The story of the Khadr family and Omar's childhood is well known. But what has the teenager become after 3 1/2 years in a U.S. camp for suspected terrorists? Journalists will finally get to see him on Wednesday, when the 19-year-old Canadian faces murder charges at a military tribunal
Omar Khadr was locked behind the wire in the fall of 2002, a 16-year-old brought to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier in Afghanistan.
How the young Canadian arrived at the Guamatanamo camp is well documented. The second-youngest son of Ahmed Said Khadr, a reputed Al Qaeda financier, Omar Khadr is most often recalled as a quiet, dutiful child caught somewhere between his father's fanatical teachings and his experiences growing up on a Canadian diet of action films, potato chips and basketball.
On July 27, 2002, this scrawny teenager was in Afghanistan and somehow survived a lengthy air and ground assault on a suspected Al Qaeda compound near Khost, in barren Paktia province. He is alleged to have lobbed a grenade at the U.S. soldiers who'd approached when they thought all the enemy fighters were dead, mortally wounding Sgt. Christopher Speer, a decorated medic with two toddlers at home.
What's unclear about Omar Khadr is who, at age 19, he has become.
On Wednesday afternoon, barring any last-minute court rulings, Khadr is scheduled to make his initial appearance before a U.S. military tribunal on charges of murder, attempted murder and various conspiracy offences. Although cameras are not permitted in the heavily guarded Guantanamo hearing room, Khadr's lawyers and a pool of international journalists will be allowed to attend.
It will be the first time outsiders can see Canada's only detainee. But through an analysis of Khadr's letters home, declassified lawyers' reports, interviews, court documents and international papers documenting the camp's conditions, there's a hint of what to expect.
"As an amateur observer of the human condition, Mr. (Jim) Gould would describe (Khadr) as a thoroughly `screwed up' young man. All those persons who have been in positions of authority over him have abused him and his trust, for their own purposes."
— Foreign Affairs Department briefing note detailing a March 2004 Guantanamo Bay visit by Canadian intelligence officer Jim Gould
If Omar Khadr had been transferred to Guantanamo Bay a month earlier, his detention these past three-and-a-half years might have been different. Khadr was 15 when he was captured in July 2002 and taken to the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. American authorities said he was treated at the base for the three bullet wounds and eye injury he sustained during the battle near Khost.
On Sept. 19, during this incarceration, Khadr turned 16. In October, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Although 18 is the age that divides the boys from the men, according to international law, in Guantanamo Bay the cut-off age seems to be 16. Detainees aged 13 to 15 were eventually identified and recognized as "juvenile enemy combatants."
Housed separately, these teenagers were given a view of the ocean, a soccer field and videos to watch, including Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks — a far cry from the first images of shackled detainees, kneeling and wearing opaque goggles.
Even the young detainees' quarters were given a relatively gentle name: Camp Iguana.
"We're doing our best to give these juvenile enemy combatants options to be able to be integrated back into their societies," Maj.-Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of detention operations at Guantanamo told The New York Times in 2003.
"These despicable terrorists have decided to use younger people as a part of their army. They're the ones who decided to impress, kidnap and force them into services. Their treatment program started the day that they came here. And so, like anyone freed from an intolerable situation, they're returning to what we'd consider normal."
In January 2004, the juveniles were released.
When 16-year-old Khadr came to Gitmo, as the camp is dubbed, he was not regarded as, nor treated as, a juvenile. His lawyers say this was a violation of international laws protecting the rights of children in armed conflicts and they believe Khadr is the first person to be tried for war crimes allegedly committed as a minor.
But Layne Morris, the U.S. soldier who was injured alongside Speer in that 2002 battle, says that Khadr, despite his young age, wasn't really a child the day he was captured.
"I don't think someone with a juvenile mindset would have the ability, after going through what he went through, to want to continue in the fight and be willing to basically give his life to take out one American," Morris said in an interview with the Toronto Star.
Morris agrees with the Pentagon's decision not to demand the death sentence if Khadr's convicted of murder, but he does think the military tribunal is fair and believes Khadr should be tried as an adult.
