Here’s a murder mystery for you: Why is the man who killed Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer likely to go free a few short months from now? A little background and a few clues may help you better understand — though probably not solve — the case.
Two years ago, a jury of senior military officers at Guantanamo Bay convicted Omar Khadr of war crimes in Afghanistan, not least of which was the murder of SFC Speer, a 28-year-old Special Forces medic. But just as the jury was deciding to hand Khadr a 40-year sentence, Pentagon prosecutors were concluding a plea bargain with Khadr’s attorneys.
“No public explanation for the deal has ever been given,” writes Ezra Levant, a well-known Canadian journalist and author of a book on Khadr. “But regardless of what the jury decided, Khadr would receive a sentence of just eight years. And he would have to serve only a single year of that sentence in U.S. custody before applying, with Washington’s blessing, to transfer to Canada.”
The Canadian government was not eager to welcome back Khadr. But Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was reportedly under intense pressure from the Obama White House. Late last month, Khadr was flown from Guantanamo to Ontario where he is now being held in a civilian prison. His lawyers are expected to ask the independent Parole Board of Canada to release him in the spring.
Self-described human-rights activists have organized a campaign to achieve that result. My colleague, Thomas Joscelyn, recently wrote: “For the worldwide left, Khadr has become a symbol of all that is supposedly wrong with America’s fight against the al Qaeda terror network. He is now, in many minds, a victim.”
Khadr’s supporters emphasize that he is a Canadian citizen and that when he killed Speer he was not yet 16 — a “child soldier.” A book on Khadr, Guantanamo’s Child, by Toronto Star national-security reporter Michelle Shephard, is a best-seller in Canada.
The fact, however, is that before Khadr was Guantanamo’s child he was al-Qaeda’s child. His father, Ahmed Khadr, was a senior member of the jihadi organization and a close associate of Osama bin Laden. An immigrant to Canada from Egypt, Ahmed Khadr moved his family to Pakistan and Afghanistan for the specific purpose of waging jihad.
In Omar Khadr’s “stipulation of fact,” his confession to the court in Gitmo, he acknowledges that he was trained by al-Qaeda in the use of “rocket propelled grenades, various assault rifles, pistols, grenades, and explosives.” American troops found videos of Khadr assembling improvised explosive devices. He has boasted that planting such IEDs was the “proudest moment” of his life.
Khadr also has acknowledged that he chose to remain in a compound with members of an “al-Qaeda explosives cell” who refused to surrender peacefully to American forces. He chose not to be among the women and children who accepted an American offer to leave the compound prior to the battle, and who were then escorted to safety by U.S. soldiers.
It was after the firefight was over, when American troops were tending to the wounded, that Khadr threw the grenade that killed Speer. In response, another U.S. Special Forces soldier shot Khadr. Levant recounts that, “his first words to the U.S. forces who shot and captured him were in English, cursing the soldiers and calling on them to shoot him again — and thus make him a martyr.” Instead, however, U.S. medics treated him, and then turned him over to American surgeons — saving his life. Later, an ophthalmologist was flown to Afghanistan to save the vision in one of his eyes which had been hit by shrapnel.
The last chapter in this murder mystery has yet to be written. Should Khadr be set free next year, will he return to the battlefield as more than 160 of the detainees released from Guantanamo have done (including the top al-Qaeda-affiliated leader in Libya)? Dr. Michael Welner, an American forensic psychiatrist who studied and interviewed Khadr, concluded that he remains a committed jihadist and may see himself stepping into the shoes of his father who was killed in a shootout with Pakistani soldiers in 2003.
Khadr’s more moderate supporters believe he can be rehabilitated. I would ask how they propose that be done: What therapy can change the mind and soul of a 26-year-old man who subscribes to al-Qaeda’s ideology?
Less moderate Khadr supporters believe that no rehabilitation is necessary because he did nothing wrong by fighting Americans who had invaded Afghanistan. Khadr’s mother and older sister, who are back in Canada, reportedly take this view. The facts they conspicuously ignore: Afghanistan is not Khadr’s homeland. He was himself a foreign invader, fighting with al-Qaeda to reestablish a Taliban dictatorship over the people of Afghanistan.
Here’s my best guess about where the story goes from here: Khadr will be paroled but he won’t return to making IEDs, toting AK-47s, and throwing grenades. Nor, however, will he apply to medical school or open a restaurant. Instead, he will become a professional propagandist, telling audiences he was tortured in Afghanistan and Gitmo (claims not supported by any evidence as the military judge presiding over the case ruled), while promoting anti-Americanism and furthering the Islamist cause.
Yes, Khadr has led a tragic life. But the blame for that rests with his parents who decided to make him a teenage terrorist, not with America or Gitmo. And, unlike SFC Speer, Khadr still has a life. Before long, he is likely to be both free and celebrated by people who call themselves human-rights activists. In the real world, murder mysteries don’t always have satisfying endings.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.