The complicated case of Omar Khadr

Bringing Khadr home was the right thing, but let’s not rush the process of integration

The complicated case of Omar Khadr

Photograph by Blair Gable

Canadian citizen, convicted terrorist and diplomatic conundrum Omar Khadr is back home. Flown in on an American military transport early Saturday morning, Khadr’s first appearance in his birth country since 2001 seemed to come rather suddenly, particularly given the protracted political and legal debates over his capture, incarceration and repatriation. What brought things to a head so quickly? And was the right decision made?

It seems Maclean’s played a key role in the timing of Khadr’s return. Two weeks ago Senior Writer Michael Friscolanti unveiled important new information on this polarizing file when he obtained the transcript of a seven-hour interview from 2010 between Khadr and forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Friscolanti’s cover story (“The secret Khadr file,” National, Oct. 1) revealed for the first time the contents of this much-discussed but never-seen video footage.

News of our exclusive story immediately put the heat on long-standing diplomatic discussions to bring Khadr home. According to the Toronto Star, our access to the secret U.S. military document was considered a serious “breach of trust” by the Obama White House and forced Canada’s hand. CTV National News similarly identified our cover story as the accelerant in convincing Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to agree to accept Khadr, something Ottawa said it would “favourably consider” more than two years ago.

Regardless of our role in pushing Ottawa to make a decision, however, the more significant aspect of Friscolanti’s work comes in providing readers with an uncensored look at Khadr’s mental state, his feelings toward Canada and his commitment to terrorism. For the first time, Canadians are able to judge Khadr by his own words.

What emerges from the transcript is a complicated and often-contradictory individual. Khadr maintains a maddening sense of obfuscation about his actions on July 27, 2002, when, at age 15 at an al-Qaeda compound in Afghanistan, he threw the hand grenade that killed U.S. military medic Sgt. Christopher Speer. “Nobody trusts me, and they don’t trust me because of something I didn’t do or I was made to do,” he said. So which is it? Certainly he seems convinced nothing is his fault. “I’ve been a victim from the beginning,” he claims. Of even greater concern, Khadr continues to defend his father, known terrorist and al-Qaeda financier Ahmed Said Khadr.

On the other hand, Khadr talks convincingly of his desire to return to Canada. “It is a country I can call home,” he says, choosing it over other places he’d lived, such as Afghanistan or Pakistan. He claims to renounce war and terrorism and appears sensitive to his lack of human contact while in detention. He also used his address in court during sentencing to apologize to Sgt. Speer’s family.

Despite certain ambiguities of character, Canada was right to repatriate Khadr. He was the last of the Guantánamo detainees who had citizenship in a Western nation. Australian al-Qaeda member David Hicks, for example, was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and promptly sent back home after his conviction in 2007. Further, whatever you may think of Khadr—and his fanatical family—Guantánamo Bay is equally abhorrent. Khadr was still a teenager, locked away for two years, before he was even able to speak to a lawyer. And he has always been a Canadian citizen, with all rights therein. Both duty and tradition argue in favour of bringing Khadr to Canada.

With the matter of his homecoming now resolved, the bigger issue lies in ensuring that Khadr integrates successfully into Canadian life. Judging from his interview with Welner, as well as the activities and statements of his family while he’s been gone, this will be no easy task.

Khadr’s sentence runs until 2018 but he will be eligible for parole as early as this coming May. Toews has gone to pains to remind everyone this decision will be made by an independent parole board, as it should be. And yet the minister has publicly observed “the serious nature of the crimes that he has committed” and his fear Khadr’s time at Guantánamo Bay may have radicalized him further. “If parole is granted,” Toews explained in a statement announcing his return, it should be with “the imposition of robust conditions of supervision.”

Considering the secret video footage alongside the rest of the evidence, such caution seems entirely reasonable. Omar Khadr will eventually become a full, and hopefully productive and peaceful, member of Canadian society. But that doesn’t mean it’s in society’s best interest to rush the process. It has taken 10 years to bring him home. It could take a few more years to make sure he fits in properly.


The complicated case of Omar Khadr

  1. This article repeats as facts, several notions for which I suggest no evidence has been made public. For instance, the article calls Omar Khadr’s father, Ahmed Said Khadr, a “known terrorist and al-Qaeda financier”.

