Maha el-Samnah

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Maha el-Samnah
Maha, with her younger daughter in her arms.
Maha el-Samnah, with her youngest daughter in her arms.
Born 1957 (age 61–62)
Residence Toronto, Canada
Nationality Canadian
Spouse(s) Ahmed Khadr
Children 7

Maha el-Samnah (born 1957) has Canadian citizenship and is the widow of Ahmed Khadr, a prominent Egyptian-Canadian who allegedly worked for charities for Afghan refugees and was alleged to have been an al-Qaeda financier. They had two daughters and five sons, three of whom: Abdullah, Abdurahman and Omar Khadr attained notability in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Canada in relation to the war on terror by the United States and the George W. Bush administration.[1] She moved to Toronto in 1977, where she met and married the Egyptian immigrant, Ahmed Khadr, in 1979. In the 1980s, together with her husband and first three children, Maha el-Samnah moved to Afghanistan, during the Soviet Occupation of that country. In 1995 El-samnah and her husband founded a Canadian charity with a mandate to provide aid in war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.

Her husband, Ahmad, was later held by the Pakistani police without charge, due to suspicions that his daughter's fiance may have been involved in a plot to bomb the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan. El-Samnah received Canadian news coverage after pleading with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on camera during a visit to Pakistan, to raise her husband's case with Pakistani authorities. She was again the subject of media coverage when her son Omar Khadr became the youngest detainee to be held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. As of 2008 he was the last Western citizen still being held there.[2] He pleaded guilty in a plea agreement in October 2010, and was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was returned to Canada in 2012, where he will complete the remainder of his eight-year sentence.

Early life

File:Mhm, Zy and Sf.png
Mohammad el-Samnah, with his granddaughter and great-granddaughter behind.

As a teenager, Samnah moved to Saudi Arabia with her parents Mohammad and Fatmah. The family moved to Canada on August 1, 1974 when she was 17, and her parents opened a bakery at the intersection of Eglinton Avenue and Midland.[3][4] She attended T. L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga, and hoped to become a doctor.[4] As the only Muslim, she became self-conscious about her niqab and compromised by wearing a scarf over her hair.[4]

Graduating in 1977, Samnah volunteered as a camp counsellor at Camp Al-Mu-Mee-Neen near Perth, Ontario. There she met Ahmed Khadr, a friend of the camp founder, a University of Ottawa student who had come to Canada from Egypt two years earlier.[4] She was impressed by his calmness and thought he was a good listener. The camp's director later described their meeting as "love at first sight".[4]

They married in November, at Jami Mosque in Toronto.[4] In May 1978, the couple moved to Ottawa so Ahmed could finish his studies. In 1979, Maha gave birth to Zaynab.

Move to Afghanistan

Maha in Toronto with her son Omar.

In 1987, Ahmed convinced Maha to let her parents take care of their sickly son Ibrahim in Scarborough, claiming that she could help a hundred Afghan children in Peshawar by sending one of their children back to Scarborough Hospital for care.[4] With Ibrahim gone, her youngest son Omar quickly became his mother's favourite child. She nursed him while walking through camps and hospitals, where she served as a midwife.[4]

In January 1988, Maha returned to Toronto with Omar to look after Ibrahim so her parents could visit relatives in the Middle East. He became sick, and was rushed to Centenary Hospital and admitted to the ICU. Brain death was declared the following morning, and Maha consented to having him removed from life support. The next day she bathed the corpse, dressed it in white and brought it to Jami Mosque for her brother to arrange burial arrangements while she booked a next-day flight back to Peshawar.[4]

When Mohammad Zeki Mahjoub immigrated to Canada on December 30, 1995, he claims that it was his wife, Mona el-Fouli, who was friends with Samnah. He lived with her parents for three weeks while he found an apartment.[5]

1996 Appeal to Jean Chrétien

In 1995 Pakistani security officials apprehended Maha's husband Ahmed.[6] Their daughter Zaynab's fiance Abdullah was suspected to have connections with a group which may have played a role in an embassy bombing in Egypt. Ahmed spent months in extrajudicial detention as claims surfaced that he was being tortured. [7] [6][8] When Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made a diplomatic visit to Pakistan, Maha el-Samnah made numerous appeals to raise the issue of her husband's extrajudicial detention. Chretien agreed to meet Maha el-Samnah and her children, in front of elements of the Canadian Press Corps. She appealed to Chrétien to raise her husband's situation with Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The incident was broadcast on Canadian TV. Pakistani officials subsequently released Ahmed, without charge, citing lack of evidence. [9]

