Ordinary lad — or jihad conscript?
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
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
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
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
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
"It's the normal thing for people to do in
Afghanistan," he said. So that's what he and his older brother,
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
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
Later, after Pakistan began to inquire into Ahmed
Said Khadr's alleged role in a terror bombing, the family moved
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Toronto Star 2003