Robert Fisk: Remorse and redemption in a terrorist's mind

Letter from a prisoner
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The Independent Online

"I may never be released," Zakaria Amara wrote to me from Canada this week. "... None the less I must work day and night to earn my redemption and free my soul from the guilt of the past." I breathed in. Was this about redemption – as in "I know that my Redeemer liveth" – or remorse? They are not the same thing.

I get letters from prisons from time to time. They are about both remorse and redemption. I got a couple of letters, long ago now, from the Palestinian Nezar Hindawi, who tried to put his pregnant Irish girlfriend on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv with – unknown to her – a bomb in her baggage. He wanted to claim responsibility for all of Israel's crimes against humanity – for the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, for example – but for some reason the British authorities wouldn't charge him with these crimes, because, of course, he didn't commit them. The real criminals – one of them now on a life-support machine in Israel, a certain Ariel Sharon – are not going to be charged. I got the point. "Our" bad guys get away with murder. I await more mail from Nezar Hindawi.

So does the same go for Zakaria Amara? He was convicted in 2006 of planning "terrorist attacks" – he was one of the ringleaders, so the Toronto court was told – of a plot to hijack the Ottawa House of Commons, cut off the head of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and bomb Canadian secret service headquarters in Toronto. The police had operated a "sting" – the Canadians seem to have a have a lot of "moles", ready to offer explosives to Muslims who say "yes please" and then arrange for their arrest – but there's not much doubt that Amara bought the line. He told an Ottawa court that he had learned how to make a fertiliser bomb over the internet and planned to use it on the Toronto Stock Exchange. He got life. He said he was sorry. In a letter read to the court in Brampton, Ontario, he said: "I deserve nothing less than your complete and absolute contempt."

Now I know it's a cottage industry to say how sorry you are – after the cops have pounced and proved you really did want to blow things up. It's also a cottage industry these days for cops to turn up with TNT to entrap would-be culprits. It's a pity I didn't – let us speak frankly – get that letter from Zakaria Amara before he planned this attack. In other words, it's a pity that remorse didn't precede the attempt – making "redemption" unnecessary. But back to his letter.

He said he had heard of my articles but had "never bothered to read any of them until now" (an old story, dear reader!), but was currently reading my last book The Great War for Civilisation in which I describe an Israeli child blinded by a Palestinian bomb in Jerusalem in 2001. This is not an advertisement for my book. Anyone who wants to plough through 1,300 pages of Fiskery on the Middle East must be a bit odd – Amara among them – but there you are, he said it. "Perhaps this book would have saved me from a life sentence had I read it when I was free," he wrote to me. "Perhaps I would of (sic) avoided going down the path I chose."

The quotation in my book which he said moved him – "shoock (sic) me to my foundations" – was when I asked why the 2001 Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem could not: "in his last moments on earth, recognise this (Israeli) child as his daughter, his baby, his youngest cousin? Alas, no. He was too far down the road to his own death, too buried in his own people's tragedy."

Amara wrote to me that he was "in great need of a mentor who is willing to guide my thought process and help me become well grounded in a better more positive and productive perspective". Well, folks, that's not me. I am too busy writing about Palestinians who are suffering right here in the Middle East – Amara, I should point out, says that he was "born in Jordan but as with most 'Jordanians' we are actually Palestinian" – but he does say: "Muslims are constantly pointing out their innocent casualties ignoring the equally innocent casualties they cause."

His "critical thinking faculties" were now "revived after being buried six feet below by blind following, emotions and Islamic jurisprudence technicalities and caveats invented by 'contemporary' 'scholars'". But in his letter to me, Amara continues: "I may never be released. In fact sometimes ... I wonder if I ever want to be released to such an ugly world."

Is this true? He complains that the Canadian penitentiary in which he is held appears to have "zero understanding of my circumstances. All they know about terrorism, I am assuming, is what they heard on TV which makes it difficult to get help". He says he ordered a book about the confrontation of religious extremism by the Canadian journalist Eric Margolis, that the order never went through and he was not allowed to receive it. "I am not sure if they (the Canadian authorities in charge of his prison) are realising how counterproductive the jail is being." Amara writes to me that "I consider myself fortunate for having been awakened and redirected...".

So what should he do? I guess, despite his occasional spelling errors, he should go on writing. Maybe for the Canadian press. After all – sorry Mr Amara, but you wrote to me – Conrad Black writes on the front page of the National Post today without even a mention from the paper that he happens to be serving a sentence (for a slightly different crime than yours) in a US state penitentiary. Redemption doesn't necessarily shorten sentences. Nor remorse. But people read. And then you can tell them, in their tens of thousands, what you've told me.

"Forgive me for my bad syntax and spelling," Amara ends his letter to me. "It's all microsoft's fault." Now there we can agree.

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