including buying and selling used cars and herding sheep and camels.

"At the very least, they should have left the salary, so we could eat off it. Imagine, we have only Al-Qaeda to give the children new clothes for the Eid holiday," Noor added.

An Al-Qaeda source told the Yemen Times that Saleh was not part of Al-Qaeda following his return from Afghanistan, but did cooperate with the group, which included hosting AQAP operatives from time to time.

Was Mohammed Duaayman an AQAP member?

Mohammed's family emphatically deny that he was a member of Al-Qaeda. Their home is covered in Al-Qaeda flags, but his brother Mukhdad and sister Noor distinguished between appreciation for the group that has kept them fed and being part of that group.

However, an Al-Qaeda source told the Yemen Times that Mohammed was a member of the group. When pushed, he distinguished between operational members of Al-Qaeda and people who support the group—who he still defined as part of Al-Qaeda.

Was Mohammed an Al-Qaeda operative?

"Be logical," the AQAP source said, "how can a 12-year-old [sic] be a member of Al-Qaeda? Our aim was to convince him to join us in the future, especially considering that his father was killed in a drone strike."

The source said that new recruits usually receive training before becoming operatives, but that Al-Qaeda has a minimum age for these trainings.

"It's true that we recruit children but we don't train them and they're not operatives until they are at least 15," the source said.   

If Mohammed was not an Al-Qaeda operative, was he still an AQAP 'member'? The answer lies in how one defines membership.

Are you Al-Qaeda if you voice support for Al-Qaeda? Or does being an Al-Qaeda member necessitate some sort of material assistance to the group or willingness to plan or carry out attacks? Does receiving support from Al-Qaeda make you a part of the group? Can sixth graders be Al-Qaeda?

Both AQAP and the US government have an interest in accepting this first, broad definition of who is Al-Qaeda.

In fact, the Obama administration considers "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants," several administration officials told The New York Times in June 2012, "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."

Every military-age male in Mohammed's village is considered a combatant until they are dead and proven innocent. Difficult to do when neither the US nor Yemen conducts investigations into civilian deaths following the strikes.

In a speech before the National Defense University in May 2013, President Obama told the audience that, "America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat."

Were the Americans and the Yemenis unable to question or detain Mohammed, whose school and home locations are both well-known? And what classifies someone as a "continuing and imminent threat'?

Obama administration's lack of transparency

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the US has been carrying out "deliberate and premeditated killings of suspected terrorists overseas," since 2002, and routinely since 2009. These killings are part of a broader program of "targeted killings" by the US outside the context of armed conflict, the civil rights group said.

The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) challenged the government's targeted killing of three US citizens—including Anwar Al-Aulaqi—in drone strikes through a lawsuit filed in 2012. An earlier lawsuit filed by the ACLU and CCR challenged the placing of Al-Aulaqi on a government 'kill list', arguing that there was a lack of transparency over what qualified Al-Aulaqi as an imminent threat against the US.

"The program is based on vague legal standards, a closed executive decision-making process, and evidence never presented to the courts, even after the killing," according to the ACLU.  

The government moved to dismiss the 2012 lawsuit, arguing that there is no role for the courts to play in determining the legality of the killings of three American citizens. The case was dismissed in April 2014.

The 2010 case challenging the placement of Al-Aulaqi on the government hit list was also dismissed. A federal court ruled that Al-Aulaqi's father had no standing to bring the suit and that the request for judicial review raised "political questions" that could not be decided by the court.  

Anger in Marib

Mohammed's brother Mukhdad told the Yemen Times that 30 vehicles filled with Al-Duaayman tribesmen from around the governorate gathered in Wadi Harib Tuesday to demand answers from the Yemeni government regarding the 13-year-old's death.

If the government, which resigned last week, does not respond and offer an apology and settlement, Mohammed's tribe said it will blow-up government property in Marib, including gas and oil pipelines.

The bodies of Mohammed and the two men were so badly burned in the strike that villagers were not able to collect their charred remains. What was left of Mohammed, now scattered with the remains of the two AQAP operatives, was buried at the site of the strike.

"The government has to make sure people are Al-Qaeda," said Noor in November, referring to the strike that killed her father and another brother in 2011. "They should arrest them, try them, and if they're guilty, fine, kill them."

The day before the Yemen Times' visit, a drone hovered over the family's home, showering it with green light, she said.

"This house is full of women and children. Is it okay to kill all these children?" she asked, pointing to a group of five or six children, no one over the age of seven.

What if one of those children expresses support for Al-Qaeda? Mohammed did. But do children have enough agency to be Al-Qaeda operatives?

AQAP doesn't think so. The US embassy in Yemen did not respond to requests for comment.


*Not her real name

*An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to a 2012 drone strike that killed Mohammed's father and brother. The drone strike occurred in 2011.  

Ali Ibrahim Al-Moshki contributed to this report.