Inside the mind of Omar Khadr

‘I hope that people get a chance to know the new me,’ former Guantanamo inmate says in new psych report.

Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr told a prison psychologist earlier this year that he accepts responsibility for the grenade attack that killed a U.S. soldier in 2002, that he renounces the violent al-Qaeda ideology embraced by his late father, and that he’s anxious for fellow Canadians to “get a chance to know the new me.” He also said he blames himself for the 13 years he’s languished behind bars (“I got myself into this s—,” he said) but holds out hope people will judge him on the man he is today, not the naïve, uneducated teenager he was.

“I’ve screwed up in the past and I’m worried it will haunt me,” Khadr told the psychologist, Nhan Lau, during a lengthy interview on Feb. 20. “People will think I’m the same person as I was 12 or 13 years ago. … However, if I carry myself with dignity and respect, people will respect me.”

Filed in the Alberta Court of Appeal as part of Khadr’s much-publicized bail application, the psychologist’s report provides the clearest glimpse yet of his current mindset—one day before the province’s high court will decide if the former Guantanamo Bay inmate, now 28, should be set free with conditions. “I can’t afford to be bitter,” he said. “I did something bad and I’m here for a reason. The only way to survive is to have hope.”

By now, Khadr’s epic legal saga is a familiar, polarizing story. But the newly disclosed interview is a public rarity: the prisoner in his own, unscripted words. And while many believe Khadr remains a hardened jihadist and imminent threat, his latest remarks may change some minds. “If I could do things differently, I probably would have challenged my father more,” he told Lau, an employee at Bowden Institution, Khadr’s current home. “I don’t think I could have said no to him but I would have tried. I could have challenged him and asked him why he was involved. I would have moved or taken a different path.”

Born in Toronto on Sept. 19, 1986, Khadr is the son of Ahmed Said Khadr, an Egyptian immigrant believed to be Canada’s top al-Qaeda operative until his death in 2003. Shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a child, Omar said he recalls his dad meeting with Osama bin Laden and other senior members of his terrorist network. “I remember travelling with my father to visit these training camps, military training camps,” he said. “I was around people and I saw and heard things. I thought it was cool.” In time, young Omar attended the camps, as did his brothers. “I was exposed to the front line and saw a few skirmishes, bullets flying back and forth,” he told the psychologist.

After 9/11, the Khadr family scattered. Omar moved to Logar province, then Gardez, where a house near theirs was annihilated by U.S. fighter jets. “The house that was bombed was the one we were intended to stay in,” he said. “But through some divine intervention, we didn’t. We were saved.”

By the summer of 2002, Khadr’s father had left his obedient son with members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization linked to al-Qaeda. Fluent in four languages, Khadr said his primary job was to translate for the locals working alongside the Libyans. But the 15-year-old also learned to build and bury improvised explosive devices, and was dispatched on reconnaissance missions to monitor the movements of coalition troops at the airport in Khost, Afghanistan. “I would smile at the American soldiers,” Khadr recalled. “I was just following instructions. I wasn’t thinking about the morality.”

Khadr’s comrades spoke incessantly about killing U.S. troops. “They were of the opinion that if [Americans] invaded Afghanistan, they would fight the Americans,” he said. “I didn’t really have an opinion but kind of agreed with them, not because I believed it but because it was always talked about. The thoughts were impressed upon me. In retrospect, I went along with it. My ideas were all over the place. The morality of it didn’t register.”

In July 2002, Khadr and the Libyans moved to another house, his final few days of freedom. “I had stayed there about one week when we were notified that there were American soldiers outside,” he said. “Things happened very quickly. The guys talked and said we would fight. There was an exchange of hand grenades and I took up the place I was assigned. Something exploded beside me and I flew back. I lost some of my vision.”

Khadr insists he has no concise recollection of what happened next. “I’ll tell you what I thought happened,” he told Lau. “I heard Americans. I heard shooting. I was scared. I had a hand grenade. I threw it over my back and it exploded. I wanted to scare them away. I wasn’t thinking of the consequences. After that I was shot.” Today, Khadr isn’t so sure of that version of events. He has since seen evidence that he was buried under the rubble of a collapsed roof, and was too wounded to throw the F1 grenade that mortally wounded Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, a Delta Force commando and father of two.

Whatever the truth, Khadr now says what he never has: that the blame for Speer’s death rests with him, regardless of whether he actually tossed the grenade. “I still take responsibility but hold on to hope that it wasn’t me,” he told the psychologist. “Some people think I’m escaping responsibility. I just hope I wasn’t the person responsible for killing someone. My thought process was to scare them away. I just wanted them to leave. It was fear…If I did kill [Speer] that would be a very sad thing. I have apologized to the widow. It is one of the hardest things to talk about: that part of my life. It was very dark.”

Shot twice in the back and blinded in his left eye, Khadr was airlifted to a U.S. military hospital in Bagram—where doctors performed multiple operations, including vision-saving surgery on his right eye, also damaged by shrapnel. In previous affidavits, Khadr has accused the Americans of torturing him while he was still a patient. “There was a bunch of interrogations and mistreatment, although I’ve tried to let things go,” he told Lau. “I tried to learn from it, to let it be in the past.”

The secret Khadr file

Colin Perkel/CP

Transferred to Guantanamo Bay in October 2002, a month after his 16th birthday, Khadr said he was “a mental mess” for two years, surrounded by adult detainees. “I started acting like those around me,” he said. “I started thinking like those around me. In Guantanamo, I was the youngest. Everyone was trying to put me under their wings.”