Escape from Afghanistan

As outsiders, the family fled Kabul the day before its fall to the Northern Alliance, and made a temporary home in the Logar orphanage the night of November 10.[10] Maha and Ahmed returned to gather their possessions. While packing, Kabul's walkie-talkie communications ring began reporting that the Taliban had been defeated and the city was being overrun. Running out to their car, they saw wounded men filtering into the streets. Tossing out their computer and a chair, the couple made room in their backseat for three men who had been injured in an explosion. They reached the Logar Hospital at 2am, but were told that only two of the men could be treated. Speeding off with the third, they continued to another nearby hospital but arrived to find their passenger had died. Returning to their children at the Logar orphanage, they were told that Abdurahman had decided to return to Kabul and spend the night with friends.[4]

In 2003, following the capture of Omar and the departure of Ahmed with Abdulkareem, Samnah took her daughter and granddaughter to a house in Birmal, Pakistan for two days. Their hosts grew wary of American jets overhead, and they moved further into the mountains of Waziristan.[10] Her husband was killed in 2003 in a drone attack near the Afghanistan border while with al-Qaeda and Taliban peoples.

Return to Canada

File:Maha Elsamnah.png
Samnah after returning to Canada.

After a series of difficulties obtaining one-way "emergency travel documents", Samnah flew back to Canada with Abdulkareem on April 9, 2004, arriving to a throng of reporters and government agents at Pearson Airport.[11][12][13] Samnah and her oldest daughter Zaynab are both on passport "control" lists, meaning they will no longer be issued Canadian passports due to the frequency with which they reported losing their passports since 1999.[14]

In 2004, Samnah appeared in a documentary entitled Son of al Qaeda. In the documentary she was quoted as stating:

"I like my son to be brave...I would like my son to be trained to protect himself, to protect his home, to protect his neighbor, to see a young girl innocent, being raped or attacked, to really fight to defend it. I would really love to do that, and I would love my son to grow with this mentality...[a]nd you would you like me to raise my child in Canada and by the time he's 12 or 13 he'll be on drugs or having some homosexual relation or this and that? Is it better? For me, no. I would rather have my son as a strong man who knows right and wrong and stands for it, even if it's against his parents."[15]

Combined with notoriety about her husband and son Omar, who was held as the youngest detainee at Guantanamo, such statements resulted in Canadian public sentiment turning against the Khadr family.[1][16] The CTV News reported on April 12, 2004, that her critics had initiated a petition to have Maha and her son Abdulkareem stripped of Canadian citizenship and deported.[17] The petition requested Abdulkareem to be stripped of Canadian citizenship; like all his siblings except for Abdurahman, he was born in Canada. In December of 2005, Maha's eldest son Abdullah Khadr was repatriated to Canada after a year of clandestine detention in Pakistan.[18] He was arrested by the RCMP, in front of his mother, at a McDonald's restaurant in Toronto as a result of an extradition request by the United States. Maha pleaded with the Canadian public and government for sympathy and for the remaining members of her family to be reunited.

Abdullah Khadr was held in a Toronto area jail for five years, while his lawyers fought against the extradition request to stand trial in Boston.[18] Hearings were held several times a year, and Maha Lhadr regularly reappeared in the news when she was interviewed by reporters attending these hearings.

Canadian courts eventually ruled against Abdullah's extradition to the United States. The Canadian government appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeals, which again ruled against extradition in September 2011. The Canadian government has stated that it plans to appeal the ruling to the Ontario Supreme Court but the court refused to hear the case, so Lhadr will not be extradited.

In 2007 Michelle Shephard, author of Guantanamo's Child, reported Maha's comments on the first phone call her son Omar was allowed to make from Guantanamo.[19]

In 2008, Maha was interviewed by the Canadian Press, following the broadcast of controversial tapes made when Canadian security officials first interrogated her son Omar in Guantanamo. She pleaded with the Canadian public and government for Omar Khadr's repatriation. [20][21] The tapes show Omar weeping for his mother when the interrogators left the room. She was later interviewed for You Don't Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo, a documentary based on the interrogation tapes.[22]

