Omar Khadr: Peace-loving Canadian or al-Qaeda royalty?

Two psychiatrists who interviewed Omar Khadr give differing opinions on the 25-year-old Canadian and the potential threat he might pose when he returns.
Omar Khadr, who is currently being held in Edmonton, agreed to a sentence of eight years, with no credit for time served, with the first year spent in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. (Janet Hamlin/Canadian Press)

In preparation for his 2010 trial at a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Omar Khadr was interviewed by psychiatrists, including Dr. Michael Welner, who testified for the prosecution, and Dr. Stephen Xenakis, who worked for but ultimately did not testify for the defence.

Welner spent seven to eight hours with Khadr over two days, while Xenakis says he has spent more than 200 hours with the inmate.

The two doctors came up with vastly divergent opinions of the 25-year-old Canadian, who in a deal with prosecution pleaded guilty to the murder of Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. Khadr was captured following a battle in Afghanistan in 2002 and accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed Speer.

Khadr, who is currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, agreed in a plea deal to a sentence of eight years, with no credit for time served, with the first year spent in U.S. custody. The U.S. has agreed to return Khadr to Canada.

Days ago, his lawyers filed a notice of application seeking to ask the Federal Court to review the federal government's failure to ask the U.S. to transfer Khadr to Canadian custody.

It seems inevitable that Khadr will eventually return to Canada, where he could be eligible for parole. But who is the real Omar Khadr? Does the former al-Qaeda fighter pose any kind of threat to Canadians?

CBC News's Mark Gollom interviewed Welner and Xenakis to ask about their different views on Khadr. Xenakis agreed to a phone interview and Welner responded by email. Below is an edited transcript of the interviews.

'Not a threat by any stretch of the imagination'

Dr. Stephen Xenakis is a retired brigadier general and army medical corps officer with 28 years of active service. He is an adjunct clinical professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and is board certified as a child/adolescent psychiatrist. (Physicians For Human Rights)

CBC News: What is your impression of Khadr in terms of his personality, intelligence?

Xenakis: He's a smart, extremely decent young man. Thoughtful, very sensitive and I will say, amazingly, there's hardly an instinct of aggression or meanness in him at all. For a person who has had to endure what he has in these kinds of settings now for 10 plus years, he has an equanimity about him and a sensitivity and a thoughtfulness that is extraordinary.

CBC News: What's the threat potential Khadr may pose to Canadians?

Xenakis: It is between zero and one per cent. It is as low as it can be. He is not a threat by any stretch of the imagination.

CBC News: You have also said before that he's not a violent person and never was a violent person. Yet we have seen videos of him making bombs and he has admitted to killing Christopher Speer. How can you say he's never been a threat and is currently not a threat?

Xenakis: The admission is an artifact of the court proceedings. It is not a statement of truth as you and I know it as laymen.

CBC News: Do you think he has ever done anything violent?

Xenakis: No, I do not believe that he has done anything violent. Remember that this was a firefight and that our forces attacked the compound that he was placed in by his father. He was an adolescent and we have never … talked about what would be reasonable self-defence and protection in the midst of a firefight like that in what we call the fog of battle.

I'm not saying that he never fired a weapon. I'm not saying that he never threw a grenade. I will say that no one knows.

CBC News: If he did throw a grenade, wouldn’t that suggest a tendency toward violence?

Xenakis: No, he’s an adolescent. That’s the second point here, and I think what the travesty is, what the error is. This was a 15-year-old kid sent there by his father and doing what his father asked him to do. We as civilized democratic countries recognize that different standards should be applied socially and legally to people who are adolescents.

CBC News: This gets into the whole "child soldier" debate. Dr. Welner said he doesn't believe the child soldier label necessarily applies to Khadr, because in this case you have an individual who wasn't kidnapped, he wasn't drugged, he went on his own accord to fight.

Xenakis: Totally misses what the mental state is, capacity, reasoning, and the maturity of adolescence. What [Welner's] doing is in fact characterizing this [then] teenage boy as if he's a small adult and absolutely ignores everything we know about neuro development for young people, in particular teenagers.

He did what his father asked him. In that culture, you do not disagree or defy your father. The whole thing about the [bomb-making] videotaping, that was highly staged.

Khadr, who is currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, agreed to a sentence of eight years, with no credit for time served, with the first year spent in U.S. custody (Janet Hamlin/Canadian Press)

CBC News: You have also said you don't think Khadr was ever a committed jihadist or radicalized, yet he grew up in a family where he is being trained and taught by a father who was a top al-Qaeda leader and a personal friend of Osama bin Laden. How could he not be influenced by that? And what's your evidence he's not a jihadist?

Xenakis: The evidence is he does not wish at any time nor does he want to consider talk about politics, doesn't want to talk about military things. He absolutely wants to remove himself from anything that at all touches on those areas. He wants, if at all possible, to lead a a private, quiet life and be a health-care practitioner.

If you look at the family, there is room in there for people to make their own decisions and lead their own lives. This is not a criminal family or a Mafia family where you’re either in or out. The father was killed nine years ago.