    The notion that Khadr senior had been “an al-Qaeda financier” has been a constant refrain of torture apologists, but no evidence to substantiate this notion has ever been made public. On the contrary, there are reasons to believe Khadr senior would never have been allowed in to al Qaeda.

    Neither al Qaeda or the Taliban approved of education for women or girls. Yet Khadr not only sent his daughters to school, but the schools attached to the orphanages he ran provided schooling for both girls and boys.

    Al Qaeda was heavily funded by conservative oil-rich Saudi princes, and other oil-rich Arabs from Gulf. What the public record shows is that Osama bin Laden was bitter towards rivals which sought funding from the same sponsors he counted on — even of organizations devoted to legitimate charitable projects. If Osama bin Laden was friendly towards Khadr senior I suggest this reflects that Khadr senior modest charity received its modest funding from ordinary Canadians. So Khadr senior was not a rival.

    I have followed the information made public about the Khadr family for the last eight years, and I have never seen one scrap of genuine evidence to back up the claim Ahmed Said Khadr ever gave one red cent to al Qaeda.

    Unless some evidence is made public that backs up this notion I would strongly urge all serious reporters to make clear this notion is an unsubstantiated claim, not an established fact.

    • Yeah o.k. Arab immigrant.You have more to say to a C.S.IS.Agent?.Yeah
      shut up or get out.

      • Thanks for your interest in my family history. I am sorry to tell you your guess is completely wrong. I was born in Canada, and my parents, grandparents, greatgrandparents, etc, are all of British ethnic stock.

        Yes, I place my judgment, based on information that is actually available to the public, above unsubstantiated innuendo. I place my judgment, based on information available to the public, above rumors and innuendo, without regard to whether the source of the innuendo is a counter-security official, a columnist or reporter, or just some random person online.

        If you think you can point to a genuine reliable report that offered a reason to accept the assertion that Omar Khadr’s father Ahmed Said Khadr had ever given one red cent to al Qaeda, please, by all means, share that with us.

        But, to those interested in an open-minded discussion, I think you will find that merely attacking whether those who disagree with you have a right to express themselves, won’t be found convincing.

        I think you will find that most people in Canada, and the USA, western Europe, and much of the rest of the world, for what it is worth, believe in freedom of expression and open-minded discussion of issues.

  2. FWIW this reader is very impressed with this Macleans scoop. Good old fashioned journalism that made a difference. Keep it up!

  3. You find it “of concern” that Omar Khadr characterizes himself as “a victim”. It appears you want him to be sorry, to show proper remorse for his actions, and you want to find the evidence of that remorse in this document. But keep in mind what this document really is and what you are asking here. If this were an uncomplicated murder story and the murderer, after serving eleven years in our prison system for their crime, did not show “remorse,” this might worry me too. But this is not an uncomplicated murder trial, and Omar Khadr did not spend those eleven years in our prison system. He has been held without trial, denied his habeus corpus rights for three years, subjected to inhuman treatment and torture, his rights as a citizen betrayed by his own government, his rights as a minor betrayed by two Western governments, and subjected to a “court” system that does not allow due process and exists for the purpose of making use of unpermissable evidence. Most of all he has been in a legal black hole with no rights and no assurance that it will ever end. Furthermore, you are looking for this remorse in an interview with a psychologist whose job is not to help the client but to characterize him as benefits the prosecution. It is also a psychologist who has been derided for basing his findings in large part on the theories of a xenophobe (a Danish writer who has made some alarmingly racist assertions about genetics).

    Omar Khadr is accurate in calling himself a victim. I would not call into question his character because he does not appear “sorry enough,” especially when you are looking for evidence of this remorse in an interview with a professional who is, in his own words, “not there to help him.” There is a dangerous line between wanting him to show remorse for killing someone, and wanting him to take responsibility for the things that have happened as a result of that: his incarceration at Guantanamo, abuse and denials of rights. Those are things that he is not responsible for and which he should not be asked to legitimize. So to me, calling himself a victim is accurate and if it suggests anything about his character, it perhaps shows that he has a healthy sense of what is right and wrong. It could also suggest that he has not internalized the blame for his own mistreatment, seeming to show tenacity as well as an accurate analysis of his situation.

