Where have all the bombers gone?

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Erik Schechter, THE JERUSALEM POST

Aug. 5, 2004


Israel's killing of Ahmed Yassin was supposed to have been followed by rivers of blood on Israel's streets. It didn't happen. Here is why.

Rifat Mukdi, 25, had no previous history with Palestinian terrorist organizations and, despite both intifadas, all of his nine brothers and sisters are alive and well. Yet one day in February 2002, he told his cousin, a member of Hamas, that he wanted to become a martyr.

Nine months later, Mukdi was given a 15-kilogram explosives belt by the Ramallah cell of the Palestinian Islamist group. That very same day he was smuggled to Tel Aviv, where he made his way to the seaside Caf Tayelet. At the entrance, a security guard got suspicious, and a panicky Mukdi fled the scene only to be apprehended soon afterwards.

Mukdi is now serving a 14-year sentence at Ashkelon's Shikma Prison for that aborted attack. Clad in a brown prison uniform and plastic slippers, he insists that the detonator worked fine; he simply could not bring himself to kill all those children sitting at the cafe. When asked what he would have done had only adults been present, he refuses to answer.

When Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin this past March, critics warned that it would produce more men like Mukdi. But for all the talk about rage and root causes, there has not been a single suicide bombing in the past four-and-a-half months. That is because these terrorist acts are just a tactic of war, one that is on the decline.

The suicide bomber
When Mukdi enters the enamel-white interrogation room of Shikma Prison, he turns back to his jailers in confusion: He had been expecting a talk with a prison official, not a journalist. It takes some gentle prodding, but the young, thinly bearded man agrees to clip a microphone to his lapel.

And so, my interview with a would-be martyr begins.

Since 1993, Palestinian terrorists have perpetrated 165 suicide bombings, and yet, that someone would get on a bus and blow himself up still boggles the Western mind. So it is not surprising that foreign journalists are apt to mix comments like "the slums of Gaza" into their coverage of suicide bombers.

But Mudki hails from the West Bank farming village of az-Zawiya.

"My father was an Arabic language teacher at a madrasa, and I went to school for 12 years," says Mukdi, as he plays with his tan prayer beads. His favorite subject was history, and by his own account, he was a good student.

Though speaking mostly in subdued tones, he gets quite animated when discussing Koranic prophecies regarding the end of days, the return of the Jews to Palestine and the schemes of the dajjal, or anti-Christ. And though Mukdi refuses to give his opinion on 9/11, he has no problem calling Osama bin Laden a good Muslim.

Asked where he got the theological sanction to become a suicide bomber, Mukdi answers, "I listened to the Muslim preachers on television. They were my main authority."

As if he repeating an old lecture, he adds, "Dying for martyrs doesn't mean real death."

Mukdi ultimately attributes his fateful decision to the death by shooting, when he was nine years old, of a much older playmate and to two humiliating episodes at IDF checkpoints - one of which occurred just a year before he decided to become a shahid.

"I was hit by a black soldier at a checkpoint in the town of Hawara," he recalls. "I wanted to kill him, but I did not have the weapons."

When asked why did he not take his revenge against troops at a West Bank checkpoint, he says they are too well guarded. Yet it seems hard to believe that Mukdi did not encounter a single soldier on his way to the Tel Aviv boardwalk. Evidently, someone thought of a better use for 15 kilograms of explosives.

The dispatchers
According to security sources, there is a core of three people behind even the simplest suicide operation: the bombmaker, driver and dispatcher. The martyr himself is just materiel, a rocket, a bullet - locked into a commitment by the famous videotaped farewell made by all suicide bombers.

"The key to the suicide bombing phenomenon is really the dispatcher," says Anat Berko, a criminologist at Herzliya's International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).

That is why I meet with Mahmoud Sarahneh and Bilal Othman Barghouti. They are the chess players behind the pawns. Both of these men have the blood of dozens on their hands and, therefore, will spend the rest of their lives behind the royal blue, steel doors of Tel Mond's Hadarim Detention Center.

Sarahneh, 27, slouches with his arms folded and his green eyes flashing with anger. He seems to understand my questions before they are translated into Arabic but refuses to speak in Hebrew. A Fatah member since his mid-teens, he personally dispatched four suicide bombers, including the one who killed 11 people in Jerusalem's Beit Yisrael neighborhood in March 2002.

And he has no regrets.

"The Israelis, the enemy itself," he growls, "they are the ones who caused me to do what I did."

