Pathology of the Homicide Bomber

When Wada Idris blew herself up on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road two months ago and tried to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible, some reporters practically bestowed sainthood upon Idris. “She adored children,” one paper wrote.

This week several journalists probed the background of the homicide bombers and, lo and behold, discovered that they were not the poor, dispossessed refugees that news consumers were led to believe. In fact, many of the bombers are well-educated, middle-class citizens encouraged and prodded by the terror organizations, by Palestinian society, and even by mothers who in some cases knew of the attack beforehand and encouraged their son before setting out on the homicidal mission.

—– PBS —–

Public Broadcasting Services’ Martin Himmel filed his account, “Making Martyrs,” on PBS’ Newshour (March 19). He found parents who expressed, “The desire to be a martyr is as dear as our love for the nation,” and one father who called “on every Palestinian young man to follow in my son’s footsteps because this is the only path Israel understands.” Himmel discovered that within the Palestinian society, the bomber “is now a hero role model for youth.” Bombers’ families also receive approximately $15,000 from Iraq through Hamas, as well as food, blankets, and an all-expense-paid trip to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage, according to the PBS correspondent.

Himmel met with a Palestinian psychiatrist who emphasized the role played by Palestinian society and families in the making of a terrorist: The psychiatrist, “discovered that there is significant family support for the decision to undertake a suicide attack. And many of them, actually many of the mothers, did encourage their sons or these people to go. The family of these people did encourage these people. It is not that they had a bad economic situation. You cannot make a generalization about that. But the only thing is that the family had the support for these values and norms.”

A lecturer in Islamic law whose son joined the ranks of homicide bombers provided Himmel with one of the most chilling conclusions: “Western secular society cannot comprehend the religious motivation behind suicide attacks, nor the promised salvation in paradise.”

Online at:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/jan-june02/martyr_3-19.html

—– Washington Post —–

Washington Post’s Dan Williams also investigated beneath the surface of the suicide bomber phenomenon: “Young Bombers Nurtured by Despair” (March 23). He cited one Palestinian public health worker who surveyed Palestinian university students who committed terrorist attacks. These students were Palestinian society’s “best and brightest.” The Palestinian admitted, “There is a myth that only the poorest and uneducated are desperate, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she said.

Williams provided an important insight into the Palestinian society’s inability to challenge the terrorist organizations that sacrifice their children on terrorism’s altar. “Publicly, suicide attackers are regaled among Palestinians as war heroes,” Williams wrote. “Yet, simmering beneath the surface is the issue of the role of Palestinian leaders in arranging suicide bombings. Other than exceptional cases, most suicide bombers are outfitted and dispatched by organized groups: Hamas, Islamic Jihad or [Arafat's] al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. While it is easy to hear despairing comments about the state of youthful minds, it is harder to find criticism of the agents who, confronted with disturbed persons, send them out to kill and be killed.”

—– London Times —–

A third study of the bombers was provided by Hala Jaber of the Sunday London Times: “Inside the world of the Palestinian suicide bomber” (March 24). Jaber spent several days with homicide bomber candidates of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Brigade. He discovered, “They did not conform to the stereotype of poverty-stricken young militants exploited for mindless acts of terrorism.” They were well-educated, and one, an art graduate “spoke first about the paintings of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Picasso, then abruptly changed the subject and described — with equal passion — his urge to become a martyr.”

Jaber interviewed a terrorist recruiter who described his evil methods of persuasion: “The candidate is reminded of the good fortune that awaits him in the presence of prophets and saints, of the unimaginable beauty of the houri, or [70] beautiful young women, who will welcome him, and of the chance he will have to intercede on behalf of 70 loved ones on doomsday. Not least, he is told of the service he will perform for his fellow countrymen with his sacrifice.”

The recruiter then unwittingly admitted to his destruction of the Palestinian society’s future: “Of course I am deeply saddened when I have to use a suicide attacker. I am very emotional and at times I cry when I say goodbye to them… These are educated men who under normal circumstances would have the potential of being constructive members of society. If they did not have to carry out such a mission, they could have become a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher.”