In numerous interviews, Maha was widely quoted pleading for her son Omar's release.[23] When in 2012, Omar Khadr was repatriated to Canada and transferred to a Canadian detention facility in Kingston Ontario, Maha was quoted by the Canadian press as stating that she was happy that he had returned, but unhappy at his conviction as a "war criminal". [24]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Khadr family sketches". Metro. 2008-07-16. Archived from the original on 2011-04-19. Retrieved 2011-04-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The Khadr family: A timeline". National Post. 2010. Retrieved 2011-04-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Levy, Harold. Toronto Star, "Metro kin 'frantic' over Pakistan captive", December 17, 1995
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 Shephard, Michelle, "Guantanamo's Child", 2008.
  5. CSIS interview of Mahjoub, October 5, 1998, p. 2, para. 6.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Rosemary Spiers (1996-01-05). "Bomb suspect seeks PM's aid to free him from Pakistanis Canadian held without charge in embassy blast". Toronto Star. p. A9. Retrieved 2011-04-19. Khadr and his wife Maha Elsannah have been appealing to the media, and to the staff of the Prime Minister, who is passing through Pakistan's capital on a trade mission. Officials said last night Chrétien will talk to Elsannah tomorrow morning, with the aim of ensuring her husband is getting due process from Pakistani authorities.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Visit to Pakistan rocky so far: PM pressing for Canadian's release, end to child labor". Hamilton Spectator. 1996-01-15. p. A3. Retrieved 2011-04-19. Police have identified a number of apparent links between him and militants believed responsible for the bombing. Among them is a man believed linked to a militant Egyptian group based in Sudan who was living at Mr. [Ahmed Saeed Khadr]'s home in Peshawar. He was engaged to Mr. Khadr's 16-year-old daughter, Zaynab, but has not been seen since Mr. Khadr was detained.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Canadian aid worker back to jail in Pakistan". Kitchener-Waterloo Record. 1996-01-31. p. F6. Retrieved 2011-04-19. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien asked Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto about Khadr during an Asian trade mission this month. Bhutto assured Chrétien that Khadr will be dealt with according to Pakistani law and Chrétien said he accepted her guarantees.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Craig Kielburger (2010-10-17). "Kielburger: Omar Khadr, Jean Chrétien and me". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2011-04-20. Mrs. Khadr was pleading the case of her husband. Ahmed Said Khadr was imprisoned in Pakistan for his role in a car bombing at the Egyptian Embassy that had killed 17 people. She claimed he was wrongly accused and was being tortured. I felt sympathy looking into the faces of her worried children.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 Jan McGirk (2004-03-27). "The lonely world of al-Qaeda's wives". London: The Independent. Archived from the original on 2011-04-19. Retrieved 2011-04-20. When Allied bombs began to rain down on Afghanistan in October 2001, the Arab women in Kabul packed up in haste. Maha and Zaynab escaped from the capital in a convoy to Gardez, in south-eastern Afghanistan, along with Maha's other daughter, Miriam, her granddaughter, Safia, and her youngest son, Abdul Karim. They rode along with the wife and two children of Zawahiri, but lagged behind.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "lonely" defined multiple times with different content
  11. Yahoo news, "Two members of family that has been linked to al-Qaida return to Canada", April 9, 2004
  12. CBC, "Khadr mother, brother arrive in Canada", April 9, 2004
  13. "Khadr mother, brother arrive in Canada". CBC News. 2004-04-09. Retrieved 2011-04-20. They have been trying for months to get Canadian travel documents so they could return to Canada. Ottawa has been reluctant to grant their requests because the Khadr family has lost several passports.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Shephard, Michelle and Tonda MacCharles. Toronto Star, "Shadow of CSIS will follow Khadr", December 3, 2003
  15. "Son of Al Qaeda" PBS documentary on Abdurahman Khadr
  16. Shephard, Michelle, The Guardian, "This week, a 16-year old boy was seen crying for his mother", July 19, 2008
  17. ""Deport the Khadr Family", Petition Goes Online". CTV News. 2004-04-12. Retrieved 2011-04-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 "'Have sympathy for us,' mother asks". National Post. 2006-01-11. Retrieved 2010-10-. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Michelle Shephard (2007-03-08). "Khadr to boycott trial, family says". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2011-04-20. Maha Elsamnah said yesterday she was surprised how mature her son sounded during the 50-minute phone call on Tuesday. She laughed at the Saudi dialect he has acquired when speaking Arabic.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Colin Perkel (2008-07-15). "'I don't know if he hears me crying': mother". Toronto: Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2011-04-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Mother of Omar Khadr felt powerless watching video". CTV News. 2008-07-16. Retrieved 2011-04-20. The mother of Omar Khadr could only sit helplessly and watch Tuesday as her "tiny boy," accused in the death of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, cried out to her in a 2003 recording of a marathon Guantanamo Bay interrogation—her first glimpse of him in more than six years.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Kinosmith Presents You Don't Like The Truth" (PDF). Le Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. 2010-10-14. Retrieved 2011-04-20. Maha Elsamnah and Zaynab Khadr, Omar’s mother and oldest sister are also interviewed for the film.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Michael den Tandt (2009). "Omar Khadr should return to face Canadian justice;". Chatham Daily News. Retrieved 2011-04-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Andrew Livingstone (2012-10-01). "Omar Khadr's mother Maha Elsamnah both 'happy and sad' after son returns to Canada from Guantanamo Bay". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2012-12-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>