One man’s terrorist is another man’s child soldier?

Oh no, you are probably saying!  Please, dear God, not another column on Omar Khadr!  Make it stop!

Sorry, dear readers, but I feel compelled to address an issue that seems to have been overlooked in the polarising saga of the son of one of Canada’s most infamous terrorists.  That issue is not whether he was a ‘child soldier’ or not: according to international law there is no wiggle room on this since he was 15 years old at the time of his capture.   I may not agree with that definition but the law is the law, even if at times the law is an ass.

No, the bigger question to my mind, which no one seems to have addressed, is whether he was a SOLDIER at all, of the child variety or otherwise.  And to this question I reply: it depends on who you ask.

If you ask groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban you get a straightforward answer: of course we are. We are soldiers of God.  In fact, many Islamist terrorist groups will incorporate the words ‘army’ or ‘soldiers’ in their very title.  Here  are a few examples from around the world (NB ‘jund’ and ‘jaysh’ are Arabic words that both mean ‘army’ while ‘jihad’ can mean ‘holy war’among other things (like a struggle to be a good Muslim): ‘lashkar’ is the Urdu word for ‘army’):

  • Jundullah (Army of God) – Balochistan
  • Jaish-e-Mohamed (Army of Mohamed) – Kashmir
  • Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) – Pakistan
  • Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Army of Jhangvi) – Pakistan
  • Egyptian Islamic Jihad
  • Mujahedin-e-Khalq (People’s Warriors)  – Iran
  • Ejercito nacional de liberacion (National Liberation Army) – Colombia
  • Rote Armee Faktion (Red Army Faction) – West Germany
  • Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) – Italy
  • Japanese Red Army
  • Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (a little repetitive, don’t you think?)
  • Symbionese Liberation Army (remember Patty Hearst?) – US

And the list goes on and on and on.

So, how many of these organistions, all of which by the way are, or were, listed terrorist entities, do YOU consider ‘armies’?  Not many I would wager.  And yet, Omar Khadr fought for one terrorist group or two – Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In this light from our perspective, from a Western perspective, is Omar Khadr a soldier?  The answer is clearly no. If he was never a soldier it stands to reason that he was never a ‘child soldier’.  By the way, I do not know if there is an internationally legal definition of a soldier. We have equal difficulty in defining terrorism.  But if my logic holds here we are stuck with a ‘he said she said’ situation that is irresolvable.  Either we accept that Al Qaeda (or the Taliban) is a legitimate army with legitimate goals and a legitimate structure and deploys legitimate soldiers or we see it as a terrorist organisation.  I think I am on very safe ground when I say we all agree on the latter.

Omar Khadr was never, then, a child soldier. He fought for an internationally agreed upon terrorist organisation (or two). The next question is than an obvious one: was he a ‘child terrorist’?  I know of no definition thereof.

What about a ‘young offender’?  Terrorism is, beyond doubt, a crime: again, on that we all agree.  So as a 15 year old member of a known terrorist group – and terrorism is a criminal activity in every jurisdiction of the world that I am aware of – was he an ‘underaged criminal’?  I have no idea.

In the end can we please stop legitimising Mr. Khadr and all the tens of thousands of terrorists out there by calling them soldiers?  Whatever side you fall on in the incredibly divisive debate on Canada’s best known Al Qaeda graduate, a ‘soldier’ he most certainly was not.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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