On June 15 and 16, 2010, psychiatrist Welner did a 7 hour interview with Omar Khadr, aged 24. This was taken so Welner could prepare himself as a witness for the prosecution for Omar Khadr’s sentencing hearing at a Military Commission at Guantanamo Bay in October 2010.
Based on this interview, Welner testified that Omar Khadr was “full of rage” and “highly dangerous”- a “rock star” at Guantanamo Bay who has “expressed zero remorse”, one who has spent years “marinating in a community of hardened and belligerent radical Islamists” and is therefore “an al-Qaeda royalty.”
June 15, 2020 - Day 1 of Interview
“If I had to ask you about the five worst memories that you have in your life, what are they?” Welner asked him.
“Well, there is one huge, horrible memory and it’s still going, which is where we are right now,” Khadr answered. He was sitting in a chair, his feet chained to the floor.
“What do you mean?” Welner asked.
“Well, if I get released, I wouldn’t want to remember this place.”
“You mean Guantánamo?”
As they spoke, a video camera recorded their every word.
“What are the five things that you most regret in your life?” Welner asked.
“Regrets?” Khadr replied.
“I don’t think I had a choice in my life to regret anything, because I didn’t make any choices to regret them.”
“What would you say the five worst things you’ve done in your life have been?”
“I don’t blame myself for anything that I didn’t have a choice to do.”
“But I asked you a different question,” Welner said. “We’re talking about the regret. What would you say are the five worst things that you’ve ever done?”
“That’s going to have to be somebody who has more experience to say what I did was wrong or not,” Khadr answered.
Welner asked Khadr what he misses most about his former life.
“Being loved,” he answered, his voice barely a whisper.
“Pardon?” Welner said.
“Being loved,” Khadr repeated.
“Do you think about that a lot?”
“I try not to think about my miseries.”
For a moment, Khadr rested his head on the table in front of him, filling the room with a brief silence. As he reached for a tissue, wiping his nose and his eyes, Welner continued to ask about his hopes and desires.
“There’s lots of things I miss,” Khadr replied, now sitting back up. “I miss being trusted.”
“Can you help me understand that a little more?” Welner asked.
“Nobody trusts me, and they don’t trust me because of something I didn’t do or I was made to do. I was never given a chance.”
“So, you miss feeling loved and you miss being trusted. Whom else do you miss and what else do you miss?
“I miss my family and the sense of security,” he said.
“Why do I get a sense that you don’t really feel close to anybody in this world?”
“How can I be close to anybody?” Khadr replied. “I’m trying. It just doesn’t feel that anybody is giving me his hand.”
Khadr explains he is: a “child” thrust into war, exploited by “everybody” and haunted by nightmares and a “very peaceful person,” he longs to return to Canada—“a place that I could call home”—and move on with his life. (At one point, he reminisced about the girl he hoped to marry, a young friend he met shortly before his capture). Khadr insists, repeatedly, that he did not actually kill anyone that day, and provides fresh details about the torture he has allegedly endured during his decade in U.S. custody. The conversation also suggests that Khadr has endured some form of sexual abuse, either at the hands of adult jihadists in Afghanistan or fellow detainees at Gitmo.
Beginning of the interview
“Well, nice to meet you,” he told Khadr, settling into his chair.
“Me too,” Khadr said.
A lean man with dark hair and a deep voice, Welner explained how he’d been poring through the case file, and had a lot of questions to ask. “You’ve been in the system for a while,” he said.
“Yeah,” Khadr answered. “I bet you’ve had a lot of reading to do.”
“I am not going to mislead you into thinking I am here to help you,” Welner told Omar. “But I am here to tell you that I do take what I do seriously, and what’s most important to me is that I be fair and accurate.”
“That’s the only thing I ask for,” he said.
