Hindu Vivek Kendra
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The good son

The good son

Author: Isabel Vincent
Publication: National Post
Date: December 28, 2002
URL: http://www.nationalpost.com/home/story.html?id={35363D34-2294-4F73-96E9-7C568725623E}

Introduction: Omar Khadr: from Toronto's suburbs to bin Laden's army: 'Omar was always there for us,' says sister of teenager accused of killing U.S. soldier

Omar al Khadr worshipped Allah and Tintin. Even after he hit puberty and discovered American action films and Nintendo, Omar, a conscientious Islamic student, still loved to quote from the adventures of the Belgian cartoon reporter, which he seemed to know by heart.

"Billions of blue blistering barnacles," he used to say, tripping over the words as he pretended to be the curmudgeonly Captain Haddock -- a comic routine that was guaranteed to send his five brothers and sisters into paroxysms of giggles whenever the family was in the midst of a crisis.

For the Khadr household, crises seemed to happen with chilling frequency. There was the time their father stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan and nearly died, and the awful months in the mid-1990s when he was jailed and tortured by Pakistani and Egyptian officials and went on a hunger strike to protest what he called his "unlawful" confinement.

"Omar was always there for us," his older sister Zaynab told me. "If you weren't feeling well, he would go out and get you a biscuit or a juice. Sometimes, out of nowhere, he would say something from Tintin. 'Blistering barnacles' or 'thundering typhoons.' And, no matter how we were feeling, we'd all start laughing."

Perhaps Omar imagined that his own adventures were similar to Tintin's. Like Tintin, Omar spent much of his time on the road, shuttling with his relief-worker parents between homes in Toronto, where he was born and partly raised, Peshawar, a frontier city in Pakistan where the family ran a camp for Afghan refugees, and assorted cities and towns throughout Afghanistan, on sombre and sometimes secret missions to save lives.

But the similarities end there. Tintin's adventures never included embarking on a global jihad, or booby-trapping a dusty stretch of road in Afghanistan with explosives, or killing an American soldier. Omar Khadr, who turned 16 in a U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan in September, is accused of doing all three.

Unlike John Walker Lindh, the young Muslim convert from California who joined the Taliban and is now serving a life sentence, Omar was encouraged to join the jihad against the United States by members of his own family. His primary inspiration was his father, Ahmed Sa'id Khadr, an Egyptian-born Canadian relief worker who is suspected of being one of Osama bin Laden's key lieutenants and a high-ranking member of the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Omar's older brother Abdul Rahman Khadr, 19, is also suspected of having ties to terrorists in Afghanistan and has been in a Kabul jail for more than a year. He was captured last November by Northern Alliance troops when they marched into the Afghan capital and rounded up Taliban warriors and their Arab supporters. His family, in both Canada and Pakistan, has received cryptic messages from Abdul Rahman, pleading for thousands of dollars in "ransom" for his captors, who have reportedly threatened to kill him.

Omar's situation also appears bleak. Since July, when he was discovered by U.S. troops in a bombed-out compound near the village of Ab Khail, in eastern Afghanistan, he has become one of the youngest "persons under control," the term the U.S. administration has coined to describe detained enemy combatants in Afghanistan. For the time being, they have shipped Omar to a cell at Camp X-Ray on the Guantanamo naval base, and are pondering whether to try him in a military court.

Omar's grandmother recently likened the cage-like detention cells on the base to the Bastille. "I am not educated, but I remember the stories about how they tortured people at that prison," a distraught Fatmah Elsamnah said. "They must be torturing Omar. How else are they going to take information from a child?"

But there may be no need for torture. "He's singing like a bird," one official close to the investigation said. Military sources say the Canadian teenager has readily co-operated with intelligence operatives who are trying to find out as much as they can about the Khadr family, which they believe to be a sophisticated al- Qaeda cell.

- - -

Omar Khadr stands accused of murder, but many of his family, friends and former teachers say they just cannot believe it. In dozens of interviews conducted over the past few months, they described Omar as the kindest, gentlest and most dutiful of Ahmed Khadr's six children.

"I used to tell my children, I want you to be more like Omar," said Khadija Elsamnah, Omar's aunt, who lives in a housing project in a Toronto suburb. "He had so much kindness in him. He was such a good boy. There is no way that he killed someone."

His 23-year-old sister, Zaynab, a twice-divorced single mother who lives in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, with her young daughter and two of her brothers, also describes Omar as sweet and obedient. I contacted her about a month after the news broke that Omar had been captured in Afghanistan. She told me she found out about Omar's detention in an e-mail from her uncle Samir, who is a computer technician in Toronto.