[Khadr] is religious, he's peace loving, he's compassionate, he's very compassionate.

CBC News: Many Canadians saw the videotapes of his interrogation by CSIS agents, where we see him crying, and he says he was tortured. Critics say he was playing to the camera and that in the so-called al-Qaeda handbook, you always claim to be tortured by your captors.

Xenakis: He was a boy there and he was 16 years old. There’s so much of what I’ve been able to reconstruct that was very childlike and adolescent that’s consistent with his immaturity at the time he was interviewed. I'm not sure he knew there was a camera.

I've not been able to confirm anything that would corroborate that they're trained this way. I've seen these manuals, excerpts of these manuals — actually I’ve seen more the statements from the prosecution, from the government that that's what’s going on, but I’ve not seen any evidence of it. And having done a lot of military training, I know how hard it is to train the average person, particularly under circumstances like this, and that's unrealistic.

CBC News: How do you know you're getting the clear picture of who he is and that he's just not telling you what you want to hear?

Xenakis: There are patients that do that. But I don't think many of them do, really. I think that's a movie characterization that you get a flat-out psychopath that's so skilful … that they can artfully sort of pull the wool over the psychiatrist's eyes. Even when you do that, if you are a fairly experienced clinician, you kind of know what's artificial that you're hearing.

It is so important for him to be truthful, for him to be honest.


'The ideal person to establish a beachhead for al-Qaeda in Canada'

Dr. Michael Welner is a New York-based forensic psychiatrist who has testified in a number of high-profile cases. He is associate professor of psychiatry at NYU, founder and chairman of the Forensic Panel, and developer of the Depravity Standard, a research study that includes a public survey at (The Forensic Panel)

CBC News: You interviewed Khadr for seven to eight hours. Is that enough time to get a good assessment of an individual?

Welner: The interview was conducted after I had devoted over 300 hours to the study of records ranging from interrogation notes to psychologist observations to medical records to classified documents to correspondence between Khadr and his family, and interviewing many others who had interacted with him in one way or another.

For the questions I was asked to resolve, my interview was adequate. I had the opportunity to ask every question that was appropriate for the occasion of our meeting. Omar answered some questions and obfuscated some others. And then I headed directly to an interview with five different guards who had interacted with him and supervisors of those guards, collecting their insights on how he related to his peers and they to him, and how he to them, as well as his relatedness to the guards and how that evolved over time.

One learns from many sources, and no one accounted for more direct contact with a broader range of source materials than I did. No one. The interview was informative enough that the defence did everything in its power to prevent not only the jury from seeing it, but even the prosecutors.

CBC News: What was your impression of him, in terms of his personality, intelligence?

Welner: He is street smart and carries himself with the bearing of a confident person who knows others are interested in him. He is amiable and has a ready smile, and an easy comportment as long as he is not being confronted. He unfailingly portrayed himself as a victim with nothing of his own to regret or to renounce.

CBC News: What did he say during that time that made you believe he’s a danger?

Welner: His is the dilemma of Michael Corleone, who even when directed to one way of life may not ultimately turn away from family pressures to lead their ambitions for him, and his own visceral identification. Omar Khadr is undisputed al-Qaeda royalty and undeniably has yet to renounce it.

If not de-radicalized, and without a system of checks and balances that protects the pluralistic fabric of Canadian society, the Omar Khadr I evaluated will re-enter Canada ideally positioned and exploited by jihadist elements to legitimize and to promote Islamist aims, to inspire others to hostility to Canada and to avenge his claimed grievance. He is the ideal person to establish a beachhead for al-Qaeda in Canada, and will be pressured by the radicals who expect him to do so.

Mr. Khadr remains in closest identification with his family. That family has publicly characterized itself as an al-Qaeda family. He aims to return to that family and its inspiration when he returns to Canada and has specifically avoided repudiating jihadism in the slightest.

Khadr listens to witness Dr. Welner (right) respond to questioning by prosecution air force Capt. Chris Eason (centre) during his trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Janet Hamlin/Canadian Press)

His being a killer of an American soldier has given him great standing among the Guantanamo detainees, who have been his entire community, and are essentially the source of his self-esteem. As the man even elder al-Qaeda and Taliban prevail upon to be their voice in Guantanamo, it is obvious that these elders and others would favour Omar Khadr's potential benefit to their movement once he has freedom of movement.

His supporters have worsened his risk by enabling him to coast through his process by denying responsibility and therefore, any need to mature in a way that killers customarily come to live with what they have done.

Omar Khadr will not be directly violent; his father was not, yet a leader in al-Qaeda. Mr. Khadr does not need to be in order to promote the aims his father advanced.

CBC News: You have said he’s devout and that he’s angry. Did he show instances of anger? Or was he angry like anyone would be angry over being examined by someone he might think isn’t sympathetic or has an agenda?

Welner: He was not angry over talking to me. The independence of my examination was clear to him and when he questioned it, I replied that the videotaping of my interview ensured complete transparency and would safeguard his interview from potential bias by holding me accountable.

