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If Omar Khadr is a terrorist, then so am I

A veteran reflects on children of war, the complexities of the modern battlefield and Canada’s best-known child soldier.

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Omar Khadr at 14 years old. At 15, he was in American custody at the infamous Bagram Airfield. - VIA WIKEPEDIA
  • VIA WIKEPEDIA
  • Omar Khadr at 14 years old. At 15, he was in American custody at the infamous Bagram Airfield.

The bridge of the HMCS Charlottetown was cool and muggy. The ship's air conditioning was running full blast, but the doors were open, so the sailors on watch could hear if something happened ashore.

During the day, the Charlottetown would stay far off the coast of Libya to be out of range of land-based missiles. But at night, the lights of the city of Misratah were mostly out; power was hard to come by after the first couple weeks of the war. The Mediterranean was dark like glass. Charlottetown would slip in close to the shore, a shadow with its eyes and ears on Misratah.

The first few night watches close to shore are tense. Danger feels close. But after a couple weeks of nothing happening, it falls into a routine.

"Warship three-three-nine, warship three-three-nine, this is Misratah port control," a lightly accented voice crackles through the radio.

"Misratah port control, this is three-three-nine, go ahead," a bored-sounding sailor replies. She's normally enthusiastic, especially when talking about her grandkids, but weeks of night watches can sap even the most enthusiastic person's energy.

"Yeah, three-three-nine, we're going to—uh—we have some...plans for the morning. Can you give us a call?"

Less than a minute later, an officer comes through the bridge with a satellite phone in his hand to make the call from the bridge wing. When he comes back in, he hands the officer of the watch a piece of paper with coordinates. "Hey, can you check these on the map?"

Charlottetown's mission is now coordinating with the forces on the ground that are fighting Muammar Ghaddafi. Organizing intelligence, validating what they can and acting on—that is, bombing—what can be confirmed. Tonight, its Libyan counterparts informed the Charlottetown that they're going to attack a Ghaddafi position in the morning. They want to make sure NATO doesn't have any plans to attack that position and hit them by mistake.

But the checking-in becomes a plan for a new, coordinated attack. Ghaddafi's troops will be hit by NATO planes, then attacked by Libyan ground forces.

"Misratah port control, this is warship three-three-nine," this time the radio call comes out of the ops room. They're the ones who fight the ship.

"Yes, this is Misratah," the voice from earlier replies.

"Yeah, Misratah, I just wanted to let you know that we got the invite to, uh, your party, and we'll be there about 10 minutes early, will you be ready for us?"

"Yes three-three-nine, we will be ready."

As the sun comes up, a couple of NATO jets fly over the Charlottetown, about 15 minutes before the planned attack. Ten minutes later they fly back overhead, this time without their bombs.

• • •

In Libya in 2011, the Canadian Forces were helping a group called the Transitional National Council overthrow Ghaddafi. Canada deemed the TNC an ally because it was fighting Ghaddafi. The enemy of my enemy. But the reality was more complex.

The TNC was a loose coalition of militias. One of the major militia groups in the TNC was ISIS. Thanks to Western intervention, Ghaddafi fell, which created a power vacuum. In the vacuum, ISIS was able to take control of large swaths of the country and is still active in Libya to this day.

This is modern war, where the bad guys—or good guys—depend on what's convenient for Canadian foreign policy. In question period in 2017, when talking about what should happen to the people who fought with ISIS, MP Michelle Rempel said, "There should be consequences for choosing to fight with a terrorist death cult." What consequences, then, should Canada face?

It turns out this is a hard question to answer. The laws and rules of armed conflict weren’t designed with the foresight to predict the realities of today’s conflicts. The laws assume Eurocentric forces of roughly equivalent stature fighting a traditional, winnable war. There are no rules that adequately apply to a military conflict that’s half occupation of a sovereign state, half humanitarian mission and half war. They don’t cover military conflicts where the enemies are sometimes government forces, sometimes forces of a stateless entity acting as a government and sometimes just a stateless entity.

In Afghanistan, depending on the year or location, Canada faced all three of those enemies. In the initial invasion, it was the military of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. After the invasion it became the Taliban, which had been the government until 2001 and still was acting as government in the remote regions of the country. And finally, in the later stages of the ongoing war, stateless groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The rigid nature of the archaic laws governing armed conflict allow no room for colouring outside the lines. In matters of life and death, in matters of foreign policy, in matters of war, there's a lot that happens outside the realm of what is considered normal or acceptable behaviour.