"I don't personally think life (in prison) is too much to ask," he said. "This isn't some kid who's fresh off the farm or out of some village. This is a kid who has spent much of his life traversing the globe ... having to make some very conscious decisions on the type of person he was, and the type of goals he had, and the actions he wanted to take, and I think you don't get that type of thinking from an immature juvenile."
"At some point (Khadr) urinated on the floor and himself. Military police poured pine oil on the floor and on (Khadr), and then, with (Khadr) lying on his stomach and his hands and feet cuffed together behind him, the military police dragged (Khadr) back and forth through the mixture of urine and pine oil."
— Allegations of abuse contained in a December 2004 declassified report by Khadr's lawyer, Muneer Ahmad
Khadr has been housed for the past 39 months at two maximum-security prisons known as Camp Delta and Camp 5, where he has been kept in isolation. His lawyers say he told them during one visit that the confinement was "destroying us slowly."
It is not known just how many intelligence and police agencies have had access to him, but it's safe to assume there were many. Khadr spent part of his childhood with Osama bin Laden and his extended family as neighbours, making him an intelligence treasure trove.
One of the first Canadians Khadr met came armed with a Big Mac and fries — treats that were quickly devoured.
Jim Gould, a long-time Ottawa bureaucrat, went to the camp in 2003 as a representative of the Foreign Affairs Department intelligence division. His meeting wasn't a consular one to determine Khadr's well-being — consular visits weren't permitted by the Americans at the time. Gould was there to collect intelligence and he was accompanied by members of Canada's spy service.
Gould recalls Khadr as being very childish and seemingly unaware of the severity of his situation. Letters the youth wrote to his grandparents in Scarborough around this time had a similar juvenile quality.
"I pray for you very much and don't forgat me from your pray'rs and don't forget to writ me and if ther any problem writ me," Khadr wrote in February 2003.
A year passed and, on March 30, 2004, Gould returned to find what he says was a different person. Gould believed that Khadr had gained a certain status in the camp as the son of a bin Laden associate (his father was killed in a battle with Pakistani forces in October 2003) and was trying to acquire a "tough guy" reputation.
"He had grown up and became less willing to co-operate and more eager to argue the hard line," said Gould, who recently retired from the government and now works as a consultant, in an interview with the Star. Khadr refused Gould's offering of chocolate bars and other outside food, on the second visit.
But Khadr's lawyers have a different opinion on the young man's change in attitude, attributing it instead to Khadr's realization that he was being interrogated, not aided, by the Canadians who visited him.
"Omar advised me that when he was first told these people were Canadians, he thought that someone had finally come to help him," Washington-based lawyer Muneer Ahmad wrote in a court affidavit. "He was therefore very co-operative with these Canadian interrogators at first.
"The Canadian interrogators never asked Omar how he was feeling or how he was holding up, nor did they ever ask him if he wanted to send a message to his family. The Canadian interrogators never advised Omar of his rights."
According to Ahmad, Khadr said the Canadians told him they were powerless. He quoted one official as saying: "The U.S. and Canada are like an elephant and an ant sleeping in the same bed."
Khadr's lawyers allege that he was abused during his interrogations by the Americans and someone who identified himself as an Afghan called Izmarai. Khadr told his lawyers he was left short-shackled to a bolt on the floor for hours, then threatened and taunted during interrogations. He claims he was used one day as a human mop.
Intelligence officials often point out that Al Qaeda members are trained to fabricate claims of torture once incarcerated, to garner media attention and discredit arresting officials. But Khadr's claims are bolstered by internal FBI emails, alleging mistreatment of Gitmo detainees, that were released to the American Civil Liberties Union as a part of a freedom of information request.
In one email, the writer describes seeing a "detainee sitting on the floor of the interview room with an Israeli flag draped around him, loud music being played and a strobe light flashing."
In another email, the writer reports witnessing prisoners in soiled clothing, chained to the floor in the fetal position, with no food or water.
Psychiatric reports commissioned by Khadr's lawyers and based on their questions to him early last year conclude that Khadr had mental disorders and was at risk of suicide.