Khadr explained how he only lived in Toronto for two years of his life: first grade and fourth grade. He spent the rest of his childhood in Pakistan, dropping out of school, like his older brothers, after the eighth grade. (“It’s like a cursed grade,” he said.) Fluent in four languages (Arabic, English, Pashto and Farsi), Khadr said he translated for his father as he travelled through war-torn Afghanistan, to check on his orphanages. Often, his dad would lecture the family about how lucky they were. “My father said: ‘You know, you have to be thankful, you know. You have your parents. These poor kids don’t have their parents.’ ”
[About his brother Abdurahman:] “As he says about himself, he’s the black sheep,” Khadr told Welner, when asked about his older brother. “He has a very tender heart, but he’s very, very stubborn. He likes to brag about himself. He doesn’t like to be bound by anything . . . That’s why, you know, he had a lot of problems with my dad. You know, he just likes to do whatever he wants to do.”
“How did your father respond to that?” Welner asked.
“In different ways, you know? Hit him sometimes, punch him sometimes, talk to him sometimes. Just like a normal father.” (As for Abdurahman’s suicide bomber story, Omar insisted it’s “not even true.”)
One by one, Welner asked about each of his siblings.
Zaynab? She was like a second mother, Khadr said, someone he shares a “very, very close” bond with. “There is nothing I can say poorly about my sister,” he explained, adding later: “She does what she believes, and she says what she believes. She’s very confident in what she believes.”
“Abdullah? He was the “sensible” one “who would not break any rules.” At the time of their interview, Abdullah was in a Toronto jail, fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges that he provided weapons to be used against coalition troops in Afghanistan. “I think he’s being locked up unfairly,” Omar said. “I don’t believe he did anything because I know my brother.” (An Ontario judge later refused to approve Abdullah’s extradition, citing the “gross misconduct” of U.S. officials.)
Kareem? “From what I know,” Omar said, “he was with my dad when my dad died, and he was trying to run away and he got shot from the back.”
“What are your thoughts and your feelings about that?” Welner asked.
“I try not to think about it,” Khadr answered. “When I start thinking about it, I get sad and I get—bad memories come to me, so I just try not to remember it.”
Welner told Khadr that as far as he understood, his father was an al-Qaeda leader killed alongside fellow terrorists, and that his little brother, just 14 at the time, was at his side. Omar, though, was defiant, demanding to know the source of Welner’s information. Over and over, he defended his dad. “I can say he’s not an al-Qaeda, and I can base my beliefs on actual facts,” he said. “I was living with my father, and I saw him.”
Welner continued. “Were you surprised when your father passed away?”
“I was sad,” Khadr answered.
“Were you surprised?” he asked again.
“What do you mean by surprised?”
“Surprised. Were you shocked?”
“I was very sad.”
Welner pressed harder. “You didn’t answer the question.”
“I don’t know,” Khadr said. “I was very sad, that’s all I can answer.”
Khadr said he hasn’t thought about his dad “for longer than 10 seconds” since the day he heard about his death.
“Not one time at all?” Welner asked.
“Not one time.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“It’s better for me,” Khadr said.
“Because it brings lots of sadness. And being in a place like this, you know, trying to decrease the amount of sadness and pressure you have on yourself.”
“Do you think your father would be proud of you if he were alive?” Welner continued.
“I don’t think I did anything that he would have told me not to do,” Khadr said.
“So, the answer is yes?”
“I hope so.”
“Do you watch the news?” Welner asked.
“Not too much.”
“What does ‘not too much’ mean?”
“Well, I used to listen to the news, but there is too much tragedy,” Khadr said. (He prefers watching sports networks.)
“What do you think are the biggest problems in the Muslim world?”
“I think the biggest problem in the Muslim world is they’re not being good Muslims,” Khadr replied.
“Can you help me understand that better?” Welner asked.
“Well, I relate to the Prophet, right? And there’s nobody that—in the Islamic history—there is nobody who had a better relationship with the Jews and Christians than the Prophet or with, you know, un-Muslim people . . . We are supposed to be like him, but people are not like him.”
“What can Muslims do differently to change that?”
“I’m sure there’s lots of things that can change, but I don’t know.”
“What do you think of 9/11?” Welner asked.
