In exchange for another eight years in prison—and the chance to be a free man in Canada long before that—Omar Khadr consented to a long list of strict conditions. He cannot sue the U.S. government for damages, regardless of how many torture sessions he may (or may not) have endured inside the barbed-wire walls of Guantánamo Bay. He will never step foot on American soil for as long as he lives. And he is not allowed to profit one penny from public speaking tours or movie deals or anything else that would involve selling his saga to the highest bidder. Any such proceeds, the agreement says, will go straight “to the Government of Canada.”
Khadr has read a lot of books during his stint behind bars (from steamy Danielle Steele novels to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom), and his pen pals include an English professor at an Edmonton university. But when he signed his name to that seven-page plea deal on Oct. 13, he received a first-hand lesson in the meaning of irony: the same government that spent many years and millions of dollars fighting to keep him out of Canada now owns the exclusive rights to his life story.
Perhaps it’s only fitting. At 24, Omar Khadr has never truly been in control of his own life. Brainwashed by a fundamentalist father, raised in the shadow of Osama bin Laden, and sent into battle as a Kalashnikov-waving teenager, he is—in the famous words of one Foreign Affairs bureaucrat—“a thoroughly screwed up young man.” Since his capture in 2002, Khadr has been manipulated by fellow inmates, abused by interrogators, ignored by his home country, abandoned by a long list of court-appointed lawyers, and exploited in ways that even he doesn’t realize yet. Human rights activists, anti-war protesters, opposition politicians and terrorist sympathizers all claim him as their own.
But today—after spending more than one-third of his life locked inside the world’s most notorious cage—Khadr finally has the chance to be his own man. By pleading guilty to five war crimes, including the murder of a U.S. special forces soldier, the Toronto native will serve just one more year in Cuba, followed by a transfer to a Canadian penitentiary. Twenty months after that, in June 2013, he will be eligible to apply for early release.
When that day comes, the National Parole Board will have to answer the one question that remains a mystery: who is the real Omar Khadr? The hardened terrorist who basked in the glory of killing a Delta Force medic? Or the innocent child soldier who desperately deserves a second chance?
The competing narratives could not be more different. The only common thread is that neither is completely believable. If anything, the truth lies somewhere in between.
According to the U.S. government, Khadr remains a real and dangerous threat—a “rock star at Gitmo” who has spent the formative years of his life “marinating in a community of hardened and belligerent radical Islamists.” In his own statement of facts, the cornerstone of his guilty plea, Khadr admits that he was a loyal member of al-Qaeda, was obsessed with killing Americans “anywhere they can be found,” and that the “proudest moment of his life” was when he built and planted improvised explosive devices aimed at coalition troops in Afghanistan.
When prison guards gave him a hard time, Khadr would recall how his grenade killed their comrade, Sgt. Christopher Speer, “and it would make him feel good.”
But according to his supporters—and his own spoken words in court—Khadr is a “gentle giant” who has denounced violence, apologized to Speer’s widow, immersed himself in books, and dreams of one day becoming a doctor. “You’re not going to gain anything with hate,” he told the jury at his recent sentencing hearing. “I came to a conclusion that love and forgiveness are more constructive and will bring people together and will give them understanding and will solve a lot of problems.”
Khadr has pored through Pride and Prejudice, Barack Obama’s memoir, and each instalment of the Twilight series. He has crayons in his cell, and draws pictures of lakes and flowers and other scenes he longs to see with the one eye that wasn’t blinded by shrapnel. “No matter how abandoned he’s been, he doesn’t have any anger,” says Dennis Edney, Khadr’s long-time lawyer. “He is a kid who is going to go back to Canada and start his life, and Canadians will see that this young man is harmless, and that he is a victim.”
When asked how the same boy (now man) can be a proud murderer and a harmless victim all at the same time, Edney is blunt. The agreed statement of facts “is fiction,” he says, and Khadr only signed it because he knew that admitting guilt was his only hope of ever leaving Guantánamo Bay. “Anyone who believes this was a full voluntary confession is crazy,” Edney says. “If they had asked him to plead to the shooting of John F. Kennedy, we would have agreed to that, too.”
The story of Omar Khadr (a narrative that now belongs to the feds) began in a Toronto hospital on Sept. 19, 1986. But it would be another 10 years before the country was first introduced to the curly-haired boy destined to become an “enemy combatant.”
At the time, Omar’s father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was in the custody of Pakistani authorities, accused of financing the November 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad that killed 16 people. A Canadian citizen, the Khadr patriarch proclaimed his innocence, embarked on a hunger strike and ended up in the headlines—just as Jean Chrétien, then the prime minister, was flying to the region for a trade mission. Under pressure from the press, Chrétien agreed to broach the case with Pakistani officials, and took time out of his busy schedule to meet Khadr’s wife and young children. Including Omar.
A few months later, Ahmed Khadr was a free man, kissing the ground after his plane touched down in Canada.
It turned out to be a short visit. Before long, he and his family were back shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan, mingling with al-Qaeda elites and using his “charity” work as a front to finance bin Laden’s training camps. In 2001, Ahmed Khadr’s name was added to a United Nations’ terrorism blacklist, and when the World Trade Center was toppled later that year, the U.S. branded him a “primary suspect” and froze his assets.
A week after 9/11, Omar turned 15. It would be his last birthday with his family.
In June 2002, as coalition forces hunted for bin Laden and his associates, Ahmed Khadr sent his teenaged son to serve as a translator for members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda. (Omar is fluent in English, Arabic, Pashto and Dari, and can also speak some French.) But he did much more than talk. Khadr was trained to fire rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and pistols, and was soon assigned to a cell that built and planted powerful IEDs. A home video released by prosecutors shows a grinning Omar Khadr constructing his homemade bombs and holding the Quran.