son of al qaeda
photo of correspondent terence mckenna

Correspondent's Notebook by Terence McKenna
Correspondent Terence McKenna recounts how a proposed investigation by FRONTLINE and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) into the Guantanamo Bay prisons led him to Abdurahman Khadr's story of his journey from growing up with Osama bin Laden to working for the CIA.


CBC reporter Terence McKenna is the correspondent of "Son of Al Qaeda." He also reported FRONTLINE's 2001 documentary Trail of a Terrorist, the story of the so-called "Millennium Bomber" Ahmed Ressam who was caught in Dec. 1999 trying to cross the U.S.-Canadian border and bomb LAX.

April 22, 2004

The roots of this story go back six months to discussions between FRONTLINE and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) about a possible joint investigation of the prison system for Al Qaeda detainees at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What information was being gathered there? What interrogation techniques were being used? On Dec. 13, 2003, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned from a visit to Guantanamo and expressed grave misgivings about holding people indefinitely without any sort of legal due process. Numerous court actions have been launched in the United States on behalf of prisoners -- including a case that the U.S. Supreme Court heard this week.

We decided to track down detainees recently released from Guantanamo and debrief them. Canada's most famous Guantanamo detainee was Abdurahman Khadr, who had recently returned to Toronto. He had held a press conference during which he refused to talk about Guantanamo because his 17-year-old brother Omar was still a prisoner there. He told a strange story about how he had been released from Guantanamo and flown to Afghanistan, and that he had made his way from there through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria to Bosnia, where he contacted the Canadian embassy and asked for help returning home. The story seemed hard to believe.

Over Christmas, our Arabic-speaking Muslim producer Nazim Baksh made contact with Abdurahman -- and within a week he had confided the real story to Naz. He told us that he had been working for the CIA since mid-2002 -- including all the time he had been in Guantanamo -- that the story he presented at the press conference was a cover story dictated to him by the agency. He confessed that his family was part of Al Qaeda, and that they had lived in Osama bin Laden's housing compound in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. He told us many stories of growing up with the bin Laden children, and attending the infamous terrorist training camps near Khost.

We started recording interviews with Abdurahman in January, but on several occasions he threatened to back out because he feared for his own safety and that of his family in Pakistan.

We were trying to arrange an interview with Abdurahman's older brother, Abdullah, who was still a wanted Al Qaeda fugitive in Pakistan, when in early February, the negotiations were disrupted by a news report from Kabul. A spokesman for the Taliban resistance movement told Agence France-Presse that Abdullah had been the suicide bomber who killed a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan in January by jumping into his jeep and detonating explosives concealed under his clothing.

The story was front-page news in Canada. The Khadr family said they did not believe it, but for days Abdullah was out of contact in the tribal homelands near the Afghan-Pakistan border. He re-emerged only the day before I arrived in Pakistan to interview Abdurahman's mother, Maha, and his sister, Zaynab. I also interviewed Abdullah, but in silhouette, because he insisted on concealing his appearance. We filed a dramatic news story on CBC that proved that he was not the suicide bomber. "If I was the suicide bomber, I wouldn't be doing this interview with you right now," he said.

However, Abdullah, like his mother and sister, pulled no punches about his admiration for Osama bin Laden and even his approval of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He says he admires the Sept. 11 hijackers because, "they did some things that stunned the entire world."

The broadcast of the documentary in Canada touched off a heated debate about the Khadr family. Many have suggested they be prevented from returning to Canada or even stripped of their Canadian citizenship. The debate raged on as Maha and her youngest son, 14-year-old Karim, returned to Toronto from Pakistan on April 9. Karim was shot in the spine during a battle with the Pakistani miltiary last October in which his father -- who was holed up in a house with suspected senior Al Qaeda leaders -- was killed. He is paralyzed from the waist down and in need of urgent medical attention.

Upon her return to Canada, the premier of Ontario called upon Maha to publicly renounce her support for Al Qaeda. The prime minister of Canada said that however much he disapproved of their views, their rights as citizens had to be respected. If they broke Canadian laws, they could expect to be prosecuted. So far, no charges have been laid against them.

Abdurahman has received very mixed reaction to the broadcast of his story. Sometimes people stop him in the street and yell at him about his family. Then someone will stop him to congratulate him on his courage in coming forward. He has even received job offers from some who want to show their appreciation. On balance, he says he feels much better about getting his secrets off his chest and out into the open. He told us he is ready to face the judgment of his fellow Muslims and fellow citizens about the decisions he made.


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posted april 22, 2004

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