“It was a tragedy,” Khadr replied.
“What made it tragic?”
“The killing of innocents is tragic.”
“Do you think that the United States deserved it?”
“That’s not up to me to say, but as I told you, I don’t believe in killing innocent people.”
“Well, do you have an opinion?”
“No innocent person deserves to die or be killed,” Khadr said. “That’s all I’m going to say. Americans, Muslims, Jewish, Mormons, whatever; human soul is sacred and each that must be protected and not abused. So for me, a human soul is a human soul, regardless of its religion, of its country. They’re all protected.”
“What do you think it would be like for you, as a devout Muslim, living in Canada?” Welner asked, a few minutes later.
“I’d practise my religion, and everybody can practise his own religion,” Khadr answered.
“Do you feel that it’s easy to practise your religion in a devout way there?”
“Well, I hope nobody would tell me not to practise my religion, but I think I have confidence that Canada is not going to try to harm me if my religion—”
Welner cut him off. He had read some of the letters Khadr received from his family, and how “they’re very offended by some of the things that they see” in Canada. “Of course, there’s freedom of religion there,” Welner said. “But how is it going to be for you in an environment where people may be doing things that are just offensive to you?”
“Well, I think you’ve come to know that I am okay around anybody,” Khadr answered. “And I can live with anybody, you know? If you’re not going to harm me personally, then you can do whatever you want to . . . Everybody has the right to do whatever he wants to do, as long as it’s not going to harm me.”
As they continued talking, Khadr conceded that his family has had difficulty “getting blended into the community.”
“Do you think that’s possible?” Welner asked.
“For them to blend?” Khadr replied.
“Yeah, or do you think that things are sort of as they are, and that next time somebody gets arrested for an al-Qaeda plot, it’s just going to blow back up to the community and make it that much more difficult for them to get integrated?”
“Unfortunately, that’s what’s probably going to happen,” Khadr said. “One of my hopes is, like, people can get over this connecting anything terrorist with Muslims. Like, like, right now, anything that has anything to do with terrorists, they always look to Muslims . . . So I wish that, you know, that people would get over this, like, paranoia of Muslims, you know, that they’re trying to put every blame on them, you know?”
“Do you understand why people in the United States and Canada make an association between terrorism and Muslims?”
“I understand, yes,” Khadr replied. But people need to be more “open-minded,” he said. “You know, a million Muslims can do something bad, but it doesn’t mean that this million and one person is bad, too. We have to reach that mentality to consider ourselves modernized people and civilized people.”
In the summer of 2008—six years after the firefight, and still in prison—Omar Khadr signed his name to a nine-page affidavit that outlines, in appalling detail, the alleged torture he has suffered at the hands of his American jailers. Barking dogs. A bag over his head, wrapped tightly around his neck. “Extremely bright lights” aimed at his badly wounded eyes. “Several times,” he wrote, “the soldiers tied my hands above my head to the door frame or chained them to the ceiling and made me stand like that for hours at a time.” One guard, he said, “farted in my face.”
Khadr was flown from Bagram, Afghanistan, to Guantánamo Bay in October 2002, barely a month after his 16th birthday. “I did not want to expose myself to any more harm, so I always just told interrogators what I thought they wanted to hear,” he wrote. Still, Khadr claims, the torture continued. Isolation. Sleep deprivation. No Koran in his cell. According to the affidavit, one interrogator spit in his face, pulled his hair, and threatened to send in another associate—“Soldier Number 9”—to rape him. “The interrogator told me, ‘Your life is in my hands.’ ”
During the interview, Welner asked Khadr to talk about the torture, to share his experiences in his own words. “Can my affidavit do these things?” Khadr replied.
“No,” Welner answered. “I’ve read it.”
“See, because I don’t like going through these bad memories.”
“I understand,” he said. “But I’m a psychiatrist, and a psychiatrist who doesn’t go through this with you is unprofessional.”
“Even if it causes your patient harm and pain?” Khadr asked. “They tried lots of methods on me,” he said. “They’d try one thing, then they’d try something else, and then they’d try something else.”