These questions are once again the topic of debate because Canada's best-known child soldier, Omar Khadr, is speaking in Halifax on Monday. Khadr's life has become a political lightning rod; to some, he is seen as a terrorist. To others, he's a child soldier indoctrinated to fight, who never had the freedom to be anything else. The main reason he's a focal point is because he received a $10.5-million settlement from the Canadian government, in secret, adding conspiracy fuel to the fire of the people who see him as a bad guy.

And so, it's once again time to try for a nuanced conversation about the changing nature of war and the role of child soldiers in armed conflict. To talk about what the difference is between a child soldier and a terrorist. A nuanced discussion about what it means to fight a modern war.

Because in black and white, if Omar Khadr is a terrorist, then so am I.

• • •

To mark the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative—the CSI—is teaming up with Dalhousie University's Open Dialogue series to host an event on Monday, February 10, at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. The event is designed to start a dialogue about how children are used in war—how susceptible they are to being brainwashed into fighting by and for the adults in their world. The CSI, based out of Dal, works to prevent children from being used as a tool of war.

On its face, it is the least controversial event that could possibly be imagined. Should children be used to fight wars? The answer is no—right?

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the internet exists. And so, if the goal of the event is to foster a discussion, boy howdy did it work.

The panel is being moderated by CBC's Nahlah Ayed and features child soldier-turned-human rights activist Ishmael Beah and CSI founder Roméo Dallaire. But it's Khadr's presence that is generating all the discussion so far.

Well, it's not discussion really—more of a vitriolic hatred being spewed by the darkest corners of the internet. These husks of humanity are demanding to know how anyone could possibly have even the slightest shred of empathy for someone they deem to be a bloodthirsty terrorist. Or as Conservative leadership hopeful Erin O'Toole tweeted when he learned that Khadr would be speaking at the event: "Disappointed to see this. It's a reminder that PM Trudeau gave millions to a convicted terrorist while telling our veterans they ask for too much."

• • •

Details of Khadr's early life are sparse and rely mostly on interviews with people who knew him when he was young. He was born in Toronto in 1986. His parents moved him back and forth from Canada to Pakistan during his childhood. Religion played a major role in Khadr's upbringing. Depending on whom a journalist talked to and the editorial freedom their publications allow, accounts vary wildly. In 2006 CTV's Sarah Challands wrote Khadr "was reared in an atmosphere of religious and political extremism that was hostile to Western values." Jeff Tietz writing for Rolling Stone was a bit blunter: "he had been prepared for jihad since he was a small boy. His parents, who were Egyptian and Palestinian, had raised him to believe that religious martyrdom was the highest achievement he could aspire to."

The Coast asked to speak to Khadr, but he is not talking to media for this event.

In early 1995, Khadr's father was arrested and accused of helping finance the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. After being released from prison and a brief stint of living in Canada, the Khadr family moved to Afghanistan in 1996.

That same year Khadr turned 10, and al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan, where the Taliban were fighting to take control of the country. Both Bin Laden and the Taliban gained power and influence over the next few years. Bin Laden wouldn't become a household name until 2001, when his plan for the September 11 attacks became a reality.

As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the United States and its allies, including Canada, invaded Afghanistan intending to find and kill Bin Laden.

On July 27, 2002, there was a firefight. The details of the firefight are sketchy, as stories about firefights often are. Often the only things completely verifiable after the fact are objectively and physically true. How many bullets were shot? How many bombs were dropped? What was the butcher's bill?

During the firefight, a United States medic, sergeant first class Christopher James Speer, was mortally wounded. He died in hospital August 6, 2002.

Khadr was also injured during the firefight. He might have been shot in the back while crouched and looking away. Or he was shot in the chest while facing the advancing Americans with a pistol in his hand. Or maybe was he holding a grenade?

It's not clear from witness testimony exactly what happened to Khadr. He had two exit wounds in his chest, large enough to see his heart beating. He also had shrapnel damage to his shoulder and eyes.

• • •

In the wake of 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency started torturing suspected terrorists to try and prevent attacks on the US. The program was run out of secret CIA facilities around the world.

In 2002, the wounded Omar Khadr was shipped off to Bagram Airfield—a large US base in Afghanistan—for medical treatment, months before his sweet 16.