One mother cited by Jaber knew of her son’s selection for a suicide terrorist mission a month in advance. As he left to attack Israelis, she told him, “Take care my son, remember God, repeat the verses, pay attention to everything you see, concentrate on the task ahead, pick your moment. May God bless you with success and may you be granted the martyrdom you deserve.”

The full text of this article is reprinted below, or see it online at:
http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/article/0,,178-245592,00.html
(requires free registration)

These articles represent an important change from the previous romanticized coverage of suicide bombers that gave more sympathy to the terrorists than to the victims. The articles raise serious questions about the self-destructive forces within Palestinian society and the failure of Palestinian civil leadership, educators, and families to steer an entire generation away from cynicism and nihilism.

HonestReporting asks: How does your local newspaper and news station cover the homicide bombers?

===== TEXT OF LONDON TIMES ======

“INSIDE THE WORLD OF THE PALESTINIAN SUICIDE BOMBER” by Hala Jaber
March 24, 2002

At precisely 8pm last Saturday a battered car flashed its headlights twice as I waited on a dark and dusty road in the Gaza Strip. My journey into the world of the Palestinian suicide bombers was beginning. After a bumpy 10-minute drive, I stepped out of the car to be greeted by a masked man I would come to know as the commander of a small cell of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group that has claimed responsibility for nine highly publicised suicide attacks this year in which 43 people have died.

I was to spend the next four days with this cell, seeking insights into the selection and training of the suicide bombers and also into their minds and motives.

Attacks by groups such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and military action by the Israel
is have spiralled in recent weeks in the worst violence of the 18-month Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

While the West and Israel regard those who attack unarmed civilians as terrorists — the administration of President George W Bush announced last week it would classify the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as a terrorist organization — many in the Muslim world and particularly in the Palestinian territories claim they are martyrs fulfilling a religious obligation to die in the face of “oppression”.

The walls of thousands of bare, concrete homes in the Gaza Strip are covered with colourful graffiti dedicated to those who have died fighting Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, in a quest to “liberate” Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for the Palestinians.

I was about to meet two men chosen to become Al-Aqsa martyrs and to discover that they did not conform to the stereotype of poverty-stricken young militants exploited for mindless acts of terrorism.

But first their commander, who introduced himself as Abu Fatah, firmly but politely asked me to put on a blindfold and lie down in the vehicle, in the well between the front and rear seats. Security was imperative, he said.

After 20 minutes our Mercedes came to a halt and I was taken by the hand and led down a flight of steps. Removing my blindfold, I found myself in a room strewn with cushions and loosely covered sponge mattresses. Pictures of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem adorned the walls and heavy floral curtains blocked any glimpse of the outside.

I faced an initial grilling in which it was established that I was Lebanese, a Muslim and the author of a book about the militant group, Hezbollah. In the early hours of the morning, a number of fighters began to join us. One by one they walked in from the darkness, all of them masked, dressed in military fatigues and armed with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades.

They sat on the cushions round a large oil lamp that cast shadows across the room. In the distance the sound of Israeli warplanes pierced the night, followed by machinegun fire and the thudding of homemade bombs. As I would soon realise, this was a nightly routine.

Having gained the group’s confidence, I was introduced to Yunis, a 27-year-old art graduate who was preparing for a suicide mission that might be days or weeks away.

His face covered by a keffiyeh, or headdress, to conceal his identity, Yunis spoke first about the paintings of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Picasso, then abruptly changed the subject and described — with equal passion — his urge to become a martyr.

“We are educated strugglers,” he said. “We are not terrorists and the world should recognise that our acts are not intended to be pure, cold-blooded murder.”

The Palestinian people had sought help from Arab countries, the United States and Europe in their attempts to establish an independent state, he said, but to little or no avail.

“Finally, I searched for my God in the holy Koran and found it filled with verses and commands on how to end my oppression,” he added, eyes blazing. “I discovered late that victory is only granted by God and not by (Tony) Blair or Bush. My aim is to liberate my land and to transfer the triangle of fear to (the Israeli) environment.”

