Welcome back Khadr? (with apologies to Elizabeth May)

I know, I know.  Not another op-ed piece on Omar Khadr, Canada’s most famous child soldier or terrorist scion (take your pick).  There are probably few Canadians more controversial or more polarizing than the son of a former (i.e. deceased) Al Qaeda lieutenant.

What more can be said?  His family pedigree is well known (the Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard wrote a book entitled Guantanamo’s Child on the brood back in 2008), the treatment he received (suffered?) in US custody in Cuba has been discussed ad nauseum and we have been told that his lawyer is so taken with him that he and his wife will offer him a place to live (very admirable I might add).

But the bigger question remains: does Omar Khadr still pose a threat to Canadian society?  Has he truly reformed and rejected his previous violent ideologies?  I have no idea whether he represents an unreasonable risk to those around him.  I wonder whether anyone really knows.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that he has not been deradicalized.

Several countries have robust deradicalization programmes for former terrorists – Singapore and Saudi Arabia are probably the two best examples (click here for a recent description of the latter).  Most programmes offer some combination of religious, psychological and social therapy to convince extremists of the error of their ways in an effort to reintegrate them into larger society.

But do they work?  The jury is still out.  Not enough time has passed for a reliable longitudinal assessment and claims of success are usually made by programme managers themselves (not exactly impartial).  Nevertheless, the programmes probably do some (a great deal of?) good and are probably superior to pure incarceration.

So what about Omar?  Was he subject to a systematic deradicalization regime in any of the institutions where he has spent the past 13 years?  Not that I am aware of (studying high school English is helpful but likely not relevant to this debate).

Even if he had undergone such a programme, are there any guarantees of success?  Simply stated: no.  Successful deradicalization implies that the subject has abandoned previous thoughts and ideology.  I am no expert on the human mind, but I have yet to see a model that infallibly predicts future mental choices.

There is no doubt that Khadr has disengaged from terrorism (after all, it is pretty hard to carry out terrorism within prison).  But disengagement is not the same as deradicalization.  Disengaged individuals who are not deradicalized can re-engage at some point.

I hope for his sake, as well as those who have supported him,  that Omar Khadr becomes somebody approaching normal someday.  After all, he has led quite the turbulent life.  As to whether he will never again embrace the ideology he and his family extolled only time will tell.

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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