Eventually, Khadr said, he starting thinking for himself. “People ask me about the turning point. It was gradual. My ideologies didn’t change. I was developing them.” One “tremendous influence,” ironically enough, was the government of Canada. By 2006, the Pentagon had allowed Ottawa to send consular officials to Cuba to check on Khadr, who came to cherish the regular visits. “Before that, I had no connection to the outside world,” he said. “I saw that there are other people in the world that were good people. That gave me hope, which is a scary thing in prison. The more communication I had with the outside world, the better it was, the more hope I had for goodness in my life.”

“In prison, I had lots of bad experiences,” he continued. “If I hold on to each one, I would have been very bitter. I express it in writings, in my personal reflections. For example, I am frustrated with my eyes. I want to study but I can’t. I’ve also felt that I have not always been treated fairly. I started thinking about equality. I started to write. I really want to experience as much as I can. I missed out on things most people experience every day.”

In October 2010, Khadr pleaded guilty to five “war crimes” in front of a U.S. military commission in exchange for an eight-year sentence and a promise that he could apply to serve the bulk of that term in a Canadian prison. Flown home in September 2012, Khadr has since launched an appeal of his convictions at a special review court in Virginia, arguing, among other things, that the offences he was charged with didn’t exist in 2002. (It was under the backdrop of that appeal that Khadr applied for bail in Edmonton, triggering this latest round of legal wrangling.)

Khadr told Lau that his introduction to the Canadian penal system was a bit of a “culture shock,” especially trying to navigate the “con code.” At the Edmonton Institution, a maximum-security facility, one inmate from a large military family punched him in the face. Now at Bowden, a medium-security complex in Innisfail, Khadr says some Muslim inmates “think I still harbour terrorist ideas. They approach me and I say that I don’t believe in that. I let them know there are other ways to grieve.” Some prisoners, after hearing about the latest terrorist attack on the news, still say to him: “You guys did it again.”

Asked about religious ideology, Khadr replied: “You shouldn’t distort things to appease others or to suit your own agenda. I don’t believe in al-Qaeda killing innocents to further their belief.”

Khadr said he is “blessed” to have the support of so many faculty members at King’s University College, who have overseen his education while behind bars. He’s also received many letters of encouragement from supporters—including women—which is “awkward,” he said. “Females from outside have approached me and I’m still figuring out how to approach the opposite sex,” he told the psychologist. “I don’t want to mislead others. It’s not the best time to start a relationship… Down the road I might want to explore becoming involved in a relationship, but that will have to be gradual.”

Omar Khadr's defence attorney, Dennis Edney. (Jason Franson/CP)

Omar Khadr’s defence attorney, Dennis Edney. (Jason Franson/CP)

Khadr admits that transitioning to life outside the wire won’t be “a walk in the park.” He has never opened a bank account or rode a city bus or applied for a job, and he is well aware that some will always associate him with “this terrorism nonsense.” But he is unequivocal: his ties to terrorism are long severed. “I’m not going to get involved in suspicious activities and I’m going to inform people about where I’m going to be,” he said. “I’ll have to get permission as to whom I can associate with. As long as I’m not doing anything shady, I’m ready. I hope that people get a chance to know the new me.”

In his written assessment, Lau concluded that Khadr’s status should be downgraded from medium-security to minimum-security, and that he poses a low to moderate risk of violent recidivism. “Only Mr. Khadr can truly know if the changes he purports to have made in his religious belief system and worldview are genuine,” he wrote. “On one side, there is the argument that Mr. Khadr is an extremely dangerous individual who will say what is necessary to secure his freedom. On the other side, there is the argument that he is the victim of circumstances and has taken significant steps in reintegrating back into society.”

What Lau can say, though, is that Khadr “does not appear to be actively associating with any known terrorist groups,” nor has he “expressed any hostility towards Western society or members of different faith groups.” He also seems to comprehend the enormous challenges he will face in the free world, including “probable backlash by the public.”

“Mr. Khadr took responsibility for his offending behaviour although he held onto the belief that perhaps he was not the cause of the victim’s death,” the psychologist wrote. “He was aware that this statement could be interpreted as a denial of responsibility. He has disavowed any connections with al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. He remains faithful to his Muslim beliefs and is aware that terrorist groups including al-Qaeda can twist things around to serve their own purposes. He denounced this type of misinterpretation of religious concepts suggesting that he does not believe that religion should be used to support acts that cause the death and/or suffering of others. Mr. Khadr acknowledged that he has made mistakes in the past but feels that he has also made significant progress in his rehabilitation.”

If anything, Lau concluded, Khadr will be most vulnerable in stressful situations: “Given the significant trauma he has experienced during his life, the long period of time he has spent within the confines of an institutional environment, his relatively young age, his inexperience with social situations and daily living skills (e.g. dating, budgeting) and the potential scrutiny and attention he will be receiving by the media and the general public, Mr. Khadr will likely face many difficult situations and pressures upon release into the community. He might potentially also garner attention from ‘terrorist’ organizations or ‘too much attention’ from organizations that support him. Despite his demonstrated ability to quickly adapt to new situations, the immense pressure and stressors he is likely to face in the community would be trying and difficult for any person.”

The bail ruling is expected to be released at 9:30 Thursday morning.

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