Omar Khadr: Window on the Canadian Soul

(RUETERS – Dan Riedlhuber photo)


You can tell a lot about Canadians from how we talk about Omar Khadr. Right now, there’s a lot being said about Khadr that isn’t exactly flattering to those who are saying it.

It has been been two years since the former child soldier, accused terrorist and youngest Guantanamo Bay detainee was released from a medium security prison in Edmonton, ending 13 years of incarceration that had divided Canadians on partisan lines. With his public debut, there appeared to be at least glimmer of collective good will toward him. In his first TV news interviews and a later CBC documentary, Khadr came off as a thoughtful young man who was thrilled to be free at last; someone who, long ago deprived of a normal childhood, was eager to get on with normal adulthood. Those expecting evasiveness, bitterness, or tell-tale signs of resentment for his torturers and the United States (to say nothing of the successive Canadian federal governments that had washed their hands of him) found only gratitude for his supporters, relief at having a fresh start, and—in his only poke at Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper—determination to prove himself “a better person than he thinks I am.” The Son of al Qaeda spoke only of boring Canadian things like going back to school, getting a job, and being with his girlfriend.

It was all good PR, of course, and no doubt lawyered to the max, but most Canadians seemed to be okay with it. Those of us who had signed petitions for his release from Gitmo celebrated Khadr’s long-delayed return to freedom on Canadian soil. Even those not entirely convinced of his innocence as a 15-year-old were willing to give the 28-year-old Khadr some benefit of the doubt. If there was anything to forgive him for—and no investigation to date had proven there was, apart from adolescent submission to the worst kind of peer pressure—then most Canadians were at least prepared to give Omar Khadr a break: to let him prove, with time, that Stephen Harper’s knee-jerk demonization of him was wrong, mean spirited, and uncommonly cruel.

Why such a measured response should turn, two years later, into moral outrage at Khadr’s $10.5 million award and official apology from Ottawa says more about us than it does about Khadr. Most of the shouting is coming from the Conservative Party, as one might expect, but they’re not the only ones who are upset. On the Facebook pages of otherwise intelligent, non-partisan people I know, there are memes such as the one showing a photo of soldiers carrying a coffin draped with a Canadian flag and the words: “Canadian soldier injured or killed in combat – Compensation $360,000” and, below it, a photo of Omar Khadr with the words: “Canadian terrorist—killed soldier, captured and released – Compensation $10,000,000”. Another friend, trying to engage me on Messenger last week, offered this: “Now he can send the money to the same terror group who trained him to be the child soldier. That was their plan.” Later, he sent me a nonsensical diatribe by Conservative hack Jenni Byrne (which I won’t dignify with a link) and, even as I write this, is texting me again with more of his Khadr-bashing.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Canadians who (a) can’t let go of the Once-a-Terrorist-Always-A-Terrorist hobbyhorse; (b) refuse to recognize how human rights law works; or (c) think the payout to Khadr should and will result in resounding election defeat for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are living in an alternate universe and suffering from limited moral imaginations.

Let’s review our assumptions about the Khadr story:

Omar Khadr as a teenager.
  Omar Khadr at fourteen.

Rules of engagement: If a 15-year-old is found in a war zone, and that 15-year-old is using weapons with the purpose of being involved in battle, then that 15-year-old is, by all definitions recognized internationally, a child soldier. Doesn’t matter who he’s fighting for or what he thinks about why he’s doing it; he is not an adult capable of making responsible decisions and thus should not be treated like one. Especially, I would argue, a 15-year-old who has been spoon-fed Islamic fundamentalism all his life. But in the twisted moral universe that is Conservative Party thought, 15-year-olds are too young to have sex but old enough to kill with informed consent.