    As for the “maddening sense of obfuscation” about the firefight in which he was captured: keep in mind the circumstances around his plea deal, and again who he is talking to. He pled guilty after maintaining his innocence for ten years –in all accounts, because it offered the most hope of ever getting out of Guantanamo and avoiding a forty-year sentence. This after quite a bit of evidence calling into question the official story of that firefight had come to light in the press (photographs of him under a pile of rubble in no position to be throwing things, and an earlier version of the document detailing the fight which mentioned someone else alive at the end of it, details that had later been deleted). Whether he is in fact guilty or not is somewhat of a moot point legally as he has admitted to it, but on the other hand he admitted to it in a court that allowed evidence obtained under torture and did not allow due process. Why might the lawyers for the prosecution have wanted him to plead guilty? Perhaps because it makes the whole process appear more legitimate, and that appears, which his stubborn but necessarily vague remarks about his own innocence, to be what he does not want to do. And I don’t blame him.

    So be careful with drawing conclusions about remorse of lack thereof in a document like this without thinking about how complicated this document really is.

    • The first Chief Prosecutor in Guantanamo was a Colonel Frederick Borch. We wouldn’t know about his moral short-comings, if it weren’t for some leaked memos. Other prosecutors serving under Borch went over his head with requests for reassignment. The requests for reassignment of three prosecutors who quit documented several highly questionable promises Borch made.

      Borch claimed (1) prosecutors wouldn’t have to work hard because the jury members would be hand-picked so they would be sure to convict; (2) the defence counsel would not be given access to the exculpatory evidence — the evidence that supported the suspects’ innocence — it would either be shredded, or classified at a secrecy level too high for it to be given to the defense counsel.

      These prosecutors requested reassignment in 2004. Australian newspapers published the leaked memos in 2005. At that point those three junior prosecutors had been reassigned, and they had all been promoted. Borch, on the other hand, had resigned, not just from the Office of Military Commissions — but from the US military.

      The US military has a long tradition of hushing up scandals and allowing to resign with an honorable discharge. Borch’s boss offered a typical incredible denial that there was anything unusual about Borch’s resignation, or that it had anything to do with the memos that documented his promises.

      Here is the most alarming part. You will never guess where the just resigned former Colonel Borch found his first civilian jog. Did you guess he was rehired by the Office of Military Commissions, as a civilian? Yup.

      What did Borch really deserve. I think his documented attempts to subvert justice merited at least a dishonorable discharge. I am not a lawyer, but I don’t understand why he didn’t face charges. I think the whole world would be safer if a clear message had been sent to any other prosecutors who considered corrupting the evidence, if the military had landed hard on Borch, and, following his conviction, he had served actual jail time in Leavenworth.

      Honorable men and women were called upon to serve as prosecutors in Guantanamo. One of most honorable was Darrel Vandeveld, or Erie Pennsylvania. One of the suspects he was to prosecute was another minor, Mohammed Jawad, who was also charged with playing a role in a grenade attack in December 2002. Vandeveld found the case files a mess. As he tried to sort them out his original enthusiasm for prosecuting Jawad waned, when he realized that Jawad was just a child, like Omar Khadr, and, that he too had been tortured.

      When Vandeveld argued that a plea bargain that sent Jawad back to Afghanistan, to a parole, where his education would be monitored, and paid for, by the USA, his superiors forced him to undergo a psychiatric examination. No, I am not making this up.

      The Presiding Officers in the Guantanamo commission system — the judges — are also a mixed bag. The very first judge was a recently retired Colonel Brownback. He was challenged over his friendship with the recently retired General who was originally in charge of the Office of Military Commission. But he later proved his independence — and he was fired for it.

      • Colonel Morris Davis, another of Khadr’s prosecutors was a big promoter of the military commission system, originally. Later he resigned, became a critic of the system, and also of Omar Khadr’s treatment. I recall he said that if a foreign country treated an American the way the US treated Khadr, he hoped Americans would object. I think they would, whether they liked the person or not, because it would be a matter of national pride.

