As always, the latest “development” in the endless Omar Khadr saga provides few definitive answers. Here’s what we know for sure: Khadr’s official application for a prison transfer—from a cage at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to a cell in his home country—is now on the desk of Vic Toews, Stephen Harper’s public safety minister. And Toews has confirmed, as reluctantly as ever, that he will sign his name to the bottom of the page. At some point.
Beyond that, the future of Canada’s most (in)famous child soldier/homicidal jihadist remains as hazy as ever.
When will the minister actually pull out his pen? When will Khadr spend his final night at Gitmo? Which Canadian prison will become his next temporary home? Could he be eligible for parole the same day his plane touches down? And when the Toronto native is eventually set free (whether it’s five months from now or five years), where exactly will he go? Will Khadr run back into the arms of his notorious family and their fanatical sympathizers? Or will the feds ask a judge to impose special conditions on the convicted war criminal, limiting his movements and dictating his associates?
Anyone who has followed this epic case already knows the answers: only time—a concept Khadr understands better than most—will tell.
But with his homecoming closer than ever (dates and details to be determined), only one question really matters: is Omar Khadr a genuine threat to his fellow citizens? Is the 25-year-old a hardened terrorist bent on revenge after a decade behind bars? Or is he truly the victim of unprecedented circumstance, desperate for a second chance and a life of anonymity? Both in court and through his lawyers, Khadr himself has repeatedly insisted that Canadians have nothing to fear. Soon, it will be time to prove it.
“He feels he has been misrepresented and mis-characterized; in fact, he is very worried about that,” says Stephen Xenakis, a Virginia-based psychiatrist who has spent hundreds of hours talking to Khadr. “Almost anyone who has had a personal encounter with him, including the guards at Guantánamo, really appreciates that this is a sensitive, caring, very considerate individual. And I don’t think people should be afraid at all. He is absolutely not a threat. It is almost irresponsible for anyone to have regarded him as a threat.”
Irresponsible? That may be a stretch. Khadr, of course, is the loyal son of the late Ahmed Said Khadr, al-Qaeda’s senior man in Canada and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden. He was just 15 in 2002 when his dad dispatched him to the front lines of the Afghan war, where he was shot and captured in a firefight with U.S. forces—after admittedly tossing a grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, a decorated army medic. Eighteen months ago, Khadr pleaded guilty to five charges, including murder, in exchange for an eight-year sentence and a promise that he could serve his time in Canada. In his own statement of facts, the cornerstone of his plea, Khadr admitted to being a loyal member of al-Qaeda obsessed with killing Americans “anywhere they can be found,” and that the “proudest moment of his life” was when he planted improvised explosive devices aimed at coalition boots.
Yet at the very same hearing, he apologized to Speer’s widow and read a moving statement to the jury. “You’re not going to gain anything with hate,” he said. “I came to a conclusion that love and forgiveness are more constructive and will bring people together.”
Does Khadr deserve forgiveness? Despite everything, is it possible for him to return to Canada and lead a low-key, crime-free life? “It sounds like such a cliché, but he really is committed to building a life for himself and is desperately looking to regain all those years that have been lost,” says John Norris, the latest in a long line of Khadr defence lawyers. “He is an intelligent, warm, engaging young man, and I think the image of him that has been perpetuated by some is quite wrong. He does not pose a threat. I truly believe that.”
Khadr’s own actions speak for themselves. (In one video clip, recorded before his capture, the teenager can be seen happily wiring together land mines and grinning for the camera.) But his lingering image as an imminent threat to national security has as much to do with his dysfunctional family, if not more. His father, killed in a 2003 shootout with Pakistani authorities, was eulogized as a martyr. His younger brother Kareem was paralyzed in the same battle, triggering a media circus when he flew home to Ontario for treatment. Another brother, Abdullah, was an alleged al-Qaeda gun smuggler wanted in the U.S., while his sister Zaynab famously told a television interviewer that she wished she had “the guts” to be a suicide bomber.
“He has to have contact with his family after all these years, that’s a given,” Xenakis says. “But he also understands that he has to find a way to go on and have an independent life. He understands that he has to reach out past his family.”
That will be easier said than done, as even Xenakis concedes, especially when Khadr comes face to face with the full extent of his celebrity—and a new world of Facebook and camera phones and Google (where a search of his name generates 708,000 hits). “This transition could be a real shock,” he admits. “But I don’t think he ever was this ‘committed jihadist,’ so I don’t think the word relapse would apply to him. He is not a violent person and never was a violent person.”
One thing is certain: whatever Khadr does on Canadian soil, someone—his harshest critics or his closest supporters—will have misjudged him.