There were also numerous reports mentioning Khadr as one of the high-profile detainees who staged periodic hunger strikes in 2004 and last year. During the strike, he was hospitalized and, according to a diary kept by one of the detainees, was seen coughing up blood.
"I think the hunger strike is really when he hit bottom, pretty much when he lost hope in the ability of anybody to do anything for any of them," said his lawyer, Rick Wilson, who has visited Khadr on five occasions.
But Canada's spy service appears to dismiss any connection between the conditions of Khadr's detainment and his mental state.
"This is not the first time Omar Khadr has been reported to be `suicidal,' states a June 2005 report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, obtained by the Star through Access to Information legislation. CSIS notes in a section entitled "service comment" that there were reports to the media by the American soldiers who captured Khadr, that he begged to be killed.
"(T)he TV isn't good and make us do bad things so if you can get red of it or something and you say you feel sade and not happy and problem bitwen you it's because the TV try and take it out and you will see the results very soon."
— From a May 2005 letter from Khadr to his mother Maha Elsamnah
Khadr is the fourth of six children born to Egyptian-Canadian Ahmed Said Khadr and his wife, Maha Elsamnah. They're a family that has garnered international attention.
Born Sept. 19, 1986, in Toronto, Omar lived here for four years, before beginning a childhood shuttling between Scarborough, Peshawar, Pakistan and Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
His father said his life was one devoted to charity work, but intelligence officials say the senior Khadr was providing funds and logistics for bin Laden's terrorism network.
Last month, American authorities charged Khadr's eldest brother, Abdullah, with criminal offences relating to terrorism.
Abdullah Khadr, 24, is being held in a Toronto jail while he fights extradition to the United States. His next court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday — the day before Omar faces his.
Then, there's Abdurahman Khadr, the 22-year-old self-appointed black sheep of the family, who denounced his father's teachings and briefly worked for the CIA as an informant after being captured by American forces.
He now lives in a Scarborough apartment with youngest brother, Karim Khadr, who was paralyzed in the firefight that killed their father, and Zaynab, the eldest sister, who is under investigation by the RCMP. Their mother also lives with them since returning from Pakistan in 2004, as does youngest sister, Maryam.
Khadr addressed a letter home last May to "Dear and Best Mother," drawing a heart in the upper left corner alongside "MOM" in a bubble script.
"I hope you are good and in good health and hi spirit and in happy mood I hope all this is with you all the time because every thing is good for the Muslim," Khadr wrote in a page-long letter without punctuation and littered with spelling and grammatical errors. Only 18 at the time, he offers advice for his mother on how to handle Abdurahman.
He tells her not to be sad.
Khadr's lawyers believe he has acquired a better grasp on what was going on at the camp, and appears to be more stable, since being moved to less restrictive quarters late last year.
One court document notes that Khadr leads the prayers in his cellblock.
Wilson last met with his client in October and noted how much taller Khadr had grown and the "sparse facial hair" he was sprouting.
"He's a very smart kid and very perceptive about what's going on in the world. But he's quite susceptible to influence from others."
Wednesday's proceedings will be the first of many steps involving complex legal arguments.
There's no doubt, given the allegations that he killed an American solider, Khadr is a detainee the Pentagon wants to keep locked up.
Layne Morris, who now lives in Utah after having to leave the military due to his injury, will not be in Guantanamo next week but expects to face Khadr at some later tribunal date.
He stands by his assessment of Khadr: "He killed a good man who left behind a wife and two children who are never going to know their father and I think there needs to be a severe punishment for that."
But the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge of the constitutionality of the tribunals this year and will likely rule before Khadr eventually gets to trial.
Then, there's his age. Khadr's lawyers plan to vigorously contest trying someone who was arrested as a minor and last week asked the United Nations to get involved in their protest.
"He has had to be with adults this entire time and he has had to prove himself in some ways because of his age and I think he has adjusted his behaviour in that sense. But he's still a child," said Wilson.
The last time Wilson was in Guantanamo Bay, Khadr asked if he would bring him some magazines with new model cars.
SOURCE: The Toronto Star