        Canada used to be the only country among democracies, and some others, that didn’t request its detainee from Gtmo. Some accepted citizens of other countries who couldn’t go home because of some issue.

        I bet Canada is alone among the countries of the world that balked at taking its own citizen back when asked. I’m sure we’d hear because it would sound weird, especially when it’s only one guy prosecuted for fighting in the war at age 15. Does this make him the “worst of the worst of the worst”, as Rumsfeld would say out of all the Guantanamo detainees? I guess Ezra Levant and Dr. Welner would say so.

  4. Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen. But, he fought against our country and our allies and killed US army medic Sgt. Christopher Speer. He is a traitor and must be charged with treason. End of story. I am fed up with the pandering of our left-wing pacifists to save those who wish to destroy us. WAKE UP.

    • Please don’t confuse things my referring to Sergeant Speer as a “medic”. To most readers that means he was a noncombatant. But the US military only sends “combat medics” into the field now. So Sergeant Speer was a highly trained special forces soldier first, and an emergency frontline medical technician a long way second.

      Second, please remember that, under the Guantanamo system, Khadr’s guilty plea should not be interpreted as confirming that he actually committed the acts he plead guilty to. In a court system where a suspect can count on a fair trial it is only in the interest of genuinely guilty suspects to agree to a plea bargain. When an innocent suspect can look forward to a fair trial it is in their interest to hold firm to their plea of innocence.

      However, under the Guantanamo system, the USA has asserted they can continue to hold individual indefinitely, potentially for the rest of their lives, even if they stand trial, and are acquitted on all charges. When an innocent man can face life imprisonment, if he insists on his innocence, but can look forward to a definite eventual release date, if he pleads guilty, who wouldn’t plead guilty.

      Even if his lawyers were confident that he would be acquitted on all charges, and even if they were confident they could argue he should be set free, once acquitted, Khadr might decide that this would take longer than serving out the eight year sentence the prosecution offered him.

      If Canada thought he could be charged, and convicted of being a traitor, they should have pushed the USA to return him to face that charge back in 2003. I suggest that didn’t happen because the charge wouldn’t stick.

  5. This article seems well-done and balanced. Of course, he will one day be a free man, but so far, I like the cautiously optimistic tone: don’t demonize him just for kicks, but don’t be naive enough to think he’s a completely innocent guy. His knowledge and the ideas of his closest friends and relatives for the last 15 years are not something to ignore. He has it in him to be a danger to Canada, yet, if what he says of his desire for a peaceful reintegration are the honest truth, we should be encouraging that side of him so he becomes an asset to our country. Therefore, a well-thought-out and systematic reintegration and rehabilitation seems the best course of action. Great article.

    • You write “don’t be naive enough to think he’s a completely innocent guy” — and you then speak about his friends and relatives.

      But you don’t see him as somehow being responsible for the things his friends and relatives have said or done, do you?

      I think his family has also been demonized. Terry Hicks, the father of David Hicks, the “Australian Taliban”, chose the right message. When talking about his son he stuck to one message — (paraphrasing from memory) “I won’t say my son was always an angel, when he was growing up in Australia, and I don’t know exactly what he did since he left, all I ask is that he be given a fair trial.” I think it would have been far better for Omar if his mother and sister had taken a similar line, rather than trying to justify actions they were told Omar committed, when they really had no idea if he shot at or killed any Americans. He may not have actually taken part in that firefight — so why try to defend that?

      Canada will not issue new passports to Omar’s mother and sister. If I recall correctly, the official justification, or part of the official justification, was that they had reported too many lost passports, and officials said they suspected they had provided the supposedly “lost” passports to forgers.

      But Canada also won’t issue a new passport to Abdurahman — the brother who fully cooperated with the CIA. That seems like a mistake. Abdurahman took a big risk in cooperating with the CIA. And I think it would be best to set an example and visibly reward that cooperation. If he had informed on the Mafia I think he would be eligible for a new identity and generous relocation help, through a witness protection program.