Throughout much of the interview, he uses the same passive language, as if he were a blameless cog in a machine much larger than himself. When Palestinian terrorists kill civilians, they do so because they lack the hi-tech weaponry to fight the IDF. The children who die along with their parents in these attacks are just accidents.

Such rationalizations work in only one direction.

"Israel does not kill [Palestinian children] by accident," says Sarahneh. "Israel kills intentionally. They smash into a house in Gaza with a bulldozer and bring the house down on its residents. What's that?"

For all his hostility, Sarahneh warms noticeably when I pull up my left pant leg and show him some of the scars from the bus bombing I survived in January. It's as if I have been admitted into the exclusive, all-Palestinian club of the suffering, and we have become old friends.

By contrast, Barghouti, a balding 27-year-old with a thick frame, maintains a friendly demeanor even as he admits to recruiting suicide bombers for Hamas at Birzeit University. Fellow students would come up to him and express their wish to become martyrs. If they seemed sincere enough, Barghouti would send them on to the right people and that's all.

"He is in a bad state because of the suffering he sees," he says of the typical recruit.

I ask Barghouti if he would recruit his own parents to be suicide bombers, half-expecting a burst of righteous indignation at the question. But it does not come. Instead, he answers cryptically that becoming a shahid is an "individual decision" - implying that, if they so desired, he would send his own mother and father to die.

The Shin Bet says that Barghouti, far from being an errand boy, is really an explosives expert and the man behind the Sbarro bombing in August 2001. Though the funding for the operation came from a more senior Hamas commander, it was Barghouti's nail-packed bomb - hidden in a guitar case bought by one of his agents - that Izzadin Masri, 22, carried into the Jerusalem pizzeria.

Fifteen people, including seven children, were shredded in the ensuing blast.

Coaxed into leafing through an album containing the photographs of the murdered kids, Barghouti says, "I do not accept responsibility for their deaths. I feel pain, of course. They are little children. But the government of Israel is solely responsible."

Later, he shifts the onus to the suicide bomber.

The Hadarim inmates rely on equally self-serving explanations for why they did not choose martyrdom themselves. For instance, Sarahneh says that he is not a devout enough Muslim to be a shahid but later contends that suicide bombing has nothing to do with religion but is merely "a tactic of war."

Suicide bombing as tactic
According to terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp, Hizbullah (The Party of God) was the first militant group to adopt suicide bombings. The radical Lebanese Shi'ite group took its inspiration from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, during its war with Iraq, sent thousands of youngsters racing across minefields with the keys of Paradise tied around their necks.

At the time, the Party of God was an obscure, little militia in a country filled with militias. But it drew worldwide attention when in October 1983 a water delivery truck laden with plastic explosives rammed into the US Marines barracks in Beirut. Two hundred and forty-one servicemen were killed in the earth-shaking blast.

Not long afterwards the Americans withdrew from Lebanon.

The Palestinians picked up the tactic from Hizbullah when then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin expelled 415 militants to southern Lebanon in December 1992. Says Barghouti, "The suicide bombing was a new method to fight the occupation. We had weapons, but the idea was not around before 1993."

But if suicide bombing is the tactic, what is the overall strategy?

According to Steve Niva, a Middle East studies professor at Evergreen State College, Hamas and Islamic Jihad aim for "some kind of deterrent effect so that Israel would refrain from or reconsider certain actions, like cracking down on the Islamic movement, assassinating its leaders, etc."

With the IDF's big guns silenced, the terror groups would be able to push the army out of all the territories and consolidate their gains under a hudna, or temporary cease-fire. And if Israel could live with that scenario, then the suicide bombings would be a thing of the past - or so the argument goes.

Col. (res.) Shaul Shay, author of The Shahids: Islam and Suicide Attacks, thinks otherwise. He believes that, no matter what, the fundamentalists will try to hammer away at Israeli society with suicide bombers because it is seen as soft and fragile: "They see this as an effective tool to destroy the state."

And Fatah? Once thought the moderate force in the territories, it has jumped on the bandwagon because, after September 2000, the killing of Israelis proved very popular among Palestinians. Back in the Tel Mond jail, Sarahneh says, "It does not make a difference: Fatah, Hamas, we all want to liberate Palestine. I am now sitting in Palestine."

The Israeli response
Over time, people have come to associate the tactic of suicide bombing with the Palestinian national struggle itself. So any military action the IDF took against terrorist commanders was criticized as fueling the "cycle of violence," that is, provoking another suicide bombing.