The reports of Khadr's torture at Bagram are devastating: Threatened with rape in US prison, thrown off his stretcher hours after surgery, bright lights shone into his injured eyes, choked with a bag over his head, hands bound over his head and hung from the ceiling, left chained up so long he pissed himself.

The theory behind torture is that it's essential to torture hard and torture fast because military intelligence is perishable. And, indeed, battlefield intelligence often goes bad quicker than the vegetables marked "enjoy tonight" at the grocery store. But there's no evidence to suggest that torture is in any way effective at getting information. In the case of Khadr, the Americans didn't get anything.

A month after Khadr turned 16, he was shipped off to Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo Bay, AKA Gitmo, was opened in its namesake bay in Cuba at the start of the war on terror in 2002. It was initially opened and operated in secret by the Bush administration.

The prison is infamous for its use of torture: solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, "stress positions," waterboarding. Khadr was reportedly subjected to it all.

In Guantanamo, while being tortured, Khadr made a confession.

• • •

The United Nations, in its Convention Against Torture, is clear: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever...may be invoked as a justification of torture." And each nation that signed the 1987 convention, including the US and Canada, "shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law." But, for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, being held indefinitely until their trials on various charges, this convention didn't seem to apply.

The case against Khadr started as a military tribunal convened by the US, on charges of murder and attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism and spying. Khadr pleaded not guilty.

In a TV courtroom—apologies to real lawyers—the pressure would then be on the prosecution to prove its case against Khadr, relying on evidence from a battlefield where witnesses aren't even sure if the accused 15-year-old boy was shot in the back or the chest, holding a grenade or a gun.

But in the reality of Gitmo, a judge decided that Khadr's confession could be used in the tribunal, even though it had been obtained under torture. Khadr, instead of fighting a rigged battle, agreed to a deal—a plea bargain. In exchange for pleading guilty to war crimes, the length of his sentence was capped and he was released from Gitmo and sent to Canada in 2012 to serve the rest of his sentence in the Canadian prison system.

He was 26 at that point, but the crimes Khadr pleaded guilty to were committed when he was 15, so he was a young offender in the eyes of Canadian law. Prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government tried to make it so he would be legally considered an adult; the Supreme Court of Canada heard the case and said no, Khadr was a child.

While this was happening, Khadr asked to be released on bail because he was appealing his conviction for war crimes. He was granted bail on April 27, 2015. The federal government appealed the decision, but on May 7, a judge ordered Khadr released, denying the government's appeal.

In 2019, a judge decided Khadr had completed his sentence. (In the youth system, a judge can make this decision if the offender can demonstrate they have grown as a person.) His appeal is still waiting to be heard by the US Court of Military Commission Review.

While the criminal side of his case was running through the legal system, Khadr filed a civil case against the Canadian government. He first filed the case in 2004 from Gitmo, seeking $100,000 for damages, but the suit kept getting amended and changing in scope.

The final amendment happened in 2014. A federal court judge decided that Khadr should be able to claim Canada conspired with its US allies to have him tortured and breach his rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These allegations were never proven, as the Canadian government decided to settle before court.

Khadr was awarded a $10.5-million settlement. This amount wasn't made public by the government—the norm with these kinds of settlements. Instead, it was leaked. In the wake of this leak, there were a lot of legal opinions written about why the government settled, but it's impossible to know for sure. In this case, the answer might not lie in the realm of the law.

If Khadr's civil case had been litigated, details about his treatment would have entered the public realm. This would include how Canadian and US governments and intelligence services interact with each other—information governments spend a lot of time and money keeping secret. Any court case that would expose aspects of that communication and could put the lives of Canadian and US intelligence operatives at risk. It makes as much sense as any legal opinion as to why Canada settled.

It's also possible that it's as simple as a Canadian child and citizen was tortured, and Canada did nothing to stop it.

In the flexible definitions of right and wrong Canada may need to apply to its foreign policy, there is supposed to be one constant undercurrent keeping the nation anchored: It does not matter who you are or what you do, if you are Canadian your rights and freedoms will be protected by your government.

We only need to look around the world to see what happens when countries pick and choose who gets protection under the law. No matter how righteous it may have felt to deny Khadr his justice, it would have been the start of the slow erosion of our charter rights.

If our foundation of legally guaranteed rights disappears, this whole experiment we call Canada disappears too.

———

Matt Stickland is a retired naval officer who served for 10 years and deployed on the HMCS Charlottetown in 2011.