Once, he said, guards locked him in a cell where “you can’t see the sun” and “you had to scream to actually hear anyone.” Another time, he was used as a “human mop” to clean up his own urine. Repeatedly, Khadr said, guards short-shackled him to the floor—arms tied behind his legs—and left him there. When his father died, interrogators showed him his photo “just to hurt me.”
“They brought you a picture of him dead?” Welner asked.
“Yes,” Khadr answered. “They were, like, trying to make fun of me: ‘Oh, you are crying. Oh, your eyes are teary.’ And they said: ‘Oh, your father was a big terrorist and we caught him.’ ”
“What was your reaction to that?”
“I didn’t answer them.”
“How did it affect you?”
“It was very painful, but I detached myself.”
Welner continued to ask Khadr how the torture has impacted him. “I really don’t know how to put it in words,” he said. “I was tortured. This is the only way I can explain it.” He was so upset by the question that he asked to change the topic.
They talked about the Canadian government. (“I was expecting them and my father were going to help me,” Khadr said.) About his family saying they are “proud” of him. (“They’re being misled.”) About being influenced by older detainees. (“In the beginning they were successful,” he said. “Right now nobody can influence me to do anything.”)
Welner asked if other prisoners ever threatened him for talking to interrogators. “I always felt very unsafe,” Khadr answered.
“Can you help me understand that?”
Khadr hesitated. “I don’t like to talk about this certain subject.”
“Well, that’s a good way to get me interested in it,” Welner said.
“I know, but—”
“Do you understand why I need to know that?”
“Yeah,” Khadr answered. “The defence doctors, they tried to get me to talk about this. It’s just, I don’t want to talk about this specific subject.”
“About feeling unsafe from other detainees?”
“In a specific way,” Khadr said.
“You mean about sexual assault?”
“Let’s talk about another subject.”
Welner kept pressing. “This is something I need to understand,” he said.
“I think I prefer to move over this certain subject,” Khadr repeated.
“Do you still feel unsafe?”
“I will always feel unsafe,” he said.
“I know that sexual conduct happens here,” Welner said. “It happens in every custodial environment.”
“Can we change the subject please?”
Again, Welner persisted. “Do you understand why we all as doctors would be curious to know about that? Is there anything that we can do to make you safer here?”
“Get me out of this place,” Khadr replied.
Behind bars, Omar Khadr has memorized every verse of the Koran. (“I had nothing else to do,” he told Welner.) He has immersed himself in other literature, too, from Harry Potter to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to steamy Danielle Steele novels. He has also read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, the story of a 13-year-old who was forced into the Sierra Leone army, ordered to kill, but later rehabilitated. “He’s done, like, 10 times worse things than the thing I’m accused of doing,” Khadr said. “But he was given a chance in life to prove himself, and I was not.”
June 16, 2020 - Day 2 of interview
Welner brought along a copy of a home video—recovered from the rubble of the compound after Khadr’s capture—it shows a smiling teenager wiring improvised explosive devices and helping to plant them under the cover of darkness.
“Can I just ask what’s the point of watching this thing?” Khadr asked.
“Because I think it’s something that’s important,” Welner replied.
“No, no, but what does it have to do with me?” Khadr said.
“Because you’re in it,” Welner said. “What’s it like to watch it?”
“I don’t like to watch it,” Khadr said. “I believe that people are trying to hurt me more than I deserve.”
In one scene, Khadr is sitting beside the group’s leader, Abu Laith al-Libi, taping wires. “One of the things that I noticed is that you’re assembling these explosives,” Welner said. “Could you tell me about the whole process of [Laith] teaching you to do this?”
“Well, he didn’t teach me,” Khadr said. “As you can see, it’s only taping wires. I don’t think it needs any teaching.”
“Would you hand these explosive materials to Zaynab?” Welner asked, referring to his sister. “Or would you give her some sort of instruction; perhaps be concerned for her safety, and make sure that she can handle these in a responsible way?”