The 2002 “firefight”: This is the Ground Zero of the Omar Khadr Demonization Project, the place where Khadr’s guilt is supposedly established beyond all doubt. According to this narrative the nasty bin Laden protégé, after making bombs and planting a field of landmines in the eastern Afghanistan border town of Khost, spotted U.S. Army medic Sgt. Christopher Speer approaching the compound where he and his fellow al Qaeda militants were hiding. He then deliberately threw a grenade with the intent of killing Speer. When captured, he didn’t have the decency to surrender but instead showed contempt for his captors by demanding they kill him so he could meet his 72 virgins in heaven.

     Khadr, 15, survives the U.S. bombardment.

There are several problems with this narrative, quite apart from the child soldier angle. There’s also the failure to establish whether Khadr was shot first before throwing the grenade, whether it was his grenade that killed Speer–the grenades were thrown over a wall–and, some have argued, even whether he threw a grenade at all. (Chances are, he probably did at some point.) There’s also the fusillade that met Khadr and his fellow militants after their violent defence of the compound. From the beginning, they were badly outnumbered: only four of them against 50 American and Afghan soldiers. Ten minutes after the grenade toss, U.S. forces sent in a pair of UH-60 (Black Hawk) helicopters, escorted by AH-64 Apache choppers. The Apaches strafed the compound with cannon and rocket fire. Then—as if to make sure no one got out of there alive—a pair of fighter planes swooped in to perform gun runs and drop 500-pound bombs on the place. There wasn’t much left of Khadr when U.S. forces found the pubescent rebel, miraculously still alive. His left eye was destroyed, he’d been shot twice in the back, and he had three severe chest wounds. Writhing in agony, he stunned the U.S. soldiers by begging them, in English, to shoot him dead. A superior officer ordered medical attention instead.

Terrorism and rehabilitation: What Omar Khadr and his brothers did as the children of al Qaeda parents is on the public record. And yes, we’ve all seen that video of the teenaged Omar chuckling as he builds a bomb. But let’s put aside Khadr for a moment and ask ourselves: how do we, as a society, view the radicalization of teenagers? How do we de-radicalize the seemingly mild-mannered, middle-class kid who disappears from his suburban home and then, months later, turns up in Iraq fighting for ISIS? Should we treat these kids as adults and hold them criminally accountable for their actions? Or do we try, after getting them back to Canada, to place them in juvenile detention followed by supervised programs in halfway houses? Some Canadian families have been traumatized by the loss of a child, literally or spiritually, to Islamic jihadism; others live in constant fear of their child’s receptivity to such poisonous death cults. Should we just give up and let U.S. law deal with them when they’re finally caught? Khadr’s case is different, of course: it was his family he needed rescuing from. But never has guilt by association been clung to so stubbornly: in some people’s minds, Omar Khadr will never be forgiven for being the son of Ahmed Khadr. And Ahmed Khadr’s been dead since 2003.

But let’s go back to 2002: once Omar Khadr’s citizenship was established and the Canadian government was informed of his incarceration by the U.S. government, what could have been done to rehabilitate this brainwashed teenager? What efforts were made to secure his extradition so that such an outcome could have been attempted? We all know the Conservatives have no interest in such questions, having long ago written off Khadr as a monster. But the Liberals, until they were forced into last week’s settlement, weren’t much interested, either. Instead of trying to spring Khadr from Gitmo, the governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin sent officials from Foreign Affairs and CSIS to interrogate him. Apparently, they were just fine with a Canadian teenager being kept in solitary confinement, threatened with rape, and, at various times, shackled in stressful positions. They were just fine with Gitmo officials using the “frequent flyer program” (three weeks of sleep deprivation) to prime Khadr for his Canadian inquisitors. Given all he’s been through since 2002, it’s a wonder Khadr seems to have come out of it with his faith in humanity intact.

The settlement: The Khadr case is a textbook example of a democratic government’s catastrophic failure to protect the rights of one of its own citizens. A Globe and Mail editorial summarized it thus: “A legal justice system, one operating under the rule of law, does not coerce confessions with violence or threats. It gives special protection to children, because of the diminished moral and mental capacity of youth, rather than singling them out for special forms of mistreatment. It doesn’t deny habeas corpus, or access to a lawyer. All of these things are part of Canadian law, not to mention international treaties and the customary international law that Canada and our allies subscribe to.”