"When I read his e-mail I really hoped that it was a lie," she said. Zaynab and I spoke every day for about two weeks, and above the crackling of faulty international phone lines I could hear a muezzin wailing the call to nightly prayer in the background at the end of our conversations.

"The hardest thing is that we just don't know anything," she told me.

Still, she was quick to defend her brother, whom she called "a homey kind of kid" and very much unlike her other brother, Abdul Rahman, who had clearly disappointed his strict Muslim parents by shunning religious laws, swearing, lusting after film stars and staying away from home. When Abdul Rahman was captured by the Northern Alliance, Zaynab told me, no one in the family even realized he was missing.

"My father tried to put him in boarding school, but Abdul Rahman would always run away," she said. "He was always away, staying out all night, and only coming home once in a while to change his clothes. We didn't really miss him."

But Omar was different, she says, and during one of the many long conversations we had about her brother, Zaynab insisted on reading to me from a letter sent to her by her father, who after Sept. 11 went into hiding in "the rural areas" of Pakistan.

"Omar is our mother and our father, our sister and our brother. He does everything for us. He cooks our meals and does our laundry. Sometimes, I ask your mother, 'Are you sure he's ours? He's too good to be ours.' "

But isn't it precisely this kind of devotion and obedience that turns young Islamic radicals into committed jihad warriors? Omar was brought up in an ultra-fundamentalist Islamic household. He attended Islamic school in Toronto, and madrassahs, fundamentalist boarding schools for boys, in Pakistan. Omar's father, a successful engineer, was also a deeply religious Muslim who quit a high-paying job at a communications firm in Canada in order to help the victims of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. After the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, Khadr père became a fugitive. His assets were frozen and he appeared on wanted lists posted throughout Afghanistan, accused of financing terrorist operations, most notably the November, 1995, bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad that left 16 dead and dozens injured.

"It sounds as if we're dealing with a youngster who went into the family business," said Vivian Rakoff, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. "Adolescence is a time of separation from the certainty of family, and a time of rebellion. But what he [Omar] is accused of doing stops being an act of rebellion and becomes more like filial submission."

But while he was devoted to his father, Omar was also devoted to the materialism that radical Muslims are supposed to deplore. In fact, the gangly teenager with the close-cropped curly brown hair is very much a product of the North American suburbs where he was partly raised. He spent much of his childhood playing basketball, eating potato chips and watching American action films. He loves Nintendo and going out for Chinese food. His heroes are Tintin and Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies.

Eighteen-year-old Ibrahim Hindy grew up with the Khadr boys in Toronto and played hockey with them at a Scarborough mosque where his father, Ali Hindy, is the imam. When Ibrahim went to visit the family in Peshawar, the boys spent most of their time playing cricket and basketball in an alley near their home, hanging out at Internet cafés and watching American films. However, whenever their father was present, the Khadr boys bowed their heads in a show of respect, and did not utter a word, Ibrahim said.

"I've never seen so many films in my entire life," said Ibrahim, who spent a summer with the Khadrs in Peshawar three years ago. "Every night they would want to watch five or six movies back to back. They loved Die Hard. I can't remember how many times I had to watch it."

According to Ibrahim, Omar had become such an American movie junkie that when his worried father took away the family television set, a desperate Omar went to the Peshawar black market to buy a DVD hook-up for his computer, so that he could watch more films.

"Omar liked Peshawar, but he always told me that he missed everything about North America: the junk food, American TV, everything," said Ibrahim, who took along to Peshawar a carton of KitKat chocolate bars that was quickly devoured by Omar and his brothers.

Ibrahim, who is tall and rather earnest, told me he found it difficult to believe U.S. soldiers found Omar holed up in an al-Qaeda arms depot in deepest Afghanistan, bent on the destruction of the society he loved so much.

"He was always quiet; he never picked fights with his brothers and sisters like other kids do. I don't think he would go out and kill Americans. He loved everything about America."

But as the hijackers who planned and executed the Sept. 11 strikes have shown, even radical fundamentalists can love two disparate things at the same time. They can seek religious certainty and yearn for earthly pleasures inherent in the culture they are intent on destroying. Days before they flew their planes into the World Trade Center, some of the hijackers were seen at roadside bars and strip clubs, drinking American beer and eating junk food.

