How meaningful is ‘sorry’ after a mass terrorist attack?

Should we accept an apology from a convicted terrorist who was let out early after having built bombs that killed more than 200?

In the schmaltzy 1970 film Love Story the signature line was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. I am not really sure what that has to do with love, but saying sorry is an important part of human relationships. If we do something that hurts someone else, emotionally or physically, we really should apologise (and, one hopes, try not to do the same thing again).

What then to make of an act of contrition after a mass terrorist attack in which more than 200 people were killed and an equal number wounded? Does ‘sorry’ cut it?

On October 12, 2002 a series of massive bombs exploded in a crowded tourist area on the Indonesian island of Bali, popular with Australian youth among others. A suicide bomb inside Paddy’s Bar and a subsequent car bomb near that same establishment took the lives of 202 people, mostly Australians, Indonesians and Brits, although the victims came from 21 nations in all. The attack was the work of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Al Qaeda (AQ) linked Islamist terrorist group that was very active in the 2000s (and is still with us).

Several members of JI were arrested and tried: some received the death sentence while others got long terms in jail. The bomb maker himself, Umar Patek, was handed a 20-year term behind bars in 2012 for his role in the attacks. Justice seemed to be served.

That has all changed.

On December 7 Patek was released, having served half his sentence. Indonesian authorities claim that he has “shown changes” after undergoing a deradicalisation programme, and has “pledged allegiance to the state”. I guess that makes everything ok, then.

Not surprisingly, Australians are livid over the ruling. A man who lost five friends in the attacks called the move “appalling. It’s dreadful. It’s wrong.” Ten years behind bars for 200 deaths: that works out to 20 deaths per year or less than a month for each fatality. In Canada, a first degree murder conviction carries an automatic life (i.e. 25-year) penalty. I guess Indonesian law is different.

More importantly, does Patek still pose a risk to Indonesian society? Sure, he’ll have to report to officials periodically, but do ‘deradicalisation’ programmes really work? The evidence is inconclusive. Furthermore, there are cases where terrorists have only pretended to comply with efforts to rehabilitate them and have gone on to kill: the 2019 Fishmonger’s Hall attack in London is the best known recent example.

When terrorists are released from custody, regardless of their perceived continued adherence to violent extremism or not, they need to be monitored for an unspecified amount of time to determine if the threat they once posed has passed. That takes law enforcement and security intelligence resources away from other priorities. While ‘inside’, they do not threaten the public: as soon as they are out the danger is real.

And what of the victims and their loved ones? Is ten years for the slaughter of 200 sufficient? Has Umar Patek served his fair share of time behind bars? Should we all just ‘move on’? Does the fact that he ‘apologised’ make everything ok?

Justice should be seen as fair and proportionate. Locking criminals up forever should not be done for purely ‘punitive’ reasons. But a threat is a threat, and we have a duty to ensure that the convicted are not let go only to re-offend. Patek is an unknown quantity. Even if he never builds another bomb again he can influence others – for good or for bad. Let’s hope it’s the former.

Wherever Eric Segal, the author of Love Story, is now I am sure he is bemused by all these sorries.

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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