On the 5th of December al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) combatants attacked the Ministry of Defense complex in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The focus of its attack was a hospital resulting in the death of 56 people; mostly doctors, nurses and patients, and the injury of about 170 people. A few days later the Yemeni government broadcasted footage from the hospital security cameras revealing the carnage. Public outrage followed. AQAP sympathizers were shocked by the ruthless and coldblooded murders. Then on Dec. 22, AQAP went public and apologized for the murders. The statement was read by the field commander Qassim Ar-Reimy and said that the goal of his group was to fight the drone attacks initiated by the United States, and that in the process of this fight a mistake was made; the mistake being the deaths and injuries of innocent bystanders. But, despite such a mistake, by which they seek forgiveness, the fight against drones will continue.
Terrorists saying sorry
This was not the first time terrorists apologize for their actions.
In July 2002 the IRA issued an apology for its killings. Their apology came on the 30th anniversary of an IRA operation in Belfast on 1972 which resulted in nine people being killed and many more injured. In that apology they insisted that they had not wanted to “kill non-combatants” and they offered their sincere “apologies and condolences” to the families of their non-combatant victims. They also went further and acknowledged the suffering of the families of the combatants. The IRA was already in a peace process with the British government and such an apology was meant to signal good intentions. The apology – according to the statement -- was not only about acknowledging “failures and mistakes” it was also about opening “minds and hearts to the plight of those who have been hurt” as a step towards “conflict resolution.” Regardless of how it was understood at the time, this was an apology about the future.
Another terrorist organization which apologized was the ETA, the armed Basque organization. In October 2011 the organization announced that it was giving up its armed struggle which claimed in four decades the lives of more than 800 people. In February 2012 the political wing of the organization announced its own apology for the pain it had caused. Its statement focused on the apparent insensitivity of the group towards its victims. In their statement they acknowledged “that during this brutal conflict, the separatist left did not show sensitivity towards (ETA's) victims.” Moreover in the end of 2012 one of ETA’s jailed leaders Arnaldo Otegi, apologized himself offering his “most sincere apologies" for exacerbating the "pain and humiliation" of victims of ETA.” Like they IRA they were also looking forward towards a future of peace and reconciliation.
Thus AQAP was not apologizing to the public; it was talking to like-minded zealots, to would-be AQAP members, and others Al-Qaeda groups.Abdullah Hamidaddin
Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamic militant organization, also issued its own apology. In July of 2013 there were reports that a significant sect of Boko Haram had reached a cease fire agreement with the Nigerian government. Boko Haram’s campaign had claimed about 3,000 lives since 2009. One of their leaders Muhammadu Marwana issued an apology to “those who lost their loved ones” due to their “activities.” He also said that the group had “forgiven all those who committed atrocities against” them. Marwana also disassociated himself and his group from the killing of 20 school students which had taken place in the beginning of that month. Regardless of the situation in Nigeria today, this apology was also about the future.
AQAP image management
The aforementioned apologies came in the context of a reconciliation process. That is they were not meant to denounce the actions that had been done, as much as give confidence about the future. The three apologies were another way of saying ‘we won’t do it again because we have reached a deal with the government.” They were not saying that ‘we should not have done what we did.’
Those three organizations were not concerned with their public image as long as they believed that their cause was justified. It was only when they were defeated or depleted or vindicated that they saw the need to apologize. And they only apologized after they had changed roles from combatants to politicians.
So why did AQAP apologize? It’s clearly not giving up its fight and is adamant on continuing its campaign of terror. So what are the benefits of apologizing?
Some people like to think that they did it because they were worried about public sympathy and legitimacy. The footage of the carnage went viral, and they needed to ease the public’s outrage. But I disagree here.
Various Al-Qaeda offshoots have applauded and committed decapitations and executions of innocent people that were on video and seen by millions of people. They were broadcasting images would turn the stomach of any sensible human being. Had they cared about their image they would not have done that. AQAP does not care about its public image. AQAP actually thrives on a sense of being from the special guided few living in a sea of mischievous and misguided people.
Moreover Al-Qaeda sympathizers have always justified the violence and considered it a necessary means to a legitimate goal. But while the sympathizers justified the violence, they also set standards for it. You can place a bomb in a market. You can behead a hostage. But you cannot shoot doctors, nurses and patients. The mind of the zealot works in paradoxical ways!
Thus AQAP was not apologizing to the public; it was talking to like-minded zealots, to would-be AQAP members, and others Al-Qaeda groups. The logic of the apology was not directed to the average person. They were not talking to those who do not believe in the justice of their cause. And only those people who sincerely believe in the legitimacy of AQAP’s cause will accept their apology. Ar-Reimy’s statement was essentially saying that wrong killings perpetrated in a just war should be defensible and that those of you who believe in our just cause should pardon us and those of you who believe that fighting drone attacks is just and legitimate should absolve us.
Ar-Reimy was compelled to make such an apology because his sympathizers are puritanical zealots who accept no sin from anyone. Zealot groups splinter due to sins committed from members or leaders. The only way was to go public, repent openly, show willingness to make reparations, and insist on continuing the fight. Not doing that would have potentially led to splintering within the group, loss of potential recruits, and most importantly damages to their fundraising schemes. Ar-Reimy’s apology was not about remorse, nor public image; he was simply repenting from breaking ‘rules of engagement.’ And I am sad to say that it worked. Many people accepted the apology. His fight against drones was considered just and legitimate and the hospital’s victims were seen as collateral damage.
Crossing the thin red line
As I concluded writing this, I realized that I could have said the same things about other forms of violence. I could have written about States making such mistakes, creating collateral damage, and then apologizing for it or simply justifying it. I could have written about the United States and the carnage it had caused in Yemen and elsewhere. I could have also found sympathizers with U.S. military policy in the region, and those who do not care about the victims as long as the fight was just - in their minds. And in the end the more I read about terrorists the more I realize the thin red line which separates them from overseas military policies. And the more I read about military policies the more I realize how much that thin red line has been crossed again, and again, and again.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1
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