"There is no contradiction in liking Nintendo and hating the society that produced it," said Leon Sloman, a psychiatrist and honorary consultant at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in Toronto. "That's what makes religious groups particularly powerful, because they believe that the world is imperfect and they are the only ones who can change it. And sometimes the only way to deal with something you are so utterly attracted to is through violent repudiation."

- - -

Omar Khadr was born in Toronto on Sept. 19, 1986, and spent the first few years of his life at his maternal grandparents' small, grey- brick bungalow on Khartoum Avenue, in Scarborough, an unremarkable Toronto suburb of car dealerships, fast-food outlets and strip malls crammed with halal butcher shops, Pakistani travel agencies and hair salons that advertise glue-on, airbrushed fingernails with glitter appliqué.

Mohammed and Fatmah Elsamnah, Omar's grandparents, are Palestinian refugees who settled in Egypt and Saudi Arabia before emigrating to Canada in 1973. They owned a small bakery in a strip mall crammed with dollar stores and pawnbrokers on Eglinton Avenue East, two blocks away from their home. Although they closed the bakery in 1996, after the negative publicity surrounding their son-in-law Ahmed, who was publicly accused of being a terrorist for the first time, some of their old customers still fondly recall their steamy coconut buns and chewy round loaves of yellow cornbread.

"I was sad to see them go," said Fay Lawrence, a Jamaican immigrant and the owner of Fayvorite Hair Design, which is tucked into a corner of the strip mall where the Elsamnah bakery used to stand.

Although she could barely communicate with Fatmah or Mohammed Elsamnah, who could speak little English, Ms. Lawrence ended up babysitting many of their grandchildren on Saturdays in the summer months. The children looked forward to visiting Ms. Lawrence, who would cook a Jamaican feast of jerk chicken and play scratchy Peter Tosh and Bob Marley records.

"I tried to teach them to dance, but it was hopeless," she said with a smile. "You got the feeling that these kids never listened to music, and had no idea what to do."

The Khadr children visited their grandparents frequently in Scarborough, but by the early 1990s they were already firmly established in Peshawar, an important frontier trading post on the Khyber Pass. Once a fabled stop on the ancient Silk Road, by the late 1980s Peshawar had become notorious as the centre for the sale of heroin and antiques smuggled from Afghanistan. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the city also became the regional headquarters for Osama bin Laden and his fledgling al-Qaeda terrorist movement. At the time, bin Laden and thousands of devout Muslims, most of them from the Middle East, descended on Peshawar, where they launched their jihad against the Soviets.

Ahmed Khadr joined them in 1988 when he accepted a volunteer post as the regional director of a Canadian-Muslim charity called Human Concern International. Authorities later claimed he used the Ottawa-based organization as a front to funnel money for al- Qaeda, a charge its board of directors vehemently denies.

The Khadr family lived in a large compound that also doubled as the charity's offices in Peshawar, where Ahmed Khadr was in charge of overseeing refugee camps and vocational schools for the scores of children orphaned during the Soviet conflict, which ended in 1989. Later, many of those orphans would swell the ranks of the Taliban, the ultra-fundamentalist movement that took over Afghanistan in 1996. Many remained loyal to the Khadr family, and helped Ahmed Khadr escape police detection on numerous occasions. In the summer of 2001, Egyptian authorities attempted to arrest Khadr, an Egyptian-born Canadian, and extradite him to Egypt. Khadr escaped, thanks to well-placed contacts in the Taliban, who spirited him across the border into Afghanistan.

Four years after the family moved to Peshawar, Ahmed Khadr stepped on a land mine. He told family and friends that the accident happened while he was inspecting a charity project near Logar. Intelligence officials now believe he was actively engaged in combat against local warlords in the civil war that erupted after Soviet troops left the country.

Whatever the reasons for the accident, Ahmed Khadr's wounds were so serious that when he returned to Peshawar on a stretcher, Canadian authorities immediately evacuated him to Toronto, where he spent nearly two years recovering.

Omar, who was seven years old at the time of his father's accident, spent a great deal of time at his bedside.

Ali Rakie, a friend of the Khadr family and a Lebanese-Canadian who owned a halal butcher shop in Scarborough in the early 1990s, told me he once asked Omar to try to convince his father to resettle in Canada.

"This little kid looked me straight in the eye and said that he didn't really like Canada because life here was too rushed, too stressed," said Mr. Rakie, who briefly employed Abdul Rahman in his Scarborough butcher shop. "Omar was very mature for his age. I remember that he had brought black honey from Pakistan to trade in the Muslim community while he was in Toronto. I was amazed that he had learned so well how to trade and survive at such a young age."

