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Ordinary lad — or jihad conscript?

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Toronto Star


By Thomas Walkom
The Toronto Star
Dec. 2, 2003

There is nothing neat and tidy about the story of Abdurahman Khadr, the 20-year-old Canadian released last month from the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo.

Those looking for a Maher Arar-style heart-wrenching account of torture and victimhood will be disappointed.

But so will those looking for the story of a home-grown, bona fide Al Qaeda terrorist.

Khadr's story, which he detailed yesterday during an amazingly frank press conference, is neither.

Rather, it is the tale of a Scarborough boy who has few memories of Scarborough but who grew up instead in the weirdly intense world of Afghan jihad.

It's also the story of someone — very much in the wrong place at the wrong time — who comes home one night in the middle of a punishing war to find that his parents have fled, that the "enemy" is in control and that he is in deep trouble with the most powerful nation in the world.

Back in 1998, when other Canadian boys his age might be trying to hustle girls, Khadr was a warrior in the making, a 15-year-old enrolled by his father in what he freely volunteered yesterday was an "Al Qaeda-related training camp."

Looking back, Khadr says it was a waste of three months.

Sure, he learned to use a Kalashnikov in Afghanistan's Khalden training camp. And sure Khalden's military commander at the time, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, is now in U.S. custody, accused of being a senior terrorist.

But that's the way it was in Afghanistan back then, said Khadr.

He seemed slightly puzzled by the collective intake of breath from assembled journalists when he uttered the words "Al Qaeda."

He's right. That is the way it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Afghanistan was in the midst of a civil war; the effective government was the Taliban.

American policy toward the country was confused and at times contradictory (indeed, the current U.S. administration of President George W. Bush praised the Islamic hardline Taliban for cracking down on opium production just months before the Sept.11 terror attacks).

And good Muslim boys living in Kabul, even those with Canadian passports, were expected to take small arms training to defend the Taliban against its Russian-backed Northern Alliance enemies.

Don't forget, Khadr reminded reporters, these camps had been originally set up by the U.S. and its allies to fight the Soviet Union and communism. In 1998, he said, camps such as Khalden were still doing that — producing warriors willing to undertake militant jihad on behalf of Islam, from Bosnia to Chechnya.

"It's the normal thing for people to do in Afghanistan," he said. So that's what he and his older brother, Abdullah, did.

And yes, Khalden did produce interesting graduates — including Ahmed Ressam, a former Canadian resident convicted in the U.S. of trying to blow up Los Angeles airport, and shoe bomber Richard Reid.

But Khadr said he was not Al Qaeda. In those days, before Osama bin Laden was elevated in the popular mind to the position of world terror mastermind, Al Qaeda was just one of many Islamic factions operating in the crazy dysfunctionality that was Afghanistan.

True also that Abdurahman's father, Ahmed Said Khadr, is wanted by the U.S., which alleges he is a senior bin Laden lieutenant. But Abdurahman says this isn't true.

"My father ... didn't have anything to do with Al Qaeda," he said flatly — although he doesn't rule out the possibility that Ahmad sympathized with bin Laden's outfit.

What he does know, he said, is that his father — who ran an orphanage and returned to Canada each Christmas to collect money (for terrorist purposes, according to the Canadian government) — supported Afghanistan's then Taliban regime.

He also said he has just learned from his mother, by telephone, that his father is dead, although he acknowledged this might be simply "gossip."

Curiously, he said he doesn't know where his mother is — although he thinks she might be in Pakistan.

(Presumably the Canadian government knows. According to Khadr, it has offered her travel documents to return home. But she's holding out for a full passport so she can go to whatever country she wishes.)

All very confusing. But then you might live a confusing life, too, if you were Abdurahman Khadr. Born in Bahrain, he is a Canadian citizen who has spent almost no time in his country.

When he was young, his parents moved to Pakistan to run an orphanage for victims of Afghanistan's terrible civil war.

Later, after Pakistan began to inquire into Ahmed Said Khadr's alleged role in a terror bombing, the family moved to Kabul.

All in all, Khadr has spent only two full years of his life in Canada. In 1993, he attended an Islamic school in Mississauga. In 1996, he went to a senior public school in Scarborough.

He has a Grade 8 education.

Most of his life was spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And it's probably fair to say that his father's loyalty to the Taliban rubbed off somewhat on the children.

Abdurahman's teenaged brother Omar joined Taliban fighters and is accused of killing an American medic after U.S. soldiers attacked an Afghan outpost during the latter days of Washington's invasion.

However, no charges have been laid against Omar. Like others imprisoned at Guantanamo — and like his brother before him — he is being detained without charge, without access to legal counsel and in contravention of the Geneva Accords.

All of this was the result of two events in 2001 that would shatter the Khadr family's strange life.

The first was the assassination of Northern Alliance warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, allegedly by Al Qaeda operatives. That, Khadr said, turned many Afghans against the people they called Arabs.

The second was the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which led to Washington's ultimatum to the Taliban and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

This was a tricky matter for Canadians living in Kabul — particularly those, such as the Khadrs — who sympathized with the Taliban. In that war, Canada was on the American side.

By November, 2001, with U.S. warplanes bombing Kabul and Northern Alliance troops fast approaching, Abdurahman was sent by his father to what he called a school in Lowgar Province.

His father told him not to come back to Kabul. Abdurahman disobeyed.

But when he arrived home the next day, he found his parents gone and the house empty.

Shortly after, Northern Alliance troops entered Kabul and arrested him, threatening to kill him unless he came up with ransom.

Khadr raised $19,900 (U.S.), paid off his captors and was handed over to Afghan authorities.

Earlier this year, the Afghans gave Abdurahman to the U.S., which shipped him to Guantanamo.

Then last month, he was blindfolded, shackled and loaded on a plane. Only when he arrived in Afghanistan did he know where he'd been taken.

He was released — without money or passport — and told to get out of Afghanistan within a week.

Khadr said he contacted minor officials in the new Afghan government who are old friends of his father and borrowed money. He wouldn't say how much.

And then, he said, he paid smugglers to take him across five borders in an attempt to reach a place he might be safe.

Twice, he says, he tried to enter Canadian embassies to obtain help and travel documents. Twice, he was turned away at the door by security guards because he had no travel documents. (Ottawa disputes this, although not quite as categorically as it once did.)

Only after his story made the press, was he able to find a Canadian embassy — this one in Sarajevo — willing to welcome him.

Intriguingly, he waited a week in that city before contacting the embassy.

Now he's back, finally home in a country he barely knows. He says the very fact that the Americans released him from Guantanamo shows he is no terrorist. And he's got a point. At Guantanamo, there are no legal technicalities to exploit. There are not even any lawyers

Khadr hopes to go to school. He hopes to get his brother out of Guantanamo and brought back home so that, at the very least, he can be charged and tried in a real court of law. He hopes his mother and sister will come back to Scarborough. He grieves for his father.

Most of all, he said, he wants some understanding on the part of his compatriots for himself and his family.

"If two years and a half of Americans and American intelligence on me didn't prove anything, then you as the normal person, who doesn't know so much about my life except what you read in the newspaper, please don't judge me," he said.

© Toronto Star 2003

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