He was angry that he was being incarcerated at all. He was angry when he could not control the interview by directing the discussion to topics of his preference. He was at his angriest when shown the videotape of his bomb-making activity and being asked about it. Experiences that do not make it possible for him to whitewash his killing and attempted killing make him particularly angry.

As he has fired numerous talented and doting attorneys to date, I experienced his anger as the way he in particular reacts to not being in control over a situation. 

CBC News: What evidence was there that he’s still radicalized?

Khadr's history of having killed an American soldier, his being the son of an al-Qaeda leader, his being in a family that fashions itself as an al-Qaeda family and therefore able to provide support from outside prison, his access to media who wish to decriminalize his jihadist violence and to legitimize his grievance, his access to devoted NGOs and pro bono Canadian and American legal talent no ordinary citizen could dream of, his having memorized the Qur'an, his fluency in English and Western social skills with guards prompted numerous blocks within Guantanamo to ask that he be their block leader.

The deputy camp commander depicted him, for these reasons, as a "rock star" of the camps. For those who feel he has not been further radicalized, consider this: as radical as the remaining detainees are, would they choose a moderately minded person to act as their leader? Would they choose a child? I don’t think so. Nor does any other person charged with responsibility in Guantanamo think so.

What is different about Omar Khadr is that his advocacy has been so successfully hyped that he has achieved something no one in the world has: the unthinkable makeover of al-Qaeda as a victim and the legitimization of its grievance and to act as it chooses.

CBC News: Many Canadians saw the videotapes of his interrogation by CSIS agents where we see him crying, and he says he was tortured. What did you make of that?

Welner: The tapes are compelling viewing, and if one were to know nothing more of the case, would experience the scene as a teenager in great distress being dismissed by an unusually insensitive adult.

By 2001, the intelligence community had possession of the al-Qaeda handbook seized in Manchester, England. That handbook contained directives to captured al-Qaeda to claim torture and abuse by captors, especially if they gave statements.

Khadr is seen in Guantanamo Bay's Camp 4, days before the 24-year-old Canadian was convicted of five war crimes and sentenced to eight more years. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Omar Khadr co-operated with the hope that Canada would repatriate him (as it once did his father, when Ahmed Khadr had been incarcerated in Pakistan). The CSIS agent met with Khadr and found him to be the amiable and charming lad his father raised him to be. To Khadr's great dismay, the CSIS agent flatly extinguished Khadr's hopes of returning to Canada, and made note of Ahmed's terrorist legacy.

When Omar Khadr sat for a followup interview the next day, his presentation was dramatically different. He not only exhibited a dramatically different mood and comportment with no event to explain his distress, but essentially articulated a story that the intelligence community recognized as the de rigeur claim of "torture" as having that familiar Manchester aroma.

CBC News: Khadr is considered by many to be a child soldier. He was brought up in a household where he was brainwashed and trained by his father about al-Qaeda. Why should someone who was only 15 at the time of the killing of Christopher Speer be held accountable for his actions?

Welner: The notion of brainwashing is part of the fiction created of Khadr — consider that his older brother completely rejected living religiously and militantly, yet was never rejected by the family.

Omar Khadr was sent to translate at an al-Qaeda compound where his father was known and no one would have exploited that child. On his own volition, Omar Khadr buoyantly assembled roadside bombs, planted them, and announced that he wanted to kill lots of Americans — as he videotaped the experience. His father was nowhere in sight and this initiative bore no resemblance to his purpose of acting as a translator there, as he had for his father's terrorist business elsewhere.

When coalition forces converged only to disarm the compound, they gave the occupants 30 minutes to leave. A number of women and children did. Omar Khadr elected to stay, with colleagues who did not attack on impulse, but rather continued to wait while troops slowly gathered at the house to negotiate its disarmament. He therefore chose not only to be part of a group that launched an attack it did not have to, but one which deliberately waited for troops to converge so as to maximize coalition casualties.

A child soldier is ripped from his (often murdered) family and forced and habituated into violence. Omar Khadr enjoyed the martial arts for a number of years and voluntarily engaged in weapons training. He was hardly ripped from his father. The child soldier is drugged into a numbed detachment; Omar Khadr clearly was delighted by being part of the planned destruction. A child soldier is mortified by their actions; Omar Khadr felt glorified by what he did.

CBC News: Xenakis has said in previous interviews that anyone who has had personal contact with Khadr, including the Guantanamo Bay guards, would say, "This is a sensitive, caring, very considerate individual."

Welner: Mr. Khadr was raised very well, contrary to the public misinformation that his father was a weirdo. His father was a dignified, educated man who ran an orphanage. He was also a terrorist who conducted al-Qaeda business using Omar Khadr as a translator from a very early age. One can have a sensitive and caring example set for him and learn how to carry social graces. Forensic examination does not afford the luxury of limiting an analysis to superficialities.

I would agree that Omar Khadr is very sensitive to his family and to his father's legacy, and caring of his mother. That he happens to be closest to his family and possessed of such sensitivities is part of the problem.

With files from The Canadian Press