When is Violence Justified? The Curious Case of Sgt. Hassan Akbar

by Cliff Burton

On April 28th 2005, a military judge sentenced US Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar to death for the murder of two of his fellow soldiers. Prosecutors allege that, while stationed in Kuwait, during the first days of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Akbar stole seven grenades from a Humvee, and threw them into the tent of Army Capt. Christopher Seifert and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, killing both and wounding several others.

Sgt. Hassan Akbar

The Chief prosecutor in the case, Lt. Col. Michael Mulligan, contended that Akbar killed his two comrades because “he is a hate-filled, ideologically driven murderer.”1 Apparently the judge agreed.

Mulligan’s characterization of Akbar fits well with the general US government view of the so-called War on Terror. They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys. Either you love freedom (meaning you’re with the US) or you’re a terrorist (you’re against the US). When we kill people it’s for a valid reason (self-defense, democracy), when they kill people it’s for no good reason (they are hate-filled, ideologically driven murderers).

If you take a closer look however, the validity of the US paradigm quickly breaks down. There are other options besides being a supporter of the US on the one hand, or a supporter of Al-Qaeda on the other. For example, a BBC poll taken in September 2007 showed that some 57% of Iraqis supported attacks on US troops in Iraq, while exactly 0% of Iraqis polled supported Al-Qaeda attacks against civilians.2 So despite President Bush declaring, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” most Iraqis are neither.3 They don’t support the U.S. occupation of their country, with all the bombings, shootings, detentions, torture, and sectarian divisions that come with it, nor do they support the presence of Al-Qaeda in their country, with the bombings, shootings, torture, sectarianism, and religious extremism that comes with it. Instead, most Iraqis view violence just like the rest of us. It is justified in self-defense, to protect the innocent, to defend their religion, and to free themselves from tyranny (whether at the hands of Saddam or the Americans). They feel that violence against occupying soldiers is justified while violence against civilians is not. Strangely most of these reasons fit quite well with the basic guidelines on the use of violence as outlined in international law (violence is justified in self-defense and against foreign occupiers).

Seeing the “War on Terror” from this new paradigm helps us reevaluate the case of Sgt. Akbar. Why did he carry out the attack? As an African-American convert to Islam and member of the US Army which was then in the process of invading Iraq, Akbar had essentially three courses of action. He could 1) participate in the invasion, and thereby participate in killing innocent, fellow Muslims, 2) he could desert from the Army, and while not participating in the killing himself, allow his Army comrades to kill innocent, fellow Muslims, or 3) he could attack his fellow soldiers and try to prevent them from killing innocent, fellow Muslims.

Fox News reports that such a dilemma was on Akbar’s mind, citing an entry in Akbar’s diary, “I may not have killed any Muslims, but being in the Army is the same thing. I may have to make a choice very soon on who to kill. . . I will have to decide to kill my Muslim brothers fighting for Saddam Hussein or my battle buddies.”4

It’s clear which path Akbar finally decided to take. Fox News reports that “Prosecutors say Akbar launched the attack at his camp — days before the soldiers were to move into Iraq — because he was concerned about U.S. troops killing fellow Muslims in the Iraq war.”5 Fox News reported further that Sgt. Eric Tanner, a brigade legal assistant, testified that Akbar told a major that, “I did it because I’m Muslim. They were going to kill Muslims and rape Muslim women.”6

Another Fox News article mentions that, “Defense attorneys have said Akbar was especially worried about talk among soldiers concerning alleged plans to rape Iraqi women. The defense had the jury hear a diary entry of Akbar overhearing such talk.”7

Though it is unclear how many instances have taken place where US soldiers have raped Iraqi women, some cases have become public, lending credibility to Akbar’s fears at the outset of the invasion. For example, the Associated Press reported in July 2006 on the rape trial of Pvt. Steven D. Green:

According to a 10-page federal affidavit, Green and three other soldiers from the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based 101st Airborne Division had talked about raping the young [Iraqi] woman, whom they first saw while working at the checkpoint. On the day of the attack, the document said, Green and other soldiers drank alcohol and changed out of their uniforms to avoid detection before going to the woman’s house. Green covered his face with a brown T-shirt. Once there, the affidavit said, Green took three members of the family – an adult male and female, and a girl estimated to be 5 years old – into a bedroom, after which shots were heard from inside.” Green came to the bedroom door and told everyone, ‘I just killed them. All are dead,'” the affidavit said. The affidavit is based on interviews conducted by the FBI and military investigators with three unidentified soldiers assigned to Green’s platoon. Two of the soldiers said they witnessed another soldier and Green rape the woman.8

To be fair, Akbar was also upset at some of his fellow soldiers for the way they treated him. His diary states, “I suppose they want to punk me or just humiliate me. Perhaps they feel that I will not do anything about that. They are right about that. I am not going to do anything about it as long as I stay here. But as soon as I am in Iraq, I am going to try and kill as many of them as possible.”9 The Fox News articles do not detail what Akbar’s fellow soldiers did to “punk” or “humiliate” him.