In Toronto, the Khadr family lived in a kind of genteel poverty, surviving off donations from different Toronto-area mosques while Ahmed recovered in local hospitals. At first, his wife, Maha Elsamnah, and her six children crowded into the Elsamnah bungalow in Scarborough, but they later moved into a modest flat in a dilapidated rooming house on Emerson Avenue, in the city's west end -- a multi-ethnic, down-at-the-heels neighbourhood where teenage Portuguese boys dress in baggy jeans and gang colours and drive souped-up Honda Civics, blaring Eminem and Dr. Dre. The rent on the Emerson Avenue flat was paid for by donations from the Muslim community, which also helped the family buy cast-off furniture at the Salvation Army. Mr. Rakie also convinced the Isna Islamic School in Toronto to waive its fees, so that Omar, Zaynab, Abdul Rahman and their brother Abdullah could continue their Islamic studies while their father recovered in hospital.

"Those kids were always behind the other children because they had missed so much school," said Fariz Tayara, a former Isna Islamic School bus driver, who drove the Khadr children to the red- brick schoolhouse in a quiet, tree-lined Toronto suburb every morning for nearly two years. "I remember that the math teacher had a huge problem with them because they had travelled so much and never attended regular school."

Again, Omar appears to have been the exception. His 1993 report card is full of praise from his teachers, especially for his efforts in Koranic and Islamic studies. Abdul Rahman's report card from the same period includes this comment from his Islamic studies teacher: "May Allah help him."

"Omar was very smart, very eager and very polite," said Naimeh Rakie, Omar's Grade 1 Islamic studies teacher, and Ali Rakie's wife. "Unlike the other children, he had already started reading the Koran in Arabic when he was seven."

Aminah Hack, who went to school with the Khadr children and described herself as Zaynab's best friend in Toronto, says she was also struck by how mature they were. "A lot of us at the school always tried to skip prayer, but they never did," said Ms. Hack, who is now 21 and in her first year of a social-work degree. "There was a sadness in their eyes. I guess it was because they were always so worried about their father."

Ahmed Khadr recovered from his wounds, but he was left partly disabled. He walked with difficulty, relying on leg braces and a four-pointed cane. Although friends implored him to remain in Canada, he uprooted his family once again and took up his old post in Peshawar. The decision was to have a devastating impact on Omar.

Soon after returning to Pakistan, Ahmed Khadr was arrested and tortured following the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. Pakistani and Egyptian authorities suspected him of arranging the financing for the terrorist operation, an event that exposed his connections with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, who planned the embassy blast.

Omar and his family were detained by Pakistani police, who raided their home in Peshawar following the blast. The family were eventually released, but his father, who had been in Afghanistan at the time of the bombing, was arrested and detained for four months on suspicion that he used his Canadian charity to funnel money to Zawahiri's group. He had also tried to convince his eldest daughter, Zaynab, to marry a Sudanese terrorist who bought one of the vehicles used in the suicide-bombing of the embassy. The terrorist, Khalid Abdullah, was living in Ahmed Khadr's house in Peshawar at the time of the attack.

"You can't imagine what it was like to visit my poor father in jail," Zaynab said. "Omar, especially, was really traumatized. Here was this poor disabled man, surrounded by hardened criminals. It was really hard to take. For Omar, who was closest to my dad, it was totally devastating."

Ahmed Khadr went on a hunger strike to protest his innocence, and was transferred to an Islamabad hospital, where Omar slept every night on the concrete floor underneath his bed. Although he was eventually released when the Canadian government intervened in the case, family friends say Omar was marked for life.

"That kid became radicalized," said Aly Hindy, the imam at the Salaheddin mosque in Scarborough, where the Khadrs worshipped when they lived in Toronto. "It's impossible to go through the experiences he went through and not be affected by them."

When I asked the imam whether he was shocked when he heard about Omar's capture in Afghanistan, he didn't hesitate in his reply: "No, I can't say I was shocked," said Dr. Hindy, a retired engineer and a pillar of the Muslim community in Toronto. "I expected things like this to happen."

But could this dutiful, studious and kind young man have committed murder? In our final conversation, I posed that question to Zaynab, and her answer, after a long pause, surprised me.

"Omar must have had a very good reason if he did what people say he did," she said.

That reason may have been a combination of devotion to his father and the fundamentalist cause that he embraced. He may even have thought that he had embarked on a great adventure. But in the heat of the moment, he probably did not stop to consider the repercussions of his actions.

