By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 9, 2005
TORONTO -- The thundering F-16 and A-10 warplanes reduced the fighters' compound in Afghanistan to smoldering rubble. No one could still be alive, figured the U.S. soldiers crouched nearby. But inside, saved by a half-standing wall, a lanky 15-year-old waited as the wary soldiers neared.
As the Americans recount it, he leapt up, threw a grenade and was cut down by the soldiers' fire. The grenade scored: A 28-year-old sergeant was mortally wounded.
The boy was not, however. Blinded in one eye, his chest ripped opened by bullets, Omar Khadr lay on the ground and asked the soldiers to kill him -- in perfect English.
He was a Canadian.
"Everybody who walked by wanted to put a round in him," said Master Sgt. Scotty Hansen, who was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor after the battle in 2002. "But we all knew that's not the way we do it."
Omar Khadr survived. Today, he is 18, a prisoner at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an increasingly awkward presence there for the Canadian government. His mother, sister and brother Abdurahman -- who was briefly imprisoned with Omar at Guantanamo -- have become what Omar's lawyer calls "the most despised family in Canada."
Abdurahman has publicly declared them to be al Qaeda members. His sister has said they all wished for martyrdom. Family members have spoken scornfully of Canadian society, as they receive medical care and welfare payments that keep them in a pleasant apartment in Toronto.
"They've dubbed us the First Canadian Terrorist Family," Omar's sister Zaynab, 25, said recently in an interview. "I don't want to be in a place where I'm not wanted. Give me my passport and I will leave." The Canadian government has impounded the family's travel documents, pending resolution of their case.
But as Omar's confinement at Guantanamo grows longer, he has begun to gain grudging support from constitutional experts and editorial writers. They are pushing the government to demand that the United States either put him on trial or release him.
"Regardless of how much the Khadr family is despised here, Canada's lawmakers cannot look the other way when a citizen is held in foreign custody for years, under abusive conditions, and denied due process," said an editorial in the Toronto Star in February. "That makes Ottawa a silent partner in human rights abuse."
A lawyer for the Khadrs, Dennis Edney, has sued the government and also charged that officials have been negligent because they have made little effort to find another Khadr who has Canadian citizenship -- Omar's brother Abdullah, 24. He disappeared in Pakistan last fall, and the family has said he might be in Pakistani or U.S. custody.
"Canadian citizens should not be left beyond the reach of law," said Alex Neve, head of the Ottawa office of Amnesty International, a human rights group.
On the eighth floor of a Toronto high-rise, the women of the Khadr family keep vigil for Omar and Abdullah. Their mother, Maha, and sister Zaynab sit cross-legged on the floor, wearing chadors that leave only a slit for their brown eyes. From under the black cloaks, hands decorated with henna emerge.
Two of Maha's four sons are in Canada. Karim, 16, paralyzed in a shootout in Pakistan that killed his father, is in a wheelchair. He spends his time playing computer games. Abdurahman, 22, drops in occasionally between day labor jobs, though he is derided by his sister and mother for having spoken publicly of -- and then renounced -- his family's ties to al Qaeda.
"He is a lost cause," his mother sighed.
Their lawyer and relatives have urged them to shut up. Even their local mosque shuns them, Maha Khadr said.
But they are driven by their opinions, they say, and by the desire to keep the cases of Omar and Abdullah in the public eye. As they spoke, the two women were emotional, often inflammatory. They trumped each other's sentences, their words tumbling together.
Maha Khadr said they were "doomed" because they were outspokenly critical. "Isn't that supposed to be the thing that differentiates the Western world from the Eastern world? Freedom of speech? Freedom of thought? " Zaynab Khadr asked mockingly.
Their complaints have gained some traction. A suit filed by Edney has revealed that the only official Canadian contacts in 2003 and 2004 with Omar Khadr in Guantanamo were not by consular officials to advise him, but by intelligence agents who questioned him.
Edney neither confirms nor contests the U.S. soldiers' account indicating that Omar threw a grenade at them. He has called for a trial that would bring the evidence out in the open, allow cross examination of witnesses and deal with the question of Omar's age. Under international law, he is a minor.
"His detention and age raise a lot of very difficult issues for the Canadian government," said Kent Roach, a professor of law at the University of Toronto. "Was this person a child soldier? We don't know. His father was involved in al Qaeda, but to what extent were [Omar's] actions free choice?"
A Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Rodney Moore, said recently that the government has made "ongoing diplomatic representations" and was allowed by the United States only this March to make its first "welfare visit" to Omar Khadr in Guantanamo.
Zaynab Khadr is skeptical of the emerging public support. "It's not that they are becoming sympathetic with us. It's that Canadians are feeling less secure about their own laws and their own government," she said. "If a child, no matter what his deed was -- he was 15, of Canadian birth -- can be treated like that, why can't any one of us?"
The Khadr family's notoriety began with its patriarch. Ahmed Said Khadr, who was born in Egypt and moved to Canada in 1977. He and his wife, Maha, a Palestinian who had lived most of her life in Ottawa, had six children -- four of them born in Canada.
Khadr was a computer engineer, but he shuttled back and forth to troubled Muslim regions of the world, raising money for charities, he told officials. In December 1995, he was arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of helping finance the bombing a month earlier of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, which killed 17 people. In January 1996, Canada's prime minister at the time, Jean Chretien, visited Pakistan and appealed to the government to release the Canadian citizen.
After he was freed, Khadr moved his family to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where they lived in the same compound as Osama bin Laden. In 1999, bin Laden attended Zaynab's wedding, family members acknowledge. Khadr's sons were sent to al Qaeda summer camps, according to Abdurahman, who described his father's fanatic devotion to Islamic jihad causes and attempts to persuade his son to become a martyr.
Zaynab and Maha Khadr say they were not members of al Qaeda, though they shared its radical world view. "I will say, yes, I am a fanatic Muslim," Zaynab said. "But even if in the public eye they are the same, I am not al Qaeda."
And bin Laden's attendance at her wedding? "It's not such a big deal over there," she said with a shrug. "He goes to everyone's wedding."
After Sept. 11, 2001, the family scattered. Maha eventually returned to Toronto. But the elder Khadr took his sons to the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to carry on the fight. U.S. authorities, who identified him as a ranking aide to bin Laden, tried hard to find him.
On July 27, 2002, intelligence analysts asked U.S. forces on the ground near Khost in southeastern Afghanistan to check out a compound in a small village. They had picked up radio transmissions that might have been from Khadr, according to Sgt. Layne Morris, a Special Forces soldier with the National Guard in Utah, who was then operating near Khost.
U.S. forces surrounded the compound and sent in two Afghan translators. The Afghans were slaughtered in a hail of rifle fire. A fierce battle followed, with grenades being thrown both ways over the mud wall, according to Master Sgt. Hansen, who was crouched by the wall.
Incongruously, he started laughing. "Combat is awful loud," he recalled thinking.
Sgt. Morris was aiming his rifle when a grenade sent shrapnel through his eye. "I thought, dang, my rifle just exploded on me. Turned out it was a grenade," Morris, 43, said in an interview from Salt Lake City. "I thought I was dead. It was discouraging. All I could think was, man, I am not going to see my wife or kids again."
When air support arrived, F-16 cannons chewed through the mud and cement compound, and twin 500-pound bombs crushed what was left. But Omar Khadr was a surprise survivor. His grenade sprayed shrapnel over Sgt. Christopher J. Speers, who was not wearing a helmet, and he died nine days later at a military hospital in Germany.
Fifteen months later, Omar's father was killed in a shootout with Pakistani security forces in a remote region near the border. Omar's brother, Karim, then 14, was wounded and paralyzed in the shootout.
Omar was sent to Guantanamo. Earlier this year, U.S. lawyers who were allowed to interview him there said the youth reported being taunted sexually by guards, shackled in painful positions and dragged "like a human mop" over urine-soaked floors.
"I believe he has been tortured, beyond a doubt," said one of the attorneys, Richard Wilson, a law professor at American University.
In Toronto, the Khadr women are facing obstacles of their own. In March, when Zaynab Khadr returned to Canada from Islamabad for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she was met at the airport by police investigators with a search warrant. They seized her laptop computers and address books, contending that she has "willingly participated and contributed both directly and indirectly" to al Qaeda's terrorist activities, according to the court affidavit filed for the warrant.
Zaynab professed to be unworried. "If they had anything, I wouldn't still be here," she said.
Her mother is defiant. "What is our crime?" Maha Khadr demanded. "Because we are different? And we do not want to change our morals? Time will prove we have never ever broken any Canadian law. Never."