So while anger for his own mistreatment seems to have been a motive for the killing, the desire to protect his fellow Muslims from being killed or raped in an unprovoked US invasion was nevertheless prominent in Akbar’s decision to carry out the attack. In fact if Akbar was trying to prevent the killing of his fellow Muslims, he may have had some success. Fox News summarized the comments of Col. Ben Hodges, who was himself wounded in Akbar’s attack, as follows: “Akbar’s attack took out of action key personnel responsible for planning troop movements [during the invasion]. He said that resulted in the brigade being slow to isolate the city of Najaf, allowing some Iraqi fighters to escape.”10 Though most Americans have little sympathy for members of the Iraqi army, simply considering them Saddam’s evil agents, in fact the Iraqi military was full of regular Iraqis who were forced to join the army as conscripts. Their lives are worth something too.

In reviewing the circumstances behind Sgt. Akbar’s March 23rd 2003 attack, given his realistic assumption that the US Army was killing many innocent Muslims during the invasion (Some 100,000 were killed in the invasion according to a study published in the Lancet Medical Journal) and that Muslim women would likely be raped, a more sympathetic picture of the man emerges. In fact, his actions appear quite reasonable. It is human nature to want to protect and defend members of one’s own family, tribe, nation, or religious group from the aggression of outsiders. Because Akbar identified more strongly as a Muslim than as an American, and because it was the Americans committing aggression against Iraqis, not the other way around, he considered it a responsibility to protect his fellow Muslims from the US attack.

As Mormons, we should feel additional sympathy for Hasan Akbar given our own religious history. Every Mormon child learns the story from the Book of Mormon of Captain Moroni, who raised the title of liberty and defended the Nephite people from the invading Lamanite Armies. The Book of Mormon states that Captain Moroni and the Nephite people “were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church (Alma 43:45).”

Ironically, since the Bush administration, like the wicked King Amalickiah, “did stir up” the American people “to anger against the people” of Iraq, through lies and distortions, many American soldiers felt they were fighting for the same noble reasons Akbar fought for. Many US soldiers that invaded Iraq thought they were defending their families by preventing the perpetrators of 9/11 from striking again, when in fact the Iraqi regime had nothing to do with that crime. Instead, these soldiers participated in a crime of their own against the people of Iraq, who in fact were no threat to them or their families. Thinking they were doing what’s right, these soldiers found themselves in the position of the Lamanite warriors, who had been misled by their rulers into fighting a war of conquest (Alma 47:1). This makes the death of every US soldier in Iraq all the more heartbreaking.

The tragic case of Hasan Akbar teaches us some important lessons. First, it is important that we follow the lead of the majority of Iraqis and not buy into the Bush administration’s false paradigm which encourages us to think there are only two sides in the conflict. There is a third side, those who are against terror regardless of who perpetrates it, whether it’s the US government bombing, invading, and occupying countries, or whether its Al-Qaeda blowing up market places. We need to be skeptical of those in power, and question our leaders before allowing them to send us off to kill in foreign lands. Finally, it’s critical that we make an effort to understand the actions of our enemies, of people like Hasan Akbar. Some of our current enemies certainly are hate-filled ideologically driven murderers. However, others are simply defending themselves and their religion and their families from the violence of the power-hungry ideologically driven murderers that were in our own White House. If we don’t consider the violent resistance of people like Hasan Akbar legitimate, what use of violence ever is? Maybe in some cases our supposed enemies should really be our friends, and our supposed friends, including our generals and politicians, our enemies.

1. “Army Sergeant to be Tried in Grenade Attack.” Foxnews.com, March 4, 2004. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,113277,00.html
2. Iraq Poll September 2007 for BBC and ABC News. Accessed online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/10_09_07_iraqpollaug2007_full.pdf
3. “You Are Either With Us or Against Us,” CNN.COM, November 6, 2001. Accessed online at: http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/11/06/gen.attack.on.terror/
4. “GI Wrote About Killing,” Foxnews.com, April 15, 2005. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,153490,00.html
5. “Akbar Sentenced to Death for Grenade Attack,” Foxnews.com, April 29, 2005. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,154969,00.html
6. “Witness: Soldier Admitted to Grenade Attack,” Foxnews.com, May 24, 2004. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,120772,00.html
7. “GI Wrote About Killing,” Foxnews.com, April 15, 2005. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,153490,00.html
8. “Ex-GI Accused in Rape of Iraqi, Killings,” By Tom Whitmire, Associated Press, July 4, 2006 and printed in the Washington Post. Accessed online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/03/AR2006070300399.html
9. “GI Wrote About Killing,” Foxnews.com, April 15, 2005. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,153490,00.html.
10. Witness: Akbar Attack Compromised Iraq War,” Foxnews.com, April 25, 2005. Accessed online at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,154529,00.html