Then something unusual happened.

On March 22, Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin outside a Gaza City mosque and tens of thousands of enraged mourners took to the street. Hamas declared that Israel had "opened the gates of hell," promising to kill "hundreds of Zionists." And it threatened the same when, less than a month later, Israel took out Yassin's heir, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

The Rifat Mukdis were all there, but nothing came of the fury.

"A complex revenge operation worthy of Yassin could still happen in the future," warns Lt.-Col. (res.) Gal Luft, director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

But Luft argues that Israel's "targeted killing" policy has had a cumulative effect on the command structure of terrorist organizations. Despite its boosted popularity, Hamas is having a hard time raising funds, passing down orders and dispatching suicide bombers.

The security fence hasn't helped, either.

Since construction began two years ago on the proposed 720-kilometer fence in the West Bank, there has been a significant decline in suicide bombings - from 46 in 2002, to 17 in 2003. Since the beginning of this year, there have only been four suicide bombings, all of the them before the Yassin assassination.

Even the terrorists have taken notice.

"Perhaps the fence is helping temporarily, but it cannot be a permanent solution," says Barghouti. "So long as there is an occupation, there will be ways to fight it."

Sarahneh adds that the Palestinians still have the Kassam rocket.

Both are absolutely correct.

The security fence will not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a conflict does not equal terrorism, and terrorism does not equal suicide bombings. Since September 2000, close to 360 Kassams have been fired at Israeli homes in the south, resulting in only two deaths.

With time, the lethality of the rockets may increase. The future may yet hold a few more nasty surprises. But this may be, at last, the twilight of the Palestinian suicide bomber.

Bomber myths
Suicide bombers are religious extremists
At least three leftist, secular groups have also employed suicide bombers - the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. In fact, it was the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka who invented the explosives belt, notes Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

Suicide bombers are poor and uneducated
RAND Corporation economist Claude Berrebi says that in his study of 285 Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists killed in action between 1997-2002, he found that "they were more educated and wealthier than the average Palestinian."

The same held true for suicide bombers.

Suicide bombers have lost family members
Surprisingly few suicide bombers were injured or had a close family member killed by the army, says Ariel Merari, a professor of psychology and head of Tel Aviv University's Program on Political Violence. Instead, martyrs are motivated more by a collective sense of hurt: "They always mention national humiliation. They always mention the occupation."

Suicide bombers are a reaction to foreign domination
Yes and no. Examining 187 suicide bombings from 1980-2001, University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape argues that they are almost exclusively used in campaigns by militant groups to rid their homelands of foreign armies. But curiously, the enemy is never a full-fledged dictatorship.

Brides of death
When 27-year-old Wafa Idris detonated her explosives belt in downtown Jerusalem, killing one, she became the first of seven women to join, so far, the ranks of the Palestinian suicide bombers. However, far from being a landmark victory for feminism, the January 2002 attack actually reinforced the traditional roles of mother and wife, says Anat Berko, a criminologist at Herzliya's International Policy Institute on Counter-Terrorism (ICT).

Idris was an independent woman with a job at the Palestinian Red Crescent, but because she could not have children, says Berko, "she was nothing in Palestinian society."

Berko has spoken with many of these would-be martyrs in Israeli prisons, though she will not reveal their names in order to protect their privacy. She believes that many of these inmates come from families with poor reputations, and that they have had illicit sexual encounters, or in some other way do not fit the rigid expectations for Arab women.

On the face of it, suicide is not an option for these social misfits since it is prohibited by Islam, yet martyrdom "wipes away all sins and stigmas," says Berko.

Sometimes, the female suicide bomber is actually taking out revenge on her own parents. Berko recalls one woman, a college graduate, who had felt spurned by her mother, so suicide - wrapped up in patriotism - was her way of getting even. Another would-be bomber could not marry the man she loved because their fathers could not agree on a dowry sum.

While the Islamist groups put a premium on martyrs donning an explosives belt for all the right reasons, Fatah is less meticulous about motives. One adventurous 19-year-old found herself tricked into being a suicide bomber.

As a Palestinian militant, the woman discovered that she could leave her house, ride in a car and even mingle with boys - all with the sanction of her otherwise deeply conservative Arab society. She revelled in her new-found personal freedom, but after three months of hanging out with the shebab, her "comrades" demanded that she become a suicide bomber.