Delivered with emphatic gestures, this was his chilling justification for the mission he would soon undertake: “Israel attacked my honour, inflicted pain on our mothers and fathers and I have to inflict the same on them until Israeli mothers scream at their government and plead with the world to end the conflict. I will persist until they experience the same fear and pain our mothers feel daily.

“I know I cannot stand in front of a tank that would wipe me out within seconds, so I will use myself as a weapon. They call it terrorism. I say it is self-defence. When I embark on my mission I will be carrying out two obligations: one to my God and the other to defend myself and my country.”

Yunis lit a cigarette and declared that life was “precious”. He would rather be enjoying “normal days and nights, parties, family gatherings and seaside picnics”, he said. “We are denied this as long as we are under occupation and until liberation we have no choice but to fight.”

Until the day of his mission dawns, Yunis will remain engrossed in study of the Koran. He is convinced he has no choice but to follow the path assigned to him, and nothing could sway him from it. “Freedom is not handed as a gift. History is testimony to the fact that major sacrifices have to be made to attain it,” he said.

“At the moment of executing my mission, it will not be purely to kill Israelis. The killing is not my ultimate goal, though it is part of the equation. My act will carry a message beyond to those responsible and the world at large that the ugliest thing is for a human being to be forced to live without freedom.”

Like Yunis, Abu Fatah, his commander, is an educated man — a second-year university student of international law. He delivered a brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that culminated in the first intifada, starting in 1987, the Middle East peace process and the second intifada, which began in September 2000.

He railed against Israeli settlements, political detentions and restrictions on the movements of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within and between their territories.

After “self-restraint” during the first year of the latest intifada, he explained, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — a branch of the Fatah organisation of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader — decided to follow the example of the more radical Islamic group, Hamas, and launch suicide attacks. It has no shortage of volunteers.

A specialist unit is responsible for selecting candidates. Anyone under 18 is rejected; so are married men with children and anyone without a sibling who may be a family’s sole breadwinner.

Those who excel militarily and show steely composure in stressful situations are most likely to be chosen. The young men must be reasonably religious, convinced of the meaning of “martyrdom and jihad (holy war)”. They should also be of a build and shape that will enable them to move easily among Israelis — disguised if necessary in skull cap and wig, with ringlets down the side of the face — as they wait for the moment to strike.

The commander observes candidates over several days as they go about their routine business in public and at home. If the assessment is positive, he informs them of their selection.

An intense 20-day period of religious study and discussion ensues between the commander and each candidate. Verses from the Koran about a martyr’s attainment of paradise are recited constantly.

The candidate is reminded of the good fortune that awaits him in the presence of prophets and saints, of the unimaginable beauty of the houri, or beautiful young woman, who will welcome him and of the chance he will have to intercede on behalf of 70 loved ones on doomsday. Not least, he is told of the service he will perform for his fellow countrymen with his sacrifice.

“Of course I am deeply saddened when I have to use a suicide attacker. I am very emotional and at times I cry when I say goodbye to them,” the commander said softly. “These men were not found on the streets. These are educated men who under normal circumstances would have the potential of being constructive members of society. If they did not have to carry out such a mission, they could have become a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher.”

Once the bomber’s prepa
rations are complete, he is collected by another member of the unit who accompanies him on the final journey to his target. It is only just before the assault that he is told the details of his operation, whether he will be a bomber or will attack with grenades and guns until he is shot dead.

Ten to 15 minutes before being dropped at the target, the bomber straps on a hand-tailored vest filled with about 10 kilos of explosive and five kilos of nails and metal. He is then given his final instructions about the precise point at which he should detonate himself.

“The later he knows the better for the martyr, since he will not have much time to think of the target nor to experience doubts,” the commander said. A separate unit has the job of finding potential targets for suicide attacks.

Asked whether the recent killings of innocent young civilians by suicide bombers in cafes and restaurants could be condoned, Abu Fatah’s tone hardened. “Do you think when an Israeli tank shells a house it considers whether there are children at home?” he snapped. “There are ugly consequences for both sides in a war.”

