Omar Khadr: A Complex Narrative

It was reported last week that the Canadian government had reached a settlement of $10 million with Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee ever held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Since news of the settlement broke, a petition has begun circulating in opposition to the settlement; a report last week indicates that the petition has already garnered 50,000 signatures.

A quick summary is in order for those who are unfamiliar with Khadr’s story. Khadr was born on September 19, 1986 in Toronto to his mother, Maha Elsamnah, and his father, Ahmed Said Khadr. (Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen, which is why the Canadian government is offering this settlement.) It is unclear exactly when, but at some point in Omar’s early years, Ahmed — an associate of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden — brought his son to Afghanistan.

On July 27, 2002, U.S. forces entered Ab Khail, a small village near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, where Omar and his father were living, for the purpose of identifying and eliminating remaining Taliban fighters in the region. Reports indicate the U.S. forces sent in Pashto translators first to establish a dialogue with the Taliban fighters in the village; the translators were killed almost immediately. In response, the U.S. forces called in an air strike on the compound where the Taliban fighters were encamped.

When the dust had settled, U.S. soldiers were scanning the area for survivors. It was at that point that Omar Khadr, then 15 years old and wounded from the air strike, threw a grenade over the wall at the soldiers. Special Forces Sergeant Christopher Speer was killed in the blast; the remaining soldiers shot Khadr three times in the chest.

Omar Khadr begged the soldiers to kill him. They did not. Instead, they patched him up; so began his long and excruciating journey.

In August 2006, Rolling Stone published a report on Khadr’s story and the treatment he had received during his detention. Khadr was first taken to Bagram AFB:

At Bagram, he was repeatedly brought into interrogation rooms on stretchers, in great pain. Pain medication was withheld, apparently to induce cooperation. He was ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet. When he could walk again, he was forced to stand for hours at a time with his hands tied above a door frame. Interrogators put a bag over his head and held him still while attack dogs leapt at his chest. Sometimes he was kept chained in an interrogation room for so long he urinated on himself.

Three months later, Khadr was sent to Guantánamo Bay, where he would live for the next decade. From there, he was eventually sent to a series of Canadian prisons before ultimately being granted bail in 2015, despite the strenuous objections of the Canadian government.

Outlining the details of Khadr’s odyssey would be fruitless; the Rolling Stone report captures it with far more detail than I can. What’s more important — in my view, at least — is to assess how Khadr arrived in a position to receive such a settlement from the Canadian government, to begin with.

The events of July 2002 are not under dispute. Omar Khadr threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. This appears to be the crux of the argument against Khadr receiving a settlement: he killed a U.S. soldier, and he is essentially being rewarded for it.

The problem with that line of thinking is that it leaves out quite a lot of information. Khadr is not being rewarded for killing a U.S. soldier; he is being compensated for the hell he endured at Guantánamo from July 2002 to September 2012, and in Canada from September 2012 to May 2015.

Yes, Khadr killed a U.S. soldier. But Khadr was raised by two fundamentalist Muslim parents (his father was killed in Pakistan in 2003) who, according to the Rolling Stone report, “raised him to believe that religious martyrdom was the highest achievement he could aspire to. In the Khadr family, suicide bombers were spoken of with great respect.”

Khadr never had the opportunity to choose another path for himself; by the time he had reached an age where he might have been able to do so, he was already in Afghanistan, embedded with the remnants of the Taliban. He had been forced since birth into religious extremism. From the Rolling Stone report:

Three times [Ahmed, Omar’s father] asked Omar's older brother Abdurahman to become a suicide bomber. It would bring honor to the family, he said. Abdurahman declined. Later, when Ahmed sensed that Abdurahman's faith was weakening, he told him, “If you ever betray Islam, I will be the one to kill you."

I recognize that you may not find this argument to be particularly persuasive, but I do think there is something to be said for the fact that Khadr was never really given a say in his actions; in fact, the potential penalty for Omar choosing his own path was death. I can’t think of too many children of Omar’s age with the courage to disobey their parents, nor can I think of many who would do so under threat of execution.

However, it is Khadr’s treatment following his capture that seems the strongest justification for the settlement. As I mentioned, Khadr was 15 years old at the time of his capture; following the invasion of Afghanistan, President George W. Bush decided ­— in clear violation of the Geneva Convention — that enemy combatants as young as 16 could be treated as adults. Which is how Khadr was held at Bagram for four months until his 16th birthday, then shipped off to Guantánamo.

Leaving aside the flimsy extrajudicial logic that led U.S. forces to place a teenager in indefinite detention at Guantánamo, after his capture, Khadr was subjected to what the Bush administration referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the rest of the world calls it “torture”) for the next decade. Omar Khadr was tortured, both physically (this past March, he had surgery to repair damage to his shoulder sustained during his capture — 15 years ago) and psychologically.

That said, I agree that there is no minimizing or justifying his actions — the fact remains that he killed a U.S. soldier. According to the Geneva Convention, any enemy combatant who is a prisoner of war (as Khadr was) is entitled to be:

  • Treated humanely
  • Able to inform their next of kin and the International Committee of the Red Cross of their capture
  • Allowed to communicate regularly with relatives and receive packages
  • Given adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical attention
  • Paid for work done and not forced to do work that is dangerous, unhealthy, or degrading
  • Released quickly after conflict’s end
  • Not compelled to give any information except for name, age, rank, and service number

I recognize that the rise of unconventional warfare dictates unconventional methods. But look at it this way: if Khadr had been captured during World War II as a German POW, his captors would likely have been executed. Khadr’s treatment was, in no uncertain terms, an ongoing series of war crimes.

More than that, it is hypocritical of the United States to announce itself as “liberators” of the Middle East and a shining beacon for freedom and humanity while condoning — and in some cases, encouraging — such egregious mistreatment of captured enemy combatants. It’s not surprising that most incursions by the U.S. military aren’t given a charitable reading anymore; it is difficult to square our self-proclaimed purpose of defending against evil with our apparent willingness to perpetrate the same evil in pursuit of our goals.

Reasonable people can (and likely will) disagree that this settlement is justified, but no two ways about it: Omar Khadr went through hell. If you want to be upset with anybody about Khadr’s settlement, be upset with the United States for fostering the conditions under which he became eligible for it in the first place.

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