Shocked by the suggestion, she refused. That's when they claimed that her intimate knowledge of the group made her a liability: Either she agree to detonate herself in some Israeli city, or they would kill her themselves. Says Berko, "They forced her to sign a document that said she had volunteered, so her family would not seek revenge."

Barbara Victor has heard all these stories before.

In fact, she included most of them in her recently published book, Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers. But as more volunteers stepped forward, Victor abandoned her original position.

"My initial thesis was that these women were marginalized in Palestinian society," she says, "and that suicide bombing promised them equality and the wiping away of their sins."

Now, Victor believes that - thanks to a "fatal cocktail" of religion, occupation, and destitution - one can no longer construct a model of the female suicide bomber: She could be anybody.

"All bets are off," says Victor.

The shahid nation
The suicide bombers of the Tamil Tigers or PKK emerged from a claustrophobic, Marxist-Leninist world where the leader was considered semi-divine.

Not so the Palestinians.
Indeed, Dr. Eyad Sarraj, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP), warns that children in the territories now dream of martyrdom, or shahada, "the way normal kids in the US dream of going to Disneyland."

According to an opinion poll conducted in April by the Bethlehem-based Palestinian Center for Research and Cultural Dialogue, 76.5 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings within the Green Line.

Far from being a horrifying outcast, the suicide bomber is a national hero, his parents are honored members of society. His face graces many of the martyr posters commemorating the Palestinian fallen that cover walls and storefronts in the West Bank and Gaza, and radical Muslim preachers contend that 72 virgins await him in Paradise.

But there is a difference between reverence and emulation - why would children aspire to blow themselves to pieces?

Because of collective psychological trauma, says Sarraj.

Fifty-seven percent of Palestinians are under the age of 20, according to the IMF. What these youths know of Israelis is what they have experienced growing up during either this or the previous intifada - nighttime raids, shootings and closures.

"Martyrdom," says Sarraj, "gives [the child] the feeling of power to compensate for the weakness of the father who cannot defend his family."

This might explain why the children of Palestinian leaders, i.e., strong father figures, do not become suicide bombers.

Suicide bombing is also a short-cut to glory for kids, who have a fuzzy notion of mortality.

In March, Husam Abdu, a mentally challenged 16-year-old, was recruited by a Fatah group in Nablus to blow himself up at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the city. Abdu, who was disarmed by the IDF, said that he had agreed to the suicide bombing in order to become famous - he said that he did not have friends in school - and to have endless sex in heaven.

Sarraj demonstrates the heavy intertwining of death, power and religion in the dream of a 14-year-old patient: In it, the teen hangs Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and all his cabinet on the road to the Knesset. But rather than celebrating his victory, he kills himself with a bomb. When asked why, the patient said, "It is good to be with God."

But Itamar Marcus argues that the Palestinian Authority has been consciously feeding this cult of martyrdom. The director of Jerusalem-based Palestinian Media Watch, Marcus's office is packed with 7,000 video cassettes of broadcasts - news programs, politically charged music videos and pastiches of random violence - recorded from PA TV since 1997.

Some of the clips are simply meant to encourage children to engage in risky behavior. For instance, Marcus cites a news interview on October 19, 2000, in which the female reporter visits a second-grade classroom and asks one camera-shy child if he is afraid to die in clashes with Israeli troops. When he hesitates, she coaches him to say no.

Others call for outright martyrdom. One music video broadcast some 500 times in 2001 shows a child, flanked by his playmates, presenting his father with a note telling him about his impending shahada. The boy's death is not seen but implied.

In fact, none of the clips actually features staged scenes of suicide bombers strapping dynamite to themselves. That sort of explicitness is left for the Friday sermons broadcast by PA TV. In one March 2002 sermon, PA Religious Ministry official Sheikh Ahmed Abdel Razek tells a group of intense, cross-legged men that Allah "has planted within our youth the love of jihad, the love of shahada. Our youth have turned into bombs..."

Marcus says that far from being a reflection of popular opinion, the broadcasts are used by the PA to set an agenda. So when the PA sought to calm the Palestinian street in April 2003, with the advent of the Road Map, it limited violence-themed clips on television from a few hours to only 15-20 minutes a day.

In 2002, the PA ran a video clip starring Muhammad al-Dura, the famous 12-year-old killed accidentally in a September 2000 gun battle between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in Gaza. In the video, a child actor playing al-Dura runs in what is meant to be Paradise and beckons little children to join him.

Marcus notes a lit-up ferris wheel in the distance - shades of Disneyland.