x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Omar Khadr: the boy of Guantanamo Bay

Jihadi rock star or child soldier and victim? The youngest prisoner and only westerner left in the US detention centre at Cuba pleaded guilty this week to killing a US soldier in Afghanistan.

Omar Khadr was arrested on terrorism charges at the age of 15 and became the youngest person imprisoned in the US terrorist prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Omar Khadr was arrested on terrorism charges at the age of 15 and became the youngest person imprisoned in the US terrorist prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

OTTAWA // To some he is a jihadi rock star who grew up surrounded by al Qa'eda's elite and who ruthlessly set out to kill as many US soldiers as he could.

To others, he is a victimised child soldier, a teenager brainwashed by his own family who simply found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.

When it comes to Omar Khadr, the last westerner still held in the US terrorist prison in Guantanamo Bay, the truth probably lies somewhere between those two extremes.

This week, more than eight years after he was arrested at age 15 following a battle in Afghanistan that killed one US soldier and injured another, the Canadian-born Khadr pleaded guilty to five crimes. It is now up to a jury at the military commission hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to decide Khadr's fate, although a plea deal means the maximum he could serve is eight years.

Under the terms of the deal, one year of that sentence must be served at the detention centre at Guantanamo, where Khadr, now 24, has spent the past eight years as Prisoner 766. Khadr could serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada if an agreement can be reached between the two countries. However, as recently as Thursday, the Canadian foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, denied there was a deal.

Over the years many international organisations, including Unicef and Amnesty International, plus the Canadian Bar Association, have urged the Canadian government to repatriate Khadr, whose complicated case has tested Canadian political leaders as well as Ottawa's relationship with Washington.

Returning to Canada when times got tough has been a thread that has run through the life of Khadr and his family.

The Khadrs all hold Canadian citizenship, and a number of the children, including Omar, were born in Canada, but most of Omar Khadr's life has been spent a world away from the leafy streets of the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where it began.

Much of what is known about Khadr was revealed in Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, by Michelle Shephard, a Toronto Star reporter who has covered his ordeals since his arrest.

Omar Khadr was born in 1986 to Maha Elsamnah, whose parents were Egyptian of Palestinian descent. After growing up in Saudi Arabia, she and her family moved to Toronto in 1974.

Her husband, Ahmed Said Khadr, grew up in the Cairo's Shubra neighbourhood, then moved to Canada in 1975 to continue his engineering studies.

The path that eventually led Ahmed Said Khadr to the inner circles of al Qa'eda began curiously enough at the University of Ottawa, where he joined a student group founded by members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

After a job at Bell Northern Research, a telecommunications company that would later become Nortel, Khadr was recruited by the Gulf Polytechnic in Bahrain in 1982.

In Bahrain, he became increasingly concerned about the problems faced by Muslims in countries such as Afghanistan and the victims of the war being waged there.

In the summer of 1983, and then again in 1984, he sent his wife and children back to Canada and went to Pakistan to volunteer. In 1985, he joined the Kuwaiti Red Crescent relief organisation and moved his family to Peshawar in Pakistan.

There around the same time was a young Osama bin Laden, son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate.

Throughout that time and for years afterwards, the Khadr family would regularly return to Canada to visit family, give birth, seek medical treatment and to raise funds - leading some to charge they were Canadians of convenience, only interested in Canada's passports and free health care.

That view was fuelled when Omar Khadr's mother appeared in a documentary saying she would rather raise her children in Pakistan than in Canada, where they could become drug addicts or homosexuals. She then returned to Canada so her son Kareem, who was paralysed in a battle with Pakistani forces in 2003 that killed his father, could get health care.

Some critics went as far as to dub them "Canada's First Family of Terrorism."

Omar was one of seven children born to the Khadrs; he was an easy child who was eager to please and quickly became a favourite. As a young child, Omar would be by his mother's side as she helped the sick, wounded and delivered the children of the mujaheddin in Peshawar. Even a habit of clenching his teeth and letting off a high-pitched wail to get attention was considered more entertaining than irritating.

Omar loved to read. The Adventures of Tintin comic books were among his favourites, and he would send his siblings into fits of laughter with his imitations of Captain Haddock.

In more recent years, during his time in Guantanamo, Khadr's reading list has included the US president Barack Obama's Dreams of My Father, Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom and books by Danielle Steel and John Grisham.

In 1992, Khadr's young world was rocked after his father was seriously injured in a bomb or landmine explosion. When his father was stable enough to travel he was brought back to Toronto's top trauma hospital.

But a year later, instead of remaining in Canada after he had learnt to walk again, Khadr's father returned to Pakistan and charitable work. This time he rented a house where his family could grow vegetables and keep pet rabbits with names such as Pistachio and Bandit.

In 1995, Khadr's world was rocked again when his father was arrested in a bombing at the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. Once again, Khadr's mother turned to her Canadian citizenship, staging a protest outside the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, demanding the Canadian government help an imprisoned Canadian citizen. She got a highly publicised meeting with Jean Chrétien, the prime minister at the time, who was on a trip to Pakistan, and a pledge from Mr Chrétien to raise her husband's case with the Pakistani government and ask for a fair trial.

That meeting changed the course of Khadr's life, say Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free the Children and opponents of child labour, who met Omar Khadr that same day while waiting to meet Mr Chrétien.

"The boy whose mother led him by the hand through a scrum of reporters saw his father released from prison," the Kielburger's wrote this week. "Just months later, the father had him learning to make bombs and wield an assault rifle in weapons training."

His father was also growing closer to al Qa'eda and bin Laden's inner circle. At one point in 1997 the Khadrs even lived in bin Laden's compound in Jalalabad, in Afghanistan, but weren't allowed to move with bin Laden to Kandahar.

However, it wasn't until 2002 that Omar Khadr, now a restless teenage boy who had been left behind with the women while the men fought, was sent on a mission.

But Khadr's time fighting by al Qa'eda's side was brief. On July 27, 2002, a month after his father sent him to serve as a translator and to receive basic training, Khadr was involved in a battle with US special forces. Badly injured himself, Khadr was arrested and accused of throwing a grenade that killed Sgt 1st Class Christopher Speer, a military medic.

Thursday, as Speer's tearful widow testified against him, Khadr apologised for his actions.

"I'm really, really sorry for the pain I've caused you and your family. I wish I could do something that would take this pain away from you."

Now, he wants to return to Canada and to become a doctor - the dream Speer had before he died - so he can help those suffering from pain.

Khadr says his time in Guantanamo has changed his outlook.

"I came to the conclusion that ... you're not going to gain anything with hate. Second thing, it's more destructive than it's constructive. Third thing: I came to a conclusion that love and forgiveness are more constructive and will bring people together."

* The National