      I think it is easy for us here in the west to forget the incredible seductive power of the products of western culture. Music videos, video games, Hollywood movies. Even though he spent only a few years actually living in Canada, supplemented by visits to Canada, Omar says he thinks of himself as a Canadian. Imagine you are a kid, who has been exposed to the incredibly seductive products of western culture, living in a poverty-stricken country where you had almost no intellectual stimulation. Most likely, every time you found yourself feeling bored, wouldn’t you think fondly of your real home, back in Canada?

      I find it completely credible that someone like Khadr, or his brothers, could see Canada as their real home, even if the spent only a small portion of their life here, due to the poverty of intellectual stimulation in Afghanistan.

      The USA had an obligation, as a signatory to various international agreements, to hold Omar and all the other captives who were captured as minors, in separate facilities to the adult captives. It was obliged to provide schooling to the minors, and to try to rehabilitate them, so they could re-enter the mainstream of their societies. In fact camp authorities did maintain a separate camp, Camp Iguana, where three youths were held separately, in more humane conditions. These three boys, who were illiterate when they arrived, were provided with schooling. Their compound had an exercise yard large enough for them to play soccer with their guards, who they were allowed to address by their first name. They were rewarded by being allowed to watch TV or play video games on a big flat screen TV. When the adult captives had one brief shower scheduled per week the boys were allowed to take two showers per day. They had access to a fridge, stocked with fresh fruit snacks.

      Some commentators compared the conditions in Camp Iguana with that of a traditional boarding school. Those three boys actually liked their guards. When they got home all three of their fathers independently said that the year of schooling the boys had been provided with meant that they had returned as “educated men”.

      Omar wasn’t provided with any schooling. He is said to have memorized the entire Koran, while in Guantanamo. While this is remarkable, and admired, there were half a dozen or dozen other captives in Guantanamo who had memorized the entire Koran.

      The prosecution’s psychiatrist, Michael Welner, claimed Khadr’s memorization of the Koran was a sign of radicalization, and showed what a danger he represented. But, if the USA had complied with its international obligations, and he had been held in the compound for underage captives, provided with further schooling, schoolbooks, and that form of intellectual stimulation; if he had been reward, by being allowed to watch movies, and play video games, and that form of intellectual stimulation, how much temptation do you think memorizing the Koran would have held for him?

      • In some ways, Welner’s report shows Khadr may not be all that bad. After all Welner spent months looking through 8 years of interrogation and prison records, and talked to him for 8 hours, trying find anything that would make him look bad. Some of what he comes up with sounds similar to the statements to interrogators from years ago after he just arrived, that they used to incriminate him in the first place. If you were proving a person to be a dangerous terrorist would you criticize him for things like reading Harry Potter and not sharing a toy? It sounds absurd. He noted Khadr’s good qualities but said he would use them to inspire Jihad. He couldn’t win with this guy.

        I don’t have any idea what Khadr’s state of mind is but there’s so much BS going on, it’s hard to believe he’ll be assessed fairly. He’s already been demonized by the Government. I saw Jason Kenny praising Ezra Levant’s book, a wild, almost hysterical attack on Khadr, going after General D’Allaire for supporting the child soldier law. Toews accused him of even more crimes than the US in the transfer document, everything that happened in the fire fight, and his whole transfer ploy seemed to come straight out of Ezra’s book. Harper personally declared he wasn’t qualified under the child soldier law, which isn’t true.

  6. Good for Macleans for helping to push the government to live up to its agreement.

    Letter to the New York Times from Dr. Stephen Xenakis, psychiatrist for the Defense, retired brigadier general, US military. He writes about the Canadian government accepting the opinions of the Prosecution’s psychiatrist and ignoring his. He spent hundreds of hours with Khadr. The Prosecution’s psychiatrist spent 8.

    “Is Omar Khadr a threat to national security? These questions, and the
    way his case has been handled, reveal a great deal about the way we
    approach national security and detainees. Some of the Guantánamo
    detainees, as we know, are dangerous men. Others, like Omar Khadr, are
    emphatically not.”

    “Surprisingly, the Canadians never contacted my colleague or me to
    discuss our reports to the Canadian minister of public safety. We sent
    these reports in March 2011 and disagreed with the findings of the
    prosecution’s experts. One would think that an objective assessment of
    an individual’s threat to security would entail gathering all expert
    opinions and analyzing them before making a decision.

