Child Soldier in the War on Terror: The Limits of Justice for One Guantanamo Bay Survivor

The abuse of Omar Khadr shows that Islamophobia drives the War on Terror.

Maha Hilal July 31, 2017

Omar Khadr stops to look out on the North Saskatchewan river during his first long walk and bike ride on May 9, 2015, two days after being freed after having spent nearly half of his life in custody. (Michelle Shephard/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Cana­di­an cit­i­zen Omar Khadr was only 15 years old when he was cap­tured in Afghanistan and sub­se­quent­ly tor­tured at the Bagram and Guan­tanamo Bay U.S. mil­i­tary pris­ons. But instead of being treat­ed like a vic­tim­ized child sol­dier, the Cana­di­an pub­lic has accept­ed — with­out ques­tion — the U.S. government’s label­ing of Khadr as a crim­i­nal. This response reveals the deep anti-Mus­lim bias that under­lies the open-end­ed War on Terror.

Khadr is now free from physical imprisonment, but Guantanamo was never just about literal confinement. It’s about psychological trauma and public indictments of criminality.

The youngest child to be charged with war crimes since World War II, Khadr was ini­tial­ly cap­tured for alleged­ly throw­ing a grenade that killed U.S. Sergeant Christo­pher Speer. He was then forced to endure egre­gious tor­ture, from Afghanistan’s Bagram prison where he was ini­tial­ly held, to Guan­tanamo Bay, where he remained for near­ly 10 years until Cana­da repa­tri­at­ed him. At the hands of the U.S. mil­i­tary, he was beat­en, attacked by dogs, held in soli­tary con­fine­ment, threat­ened with gang rape and used as a human mop. He was also denied pain med­ica­tion for the wound he obtained in Afghanistan in the same bat­tle that killed Sergeant Speer. 

After spend­ing 10 years in U.S. mil­i­tary deten­tion at Guan­tanamo, he was then trans­ferred to Cana­da, where he spent near­ly three years in deten­tion before being released on bail in May of 2015

While Khadr pled guilty to five war crimes, inno­cence and guilt have lit­tle mean­ing at Guan­tanamo, where there is a price for those who dare to try to leave its hideous walls. That’s why Khadr gave in to what U.S. Colonel Mor­ris Davis referred to as the para­dox of Guan­tanamo: the notion that you have to lose to win.” Explain­ing his deci­sion to plead guilty in an effort to get out of Guan­tanamo, Khadr said, I was left with a hope­less choice.”

The Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment has been forced to acknowl­edge that Khadr was abused through­out his cap­tiv­i­ty. Ear­li­er this month, Khadr was grant­ed com­pen­sa­tion in the amount of $10.5 mil­lion in Cana­di­an dol­lars and a lim­it­ed apol­o­gy for any role Cana­di­an offi­cials may have played in rela­tion to his ordeal abroad and any result­ing harm.” This set­tle­ment was not an adju­di­ca­tion of Khadr’s inno­cence or guilt regard­ing the five war crimes he plead guilty to. Rather, it was an acknowl­edge­ment of the Cana­di­an government’s fail­ure to pro­tect his most basic rights as a citizen.

Nonethe­less, accord­ing to a poll by the Angus Reid Insti­tute, 71 per­cent of Cana­di­ans believe that the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment did the wrong thing” by not let­ting the case go to Court. And 65 per­cent of respon­dents reject­ed the idea that Trudeau had no oth­er option but to set­tle. The poll also indi­cates that 64 per­cent of those sam­pled believe that Khadr is a poten­tial rad­i­cal­ized threat” in Cana­da. This par­tic­u­lar con­struc­tion of Khadr is like­ly aid­ed by the fact that the Unit­ed States has not offered Khadr an apol­o­gy or com­pen­sa­tion — nor acknowl­edged any wrong­do­ing in his case.

But what if the ques­tion was asked dif­fer­ent­ly? What if the ques­tion was about whether a child sol­dier giv­en up for com­bat by his father, then detained and tor­tured, deserved compensation?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in the larg­er con­text of the War on Ter­ror, this ques­tion is seem­ing­ly rhetor­i­cal. Because being Mus­lim is what ren­ders a per­son guilty long before any evi­dence to adju­di­cate guilt or inno­cence is even intro­duced. Khadr’s case rep­re­sents pre­cise­ly what most Mus­lims have come to learn in the course of the War on Ter­ror: They can only ever be seen as per­pe­tra­tors, not vic­tims. That’s why the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment refused to repa­tri­ate their cit­i­zen, a child, for about a decade after Khadr was ini­tial­ly detained.

This log­ic is built into the U.S.-led War on Ter­ror. For­mer Pres­i­dent George W. Bush said on Sep­tem­ber 20, 2001 that whether we bring our ene­mies to jus­tice or bring jus­tice to our ene­mies, jus­tice will be done.” Bush, of course, meant jus­tice for the state at the expense of Mus­lims, who are vic­tim­ized by the War on Ter­ror. Khadr’s case in Cana­da is illus­tra­tive of some­thing par­tic­u­lar when it comes to Mus­lim vic­tims: One can be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly crim­i­nal­ized and vindicated.

Khadr is now free from phys­i­cal impris­on­ment, but Guan­tanamo was nev­er just about lit­er­al con­fine­ment. It’s about psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma and pub­lic indict­ments of crim­i­nal­i­ty. Whether or not he recov­ers from his expe­ri­ence, and many inter­views with him sug­gest that he is adjust­ing well, Guan­tanamo is meant to destroy lives in the name of pro­tect­ing our nation­al security.

After news of the set­tle­ment came out, Khadr was asked what he wants to do next. He said he wants to fin­ish his nurs­ing degree and work as a nurse to relieve peo­ple from pain.” After all that Khadr has endured, this is one of the great­est tes­ta­ments of his resilien­cy, empa­thy and — above all — humanity. 

Mohammed Moulesse­houl, who went by the pen name Yas­mi­na Khadra, wrote in his nov­el, The Attack, that They can take every­thing you own — your prop­er­ty, your best years, all your joys, all your good works, every­thing down to your last shirt — but you’ll always have your dreams, so you can rein­vent your stolen world.” I hope this is what Khadr can do now — live his dreams and rein­vent his stolen world.

Dr. Maha Hilals research and exper­tise is on Insti­tu­tion­al­ized Islam­o­pho­bia in the War on Ter­ror. She’s the co-direc­tor of the Jus­tice for Mus­lims Col­lec­tive, an orga­niz­er with Wit­ness Against Tor­ture, and a coun­cil mem­ber of School of the Amer­i­c­as Watch. Pre­vi­ous­ly, she was the inau­gur­al Michael Rat­ner fel­low at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
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