This morning, Omar Khadr pled guilty before a military commission to conspiring with al Qaeda and throwing the grenade that killed an American medic in Afghanistan. The guilty plea was reportedly part of an agreement that will allow Khadr to spend less time behind bars. .According to Reuters, lawyers had “discussed an agreement that would let Khadr serve one more year at Guantanamo and then seven years in Canada.”
Khadr’s story is important for a lot of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates the degree to which the anti-Guantanamo crowd has distorted the detainees’ stories. Human rights organizations, journalists, lawyers and others have tried to turn Khadr into a martyr. This son of al Qaeda has been called a “child soldier” over and over again, despite the fact that description is wholly inapplicable.
He was not a child when he was detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan; he was 15 years old. That’s young, of course, but America regularly tries and convicts 15 year-olds of adult crimes in its criminal justice system. Oddly, we have not heard a loud outcry from the same human rights organizations that ran to Khadr’s defense over many of those convictions.
Every time I’ve heard Omar Khadr’s age mentioned I’ve thought of another well-known terrorist who began his jihadist career at 15: Ayman al Zawahiri.
It was as a young man in Egypt that Zawahiri forged his own Muslim Brotherhood cell, commanding respect from his cohorts before he reached his 16th birthday. Zawahiri wanted to overthrow Egypt’s existing political order and establish rule based on sharia law. Ultimately, his colleagues murdered Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. It was after the assassination that Zawahiri became even more of a star on the jihadist scene. His Muslim Brotherhood cell grew into the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and then al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s terror organization has always been as much Zawahiri’s as bin Laden’s.
Nor was Omar Khadr a soldier. He did not serve a uniformed military service. He served al Qaeda, including senior terrorists. He was trained in al Qaeda’s camps, learned how to manufacture improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and planted them in the ground with the hope of killing American soldiers. Per his guilty plea today, he threw the grenade that killed Sergeant First Class Christopher J. Speer in a firefight in Afghanistan.
Who is to say that Omar Khadr’s life would not have unfolded similar to Zawahiri’s? As far as I know, Zawahiri did not kill anyone by the age of 15. Khadr was ahead of Zawahiri in that regard. And Khadr had another advantage on the Zawahiris of the world, too. He comes from an al Qaeda family that is the equivalent of royalty in jihadist circles. His father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden. Ahmed’s other sons joined al Qaeda. Ahmed’s wife (Omar’s mother), blessed these activities, saying it was better her children attended al Qaeda’s camps than Western schools lest their minds become corrupted.
The press has referred to Omar Khadr as the last Westerner at Guantanamo. That is misleading. The Khadr family never truly belonged in the West, which is why Ahmed moved his family to Pakistan and Afghanistan decades ago. They have also made it no secret that they despise just about every aspect of Western culture. For the Khadr family’s allies, it was preferable to denounce the Bush administration and America’s war on terror than a member of al Qaeda.
Some might protest that we don’t know if Omar Khadr would have continued to progress down his jihadist path had he remained free in 2002. There are some who believe, based on no real evidence, that Omar Khadr can be “rehabilitated” even today. Both arguments are myopic and beside the point.
We cannot predict the future, of course, but there is every indication given Omar’s training and pedigree that he was not going to leave al Qaeda’s ranks any time soon. Moreover, Omar Khadr is only alive today because American forces saved his life after a prolonged firefight.
Here, then, is the great irony of Omar Khadr’s life. He killed one U.S. Army medic only to be saved by others. Khadr was gravely wounded on the battlefield. His sworn enemies, the Americans, saved him from death.
Such is the real American military. As thanks, Khadr and his lawyers made up stories about him being serially tortured while at Bagram. But only one unfortunate incident, out of the many alleged by Khadr, stood up to independent scrutiny. A military judge demolished the rest of his claims and dismissed the notion that he had ever been tortured. Khadr wouldn’t even defend his torture claims in live testimony before a military commission hearing. Meanwhile, the government produced witness after witness who disputed his self-serving and misleading account.
Omar Khadr was born into an al Qaeda family, trained and fought on al Qaeda’s behalf. He killed an American serviceman, was kept alive by others, and then made up lies about how he was treated in American custody.
To some on the left, Omar Khadr is a martyr – a victim of the American military. That says much about how they see the world.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.