“Are you trying to be sarcastic?”
“No. I’m trying to be straightforward with you. Are you suggesting to me that he just handed you explosive materials and said: ‘Here, take this,’ with him sitting in the room a few feet away?”
“Please don’t put my sister in anything like this, because this doesn’t have to do anything with my sister or my family,” Khadr said.
Pressed again about the video clip, he asked his own question. “Do you have any experience of al-Qaeda’s people?”
“I don’t know that that answers my question,” Welner said.
“Well, I’m going to get to it,” Khadr said.
“Okay. Well then please answer the question because this is your opportunity to educate me about what I may not understand about your experience there.”
“First thing, al-Qaeda doesn’t care about you—if you’re a kid. If they cared about me, they wouldn’t be putting me in such a position. And I think that’s very obvious you don’t put a kid with explosives if you care about them, right? That’s the first thing.”
“Do you think Abu Laith cared about himself?” Welner asked.
“He had his goals and he wanted to accomplish them,” Khadr said.
“You’re sitting five feet away from him with explosives.”
“Even if he doesn’t care about you, do you think he doesn’t care about his own safety?”
“Yeah, he does,” Khadr said, trying to explain the contradiction. “Explosives need a detonator to detonate these explosives. If you don’t have a detonator, then there’s no risk. You can have a whole room full of explosives; if you don’t have a detonator, then it’s safe. So that’s the second point. The third point, I told you, I was a translator for a long time and they were teaching Afghans how to do these things, and translating I’ve learned how to do these things. Make any sense?”
Khadr was still at the Bagram airbase, blind in his left eye and recovering from his wounds, when interrogators first showed him that bomb-making video. When Welner asked about that specific interview, Khadr said he couldn’t remember it. “I was under lots of stress and I was under a lot of medications,” he said.
Welner asked him to describe the stress. “I think you government people like to see me tortured,” Khadr replied. “If not physically, you like to see me tortured.”
“Do you feel that it’s psychological torture to show you this video?” Welner asked.
“Tell me how that is.”
“It’s painful. I told you, like, four times already.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” Welner said, a few minutes later. “Either you do remember things or you don’t. And if you remember, well then talk to me about what you remember, and that includes whatever you experienced that’s painful to you . . . But if you decide that you want to say that you don’t remember because you’re being cagey and you want to manage the interview—”
“What’s cagey?” Khadr asked.
“That you’re being tactical. I’m just asking you questions. Either you remember that period or you don’t.”
“The American government has lost its wing,” Khadr said.
“The American government has lost its wing,” he repeated. “Tactics? I’ve been held as a child, and you’re talking about tactics. When do you think I had the chance to learn tactics?
“I was afraid,” Khadr continued. “That’s all I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” Welner said. “When you tell me that you were afraid when this video was shown, can you tell me about what kinds of fears came to mind?”
“I was afraid to be tortured, more than what I was.”
“When you say tortured, what did you expect was going to happen to you once this video [was] shown to you?”
“Rape, abuse, physical torture; everything would come to my mind,” Khadr said.
“So have you been raped prior to that point?” Welner asked.
“I’d been threatened.”
“Okay. And did you expect that once this videotape was shown that you then would be raped afterwards?”
“Anything was possible,” Khadr said.
“Had you been raped in the past?”
“I don’t want to answer that.”
“Because I’m under the impression that you had been sexually assaulted in the past and the reports of the defence mental health experts suggested that you had.”
“I’m not answering this question,” Khadr said, again. “I would rather skip it.’
“You understand, though, why I’m asking the question,” Welner said.
“I understand,” Khadr answered. “That’s why sexual threat is very sensitive to me. I’m not going to go into any more details.”
“Were you sexually abused by Abu Laith?”
“I’m not going to answer this question.”
“Were you sexually abused by anyone in the family?”
“I don’t want to talk about anything of this sexual abuse,” Khadr insisted. “Why don’t we just go to the next subject?”