Ahmad, the second suicide attacker, has no reservations. A 27-year-old student from the Gaza Strip, he carries the deeds and keys to the family house in Jaffa from which his grandmother was driven when the modern state of Israel was established as a Jewish homeland in 1948.

“My grandmother represented the history of the Palestinian people,” said the quietly-spoken Ahmad, one of eight children who lives with his mother.

“She spoke to us of Jaffa, its grape vines and the seaside. She instilled in us a love for the home we did not know and over many tears recounted old stories of life once upon a time in Palestine.” Ahmad said he fell in love with Jaffa through his grandmother’s tales and longed for the day when he would have a chance to visit the old place. Instead, he grew up in a small concrete house allotted to the family by the United Nations.

He was 12 when the first intifada began and his anger at what he regarded as the humiliation of his family under occupation eventually made him determined to fight for “dignity”.

“I did not join Fatah to kill. My aim in joining was to try and provide security, if only to my immediate family. Were it not for the occupation, I would not have become a Fatah member in the first place. I let go of my dreams of Jaffa and of ever reclaiming my grandmother’s house. I was never a person who sought to annihilate the Israelis.

“I gave them the land that originally belonged to me but instead of accepting it graciously I found them still seeking to deprive me of the right to live freely and peacefully in my tiny few square metres.”

The failure of the peace process meant “having to live in an area where most of us were denied the ability to move freely”, he said.

“How can I live in a state without sovereignty where I am forced to show an identity card at an Israeli checkpoint for permission to move? They control our electricity and water supply and our lives, and people still ask why we are rising up.”

A band of fighters gathering around him as he spoke nodded in agreement. “I am committed to carry out a martyr’s mission to show my rejection of being forced to live under this oppression,” he said to cries of “Allahu akbar (God is greatest)”.

“My aim is to prohibit settlers from enjoying their lives here. My aim is to force the Israeli checkpoint out of my territory. If they leave in peace, I have no intention of following them into their areas. But if they remain here then I shall use the methods at my disposal to force them out.

“I and many others like me are now prepared and waiting to carry out spectacular attacks against the enemy. We are not afraid and will not cease until they withdraw totally from our areas. You can call us terrorists all you like, but we have faith that justice is on our side and that victory will be ours.”

Religion was a constant topic of conversation throughout the time I spent with the cell. They also watched videos of past “martyrs”, analysing the operations carried out. Casualties were described purely in terms of numbers, without reference to the gender or age of the victims. There was little room here for sentimentality.

They recited the names of all the group’s previous attackers and talked about the “courage” of Mohammed Farhat, 19, who infiltrated the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif earlier this month, killing five Israelis before he was gunned down.

A few hours before his attack, he had called his mother from his mobile phone to ask her advice. His mother, Um Nidal, told me that she had replied: “Take care my son, remember God, repeat the verses, pay attention to everything you see, concentrate on the task ahead, pick your moment. May God bless you with success and may you be granted the martyrdom you deserve.

“Be strong, my boy, in this, your first major battle, and remember Allah in every move you make. Do not hesitate, my boy, and strike as harshly as you can against the enemy.” She then asked him to switch off his mobile for the last time.

Um Nidal stayed in front of her television waiting for news of her son’s attack, fearful that he might be injured, arrested and denied the “martyrdom” he sought.

She knew of her son’s selection for a mission a month in advance: “I cried for a whole month every time I looked at him. I would tell him not to let my tears stop him from going on his mission. I watched him like a baby that whole month.”

“My heart is not made of stone,” she added, but she had been “willing to sacrifice him for something more precious and sanctified than our earthly world”.

Suddenly a fighter appeared in our group with “very important news”. It was perhaps the most incongruous of many startling moments during my stay.

“Manchester United 5, West Ham 3,” he declared, announcing the score of a match last weekend. “David Beckham two score,” he informed me in English. “Very good Manchester.”

The announcement was greeted with unanimous pleasure, amid further calls of “Allahu akbar”.

Authors
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