The U.S. ran roughshod over these principles during the decade that Khadr was locked up at Gitmo, and Canada did nothing about it. When, under duress, he pled guilty to murder and war crimes in exchange for the possibility of early release, we did not raise objections to the illegitimate (i.e. kangaroo) court process. Nor did we demand humane and legal treatment for one of our citizens, complain about his conditions of detention or argue for his child soldier status, which under international law made him a candidate for rehabilitation. People outraged by the out-of-court settlement forget that Khadr launched his lawsuit two years before his release in May 2015, so it was still in process. Whatever cynical politicking the federal Liberals might be accused of, the government is right to recognize its failure to protect Khadr. Just as the Harper government was right to recognize Canada’s failure to protect Maher Arar.

Settlement of these cases always costs money. Khadr’s case could have gone on for much longer and cost even more, but he settled for half the amount he had originally sued for. His lawyers will receive about half of the $10.5 million. If I were Khadr, I’d be tempted to offer some of the other half to Sgt. Speer’s widow as a goodwill gesture. But then, there are at least two good reasons not to do this even if he wanted to. First, it would suggest admission of guilt when he is trying to get the bogus Gitmo criminal charges against him quashed in a U.S. court. Second, Speer’s widow would not exactly be a welcome recipient of such a gesture, having herself won a US$134 million judgement against Khadr in a civil trial proceeding. To clear his own name once and for all, that too, should be appealed.

Tabitha Speer

Tabitha Speer: With all due respect to the tragic loss of her husband, Mrs. Speer hasn’t exactly been an angel of mercy since 2002. Instead, her grief has transformed into single-minded pursuit of payback from Khadr, of whose deliberate role in Chris Speer’s death she has no doubt. Most widows of U.S. soldiers overseas don’t have anyone to sue for their deaths—a thought that wouldn’t occur to many widows since those men, unlike Omar Khadr, were men: they enlisted for military service as adults, were fully aware of the risks involved, and were prepared to die at the hands of enemy soldiers. For this reason, most U.S. Army widows also wouldn’t think of suing because death caused by hostile forces in combat is not regarded as murder but as a casualty of war. But Khadr—the lone survivor of the “firefight” in Khost—was a different story. From the moment he was blamed for Speer’s death and U.S. forces confirmed his national citizenship, family background, and al Qaeda connections, he became fair game for murder, war crimes and other trumped up charges, thus satisfying a national lust for revenge that plagued post-9/11 America less than a year after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Tabitha Speer lawyered up to the hilt, and hasn’t let up since then. Last week, her legal team filed an unsuccessful application in an Ontario Superior Court to freeze Khadr’s $10.5 million payout.


The rehabilitation of Omar Khadr is a classic Canadian story of reconciliation. As such, it represents an opportunity not only for him but for all of us as citizens. Can Khadr truly put the past behind him? Has he, in fact, already made the full transition to peaceful, law-abiding adult capable of living a normal life and contributing to Canadian society? Our ability to see this potential in him depends, in large measure, on our willingness to take him at his word and judge him by his current actions. How capable are we of doing that? Can we put the past behind us as well? Can we stop talking about al Qaeda or obsessing about what Khadr does with his cut of the payout? Can we take a leap of faith in this strapping young man with the beaming smile, give him a career, and marvel at the irony that he’s chosen the same field—emergency medical responder—as the man he was once accused of murdering?

Time, as always, will tell.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. John Gawthrop

    Daniel, thanks for expanding the narrative on this. Few who have weighed in on either side of this debate have done so knowing the back story sufficiently well in order to offer any opinion which merits the term “informed”.

  2. Daniela

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Dan. It helps to re-align focus, to put highly-muddied arguments—through a confusion of time and presentation—into a clearer perspective.
    There is much to mull over.

  3. Jayne Barnard

    A very good summary of the issues in play through the lens of Canadian culture.

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