Welner said that as a mental health professional, it’s his job to examine “the impact of different things” on his life. “If I or anyone else is getting to know you and doesn’t have a feeling for what happened, then an evaluation is incomplete,” he said. “And that’s why I’m asking the questions.”
“I’m not going to talk about the subject,” Khadr repeated. “You’re a professional, you can make your own conclusions on what you think is true.”
Khadr’s defenders have pointed the finger at his father, blaming him for his son’s fate. But Omar himself does not subscribe to that storyline. “I don’t believe that my father sent me knowing that my life was going to be in danger,” he said. “And secondly, I don’t think my father thought that anybody would use his kids and things.”
According to Khadr’s version of events, his family was always translating for Arab friends living in Afghanistan, and Abu Laith’s request for his services was nothing out of the ordinary. “We like to help people in translating because we are privileged with this talent: multi-language,” he said. “So I don’t think that my father thought that they were going to use me in a way that might endanger my life because it never happened in the past.”
There were moments in the interview, very briefly, when Khadr described the events of July 27, 2002, when he was a 15-year-old. They talked about the firefight. People handed him a weapon, told him to stand outside and “started dragging me around” after the bombs started falling.
[It’s remarkable that the article does not elaborate on this crucial information. Omar explains during these moments in the interview that he was not able to participate in the firefight. Saying that when the attack by the US started he was startled by something that blew up in front of him and, he was rendered unconscious. He suffered blinding shrapnel wounds, that blinded one eye, and serious injuries to his legs. The other men in the compound had to drag him around to safe areas during the firefight due to his unconsciousness and severe wounds.]
[Welner’s next question:]
“I haven’t asked you this directly and so I want to understand it,” Welner said. “How do you feel like you are a victim in this?”
“Well, all the way to the beginning, being used to accomplish other people’s goals; that’s a victim,” Khadr said. “At Bagram, people wanted information and so I was the victim. Right now, in this military commissions, I’m only being charged because I’m the only survivor and there’s a dead body and there have been bad things that happened, and there’s no other survivor to blame but me. So I’m a victim. I’ve been a victim from the beginning.”
“Did you ever brag here about killing an American?” Welner asked.
“So anyone who would’ve documented this would be lying?”
“If I said that after a torture, then that’s not reliable,” Khadr replied. “But me saying with my heart that I’m happy because this person is dead? No.”
Near the end of the interview, Welner asked a few more questions about Canada. “It’s a country I can call home,” Khadr said.
“And when you say it’s a country you could call home, what do you mean by that?”
“I can’t say, like, Afghanistan was my home or Pakistan is my home. But I can say Canada is my home. You go back to it.”
“It’s a place you can go?”
“Okay,” Welner said. “Where would you live in Canada, if you could?”
“Probably in Toronto,” he said. “Obviously, I’m going to live around my family.”
“So you expect to live around your family?”
“I guess,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that I won’t live anywhere else, though. I haven’t thought about it.”
“If you didn’t go to Canada, where would you prefer to live?” Welner continued.
“Anywhere,” said Khadr, still chained to the floor. “Probably I could live anywhere.”
If you could change anything about Canada, Welner continued, what would it be?
“That’s a good question,” Khadr said. “I would enhance their human rights field.”
“To make a law applicable on everybody, and to try not to make any difference between anybody in getting their rights.”
This was all the time that Welner had spent with Omar. Welner wrote his opinion on Omar in a 63-page report that was handed over to the military prosecutors three weeks later. He concluded that Omar Khadr is “conniving”, “unrepentant”, “as radicalized as ever”—and a “spoiled celebrity.” This is the same description he gave when he testified against Omar during a Military Commission in Guantanamo Bay, October 2010.
They did not testify, but Omar Khadr did spend hundreds of hours with two mental health experts retained by his defence team: Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired U.S. army brigadier-general; and child psychologist Katherine Porterfield. Both have written glowing letters to Minister Toews, praising Khadr’s “remarkably positive outlook” and his wish to “contribute to the world in a way that brings about religious understanding.”
Read the full Macleans article here: The secret Omar Khadr file