    That’s not what happened here, which leads me to believe that the
    questions over Mr. Khadr’s threat to Canadian security are more about
    partisan politics then actually protecting the safety of the country’s

    Politics or sheer vindictiveness. And this is the government that says decisions related to Khadr wont be influenced by politics. Who could possibly believe that? They have gone out of their way to add to the hostility toward Khadr that already existed, and not for security reasons.


    • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept repeating the assertion that Canada should not try to use diplomatic pressure on Omar Khadr’s behalf because “he faced serious charges”.

      This is a strange position to take, as whether a country’s diplomats try to intervene on a citizen’s behalf should have nothing to do with the seriousness of the charges. Rather, diplomats should only intervene when (1) they have reasons to be concerned that their citizen faced a danger of abuse in custody; and/or (2) they have reasons to be concerned that their citizen did not face a fair trial.

      Other Canadians have faced murder charges in the USA. Lots of other Canadians have faced lesser charges in the USA. We almost never hear of Canadian diplomats trying to use diplomatic pressure on behalf of Canadians charged with murder, who are in US custody, but not because their charges were “serious”. Rather, our diplomats haven’t tried to intervene because they had no reason to suspect those Canadians wouldn’t face a fair trial.

      Frankly, I can’t believe Prime Minister Harper was unaware that he was using extremely misleading argument. No fair minded person who really looked into the Guantanamo military commissions could deny Khadr did not face a fair trial.

  7. That’s the part that I cannot understand. If we’d brought him home as early as possible, we’d have had more time to “unradicalize” him before we had, by rule of law, to let him go free. I’m not talking about parole which of course we can deny. I’m talking about having a respect for humanity (something I understand is occasionally in short supply at Guantanamo) and allowing him a normal, non-terrorist Immam to help guide his faith.

    • That would have been logical. I also don’t think anybody else with any firsthand knowledge except one of the Prosecution’s psychiatrists claimed he was radicalized in the first place. As I recall, he claimed Khadr fooled everybody but him, for 8 years in a prison.

      This man testified for hours about his interview and his report on Khadr at the trial right after the government signed the transfer agreement with the US two years ago. Trial transcripts are posted at the Military Commissions website. He spoke to reporters about it. There was a media controversy about it because of his opinions, and the fact that his credibility was challenged by the Defense because he consulted about the case with a man known for extremely negative statements about Muslims in general, referring to genetic issues and the like.

      He dismissed those as “political opinions” and said the man’s work on Muslim criminal offenders in Denmark was valid anyway. What they would have to do with Omar Khadr is anybody’s guess. Imagine if Khadr was Jewish. Would the government place all this confidence in a person who relied for advice on the case on a person known for antisemitic comments? I don’t think so.

      The government waited until just recently to demand this person’s report and transcript of his interview with Khadr, claiming they never heard of it before, when everybody who was following the case heard about it. Parts of the transcript were even posted on the Military Commissions website. Ezra Levant wrote a book about it, and posted a copy of the psychiatrist’s report on his website.

      This man talked to Khadr for 8 hours and spent the rest of the time going through 8 years of prison and interrogation records looking for anything he could use against Khadr. If the Harper government really cared about security when they signed that agreement, two years ago, they would have asked to have their own people review the prison records and interview Khadr themselves. They couldn’t be bothered.

      • Welner is a professional witness, who ALWAYS testifies for the prosecution. He was paid $500,0000 for his testimony that Khadr had been radicalized.

        $500,000? Mind you he was not billing for just the eight hour he actually spent examining Khadr. Rather he billed for hundreds of hours he spent “consulting” with the prosecution.

  8. Citizen or not, many people would like to permanently imprison the broken, defective, or damaged and dangerous amongst us in penal colonies under heavy armed guard and monitoring, kind of like the former Soviet Union, China, Pinochet Chile, or others. Reform and integration takes too much time and resources or it is not a sure thing. It is easier to just get rid of the unwanted and burdensome. Hard is strong and soft is weak. We have become to slack and mushy soft. We have lost our balls and guts.

  9. No one has proof he did anything. He’s innocent. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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