"In his eyes, it probably wasn't murder," Dr. Rakoff, the psychiatrist, said. "By transforming the sinner, the tyrant, into a depersonalized cipher, not an individual but a representative of the tainted order, murder becomes easy, indeed, morally good, and a necessary step toward redemption."

In Die Hard, Bruce Willis plays a tough New York cop named John Maclane who unwittingly finds himself in a Los Angeles office tower where German terrorists take some 30 executives hostage on Christmas Eve.

The bad guys fire machine guns at him, set fire to the building and block all the exits. To make matters worse, the law-enforcement officials sent to save everyone bungle the job. Singlehandedly, Maclane finds himself battling the terrorists and the security forces. At the end of the film, he emerges, battle-scarred, to save the hostages in time for Christmas.

Die Hard was Omar's favourite movie, and it is hard not to wonder if some of its more dramatic scenes played themselves out in his head as he lay in wait in the rubble of a mud-brick compound in eastern Afghanistan. Like the hero in Die Hard, Omar and four other jihad warriors who were barricaded inside the structure had decided to take on more than 50 U.S. Special Forces soldiers. They fought a fierce battle, and then, in the late afternoon of July 27, Omar threw a grenade that exploded beside Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Speer, wounding him in the head. The soldier later died of his injuries at a military hospital in Germany.

Sergeant 1st Class Layne Morris didn't expect to be engaged in a firefight that day. His unit received a tip from an Afghan villager who told U.S. forces stationed at Khost that al-Qaeda terrorists were holed up in a compound near the village of Ab Khail. A team of Special Forces soldiers and a local Afghan militia set out to investigate. While they were looking for weapons in the compound, Sgt. Morris received a signal on a global-positioning device indicating there might be another building in the area worth investigating. He set off with five other soldiers and walked the 600 metres to an almost identical compound, where, through the door hinge, he could see five heavily armed Arab men sitting in the inner courtyard. The men ignored Sgt. Morris's entreaties to open the door, and sat with their weapons conferring for about 45 minutes, which was the amount of time it took for Sgt. Morris to call in reinforcements.

When the backup troops arrived and Pashtu translators began to negotiate with the men inside the compound, they responded with grenades and bullets. Sgt. Morris was wounded in one eye by a grenade and was evacuated by helicopter, but the battle went on for more than four hours, with the five men refusing to give up even as they were being bombed from overhead. When the shooting stopped, Sgt. Speer and four other Special Forces soldiers were ordered to clear the compound -- collect arms and intelligence. When Sgt. Speer and his fellow soldiers entered the bombed-out compound, they weren't expecting to find anyone alive and were caught off guard when Omar, who was wounded from the bombing, and hiding between two mud-brick buildings, threw a grenade at the passing soldiers.

"We were amazed that anyone could still be alive in there," said Captain Mike Silver, who walked into the bombed-out compound behind Sgt. Speer. "Within seconds, we had him [Omar] pinpointed and we opened fire."

Omar, who had the beginnings of a peach-fuzz beard on his chin, was covered in blood and dirt and lying on the ground between two fallen pillars. His four comrades had died when U.S. forces bombed the compound earlier in the afternoon. He had been lying in wait, clutching a pistol and a grenade. He was surrounded by a cache of arms that included grenades, ammunition and automatic weapons.

Within seconds of throwing the grenade at Sgt. Speer, Omar took two shots in the chest and dropped his pistol. When Capt. Silver approached him, Omar spoke in what struck the assembled American soldiers as very good English, especially for someone they assumed to be a jihad warrior from somewhere in the Middle East.

"Shoot me," Omar called out several times. "Please, just shoot me."

While the army surgeon worked on Omar's wounds, the other soldiers began to search the compound for evidence of terrorist activities. Among the weapons and ammunition, the soldiers found documents and training videos. In one video, Omar appears clutching various weapons and burying explosives on a stretch of highway in Afghanistan. Based on the information collected by the soldiers, U.S. military intelligence concluded the compound was used as an al-Qaeda arms depot and jihad training centre.

Although both Capt. Silver and Sgt. Morris were surprised when they found out Omar was still a teenager, they were adamant they had been dealing with a highly trained killer.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the kid was training to kill Americans and members of the Afghan government," Sgt. Morris said. "He had so many opportunities to give himself up, but he lay there in the rubble, waiting to kill an American. That's the last thing he wanted to do on this Earth."

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