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.