Dr. Michael Welner presented expert testimony as a forensic psychiatrist in the Guantanamo tribunal that convicted former teen-age Canadian Afghan Jihadi Omar Khadr in October to 40 years. That sentence was commutedbased on a diplomatic plea deal worked out between Canada’s Foreign affairs Ministry and our State Department to less than eight years with seven of that term to be served in a Canadian Federal prison. Khadr could be eligible for parole if he serves less than one third of the commuted term.
Khadr was captured wounded in the rubble of an al Qaida compound near Khost in July, 2002, when he had tossed a grenade mortally wounding a US Army medic, Christopher Speer. Khadr plead guilty to the murder of Speer as part of the brokered plea deal.
On December 12th, a former military psychiatrist, retired US Army Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis had an Op ed column published in the Washington Post, , “Radical Jihadism is not a mental disorder”, published in the Washington Post . Xenakis had criticized both Welner and Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels. Welner had used some of Sennels research into recidivism of young Danish criminal Muslims in presenting his professional evaluation of Khadr. Xenakis, by his own admission, did not provide his expert testimony for the defense in the Khadr Guantanomo proceedings, he observed the trial. As we postedearlier this week, Sennels has submitted his response to the Washington Post for possible publication.
Here was the essence of his criticism of Welner and Sennels:
Beyond being simply unscientific, however, the testimony had another troubling aspect. Welner relied, in part, on the research of a particularly egregious source: Danish educational psychologist Nicolai Sennels.
Welner noted that there are few academic or medical sources on the "future dangerousness" of "radical jihadists who have been apprehended and detained." Sennels, he said, is an exception. Welner described the lengthy conversation the two men had held and said his perspective was informed in part by Sennels's research on Muslim youth whom he treated as a prison psychologist. But Welner wasn't familiar with all of Sennels's written work. As the defense explained during cross-examination, Sennels is also known for inflammatory views on Islam, having claimed that "massive inbreeding within the Muslim culture during the last 1,400 years may have done catastrophic damage to their gene pool." Sennels has described the Koran as "a criminal book that forces people to do criminal things." Welner specifically repudiated these views in court.
In making its case against Khadr, the government relied on Welner's professional status as a forensic psychiatrist to put a scientific sheen on what were essentially lay opinions. The prosecutors depicted Khadr as a probably violent and radical charismatic leader. He had pleaded guilty to murder(albeit in a firefight when he was 15), was a devout Muslim and was well-liked by both detainees and guards, so he had to be dangerous. Through testimony disguised as expert psychiatric opinion, the prosecution portrayed Khadr as having "marinated" in jihadi thinking before and during his long internment at Guantanamo, and described him as a "rock star" who, as the son of a close lieutenant of Osama bin Laden's, enjoyed the adulation of other detainees.
Welner wrote the following rebuttal in his letter published in today’s Washington Post.
What I really said about radical jihadism
In a Dec. 12 Outlook piece ["Radical jihadism is not a mental disorder"], Stephen Xenakis mischaracterized my testimony in Omar Khadr's Guantanamo sentencing proceeding.
Since the Supreme Court cemented the contribution of psychiatry to risk assessment in Estelle v. Smith (1981), forensic psychiatry has refined such dangerousness evaluation to focus on context. Assessing risk of dangerous jihadist activity borrows from clinical understandings about criminal and violent recidivism, but it must reflect the context of actual jihadist violence or an individual's ability to facilitate that violence. My testimony related only to this defined context. Neither this methodology nor my qualifications were contested.
The validity of risk assessment also draws from statistical base rates. The figures of released Guantanamo detainees who return to active battle have climbed sharply from just 6 percent in 2008 to 25 percent, according to this month's report from the director of national intelligence. My testimony demonstrated several reasons why U.S. government recidivism figures are a significant underestimation. This testimony was not contested on cross-examination or rebutted.
My effort also included the research data of Danish correctional psychologist Nicolai Sennels, precisely because Sennels has studied and treated large-scale groups of young Muslim and non-Muslim inmates. Sennels's work has been lauded by the Danish Psychological Association. That he has now become a foe of unregulated Muslim immigration to Europe does not negate what he learned from giving of himself to help Muslims stay out of prison. Sennels's research findings also were not contested on cross-examination or rebutted.
No part of my assessment characterized radical jihadism as a mental disorder. I testified specifically that jihadism is a phenomenon of religious inspiration, not mental illness. In fact, I provided extensive testimony on deradicalization, imploring pro-social Islam to be the antidote to the strain of extremism fermenting among Islamists in Guantanamo and in prisons all over the world. Khadr's own legal team agreed with my recommendations when in 2009 they themselves proposed deradicalization.
My opinions were presented to the defense in advance of my testimony. I underwent cross-examination in front of a jury that the defense had chosen. That jury then recommended sentencing Khadr to 40 years. These facts speak far louder than Xenakis's self-serving Monday-morning quarterbacking of the defense with which he worked intimately.
Michael Welner, New York
The writer, a forensic psychiatrist, is chairman of the Forensic Panel.