Mideast Turmoil: The bombers; rash of new suicide bombers exhibit no patterns or ties
Her face adorns no martyr’s poster, but Arien Ahmed, a 20-year-old Palestinian student of business administration, has one of the many profiles of the new suicide bomber.
She did not go through months, or even weeks, of indoctrination before setting out last month on a suicide bombing mission. She had no connection to the militantly Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that once orchestrated most such attacks. She received little more preparation than a demonstration of how to push a button.
Her case is becoming typical. Palestinian society itself, under pressure from the grinding conflict with Israel, appears to be providing the only necessary indoctrination, experts on both sides say.
Indeed, a survey by Israel’s national security service of Palestinian suicide bombers has concerned Israeli officials precisely because it identified no particular pattern. All the suicides and would-be suicides have been Muslim, and most have been unmarried, but their ages and levels of education vary.
Since the first female suicide bomber struck here on Jan. 27, groups tied to Yasir Arafat’s Fatah faction have sent at least seven more women as attackers, at least four of whom were arrested by Israel, including the mother of a 3-year-old.
In the case of Ms. Ahmed, reasons as personal as lost love and as political as the hate-soaked conflict led her to act. Last month, as she described it in a jailhouse interview, she found herself walking through an Israeli town wearing a T-shirt that was too tight and a backpack that was too heavy, laden as it was with nails and a bomb.
A chain of events was dragging her down with a speed that left her frozen, unthinking.
It was only five days before that she had offered her services and maybe her life to a member of a violent Palestinian group in Bethlehem. It was only the day before, she recalled, that her offer had been suddenly, even greedily, accepted.
It was only on this day, Wednesday, May 22, that she had been pulled away from a marketing lecture at Bethlehem University, shown the backpack and how to trigger the bomb inside, put in a beat-up car with another would-be killer, and sent on, dressed to pass as an Israeli woman.
She wondered if she was in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. She was actually in the town of Rishon le Zion.
Ms. Ahmed was out to avenge the death of her fiancé, a leader of the Bethlehem group that sent her, which was part of the Tanzim, the militia connected to Al Fatah. She believed that he had been killed by Israeli forces, though Israeli intelligence agents said he had accidentally blown himself up.
But Ms. Ahmed was now starting to wonder, as she walked along the pedestrian mall, if she was doing the right thing, or if hell rather than heaven awaited her.
”I look at the sky,” Ms. Ahmed recalled this week, speaking English as she described a kind of awakening. ”I look at the people.” She said she remembered a childhood belief, ”that nobody has the right to stop anybody’s life.”
Ms. Ahmed, a rare exception among suicide bombers, turned back. Her companion, Issa Badir, confided second thoughts to her, she said.
But he ultimately went ahead, killing himself and two Israelis. Issa, the son of a lawyer educated in Wisconsin, was just 16, one of the youngest suicide bombers.
It used to take months of training to prepare a Palestinian terrorist from the West Bank or Gaza Strip to commit suicide in the course of killing Israelis. The attackers were strictly from the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, envisioning a covey of virgins and automatic passes to paradise for loved ones left behind.
But the who, why and how of Palestinian suicide bombing have changed, and the changes alarm not only Israelis but also Palestinians concerned for the impact on their own society. Palestinian militants and Israeli experts warn that the changes could reverberate overseas, should the target list in this metastasizing conflict continue to grow.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to conduct devastating attacks. But since early this spring, most of the attacks have been conducted by more secular groups, by Fatah-linked organizations like the one that sent Ms. Ahmed.
The range of recruits to suicide missions continues to broaden in often bewildering ways. This week, Israel’s forces arrested a 12-year-old Palestinian boy its intelligence had identified as planning an attack.
Dr. Iyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist in Gaza City, has watched the trend toward suicide bombing with growing alarm. He said that having grown up with the idea of suicide attacks, Palestinian children were equating death with power.
”They are creating a new kind of culture,” he said, arguing that they were in part compensating for the powerlessness of their parents in the face of the restrictions and frequent humiliations of Israeli occupation.
To this psychiatrist, the development is comparable to a fad for body-building, gathering adherents by presenting an ideal that is embraced, even unconsciously. ”Once you create such a culture,” Dr. Sarraj said, ”you create something automatic.”
But like many Palestinians, he said even he could not challenge the social acceptance of this ideal by directly criticizing the martyrs themselves. ”You can say, ‘I condemn terror, I condemn killing civilians,’ but you can’t say, ‘I condemn martyrs,’ because martyrs are prophets.”
In her interview, Ms. Ahmed did not dwell on the glories of martyrdom. She said she had expected training, as well as questioning from her recruiters about why she wanted to kill and die. Instead, her recruiters simply told her that she would rejoin her slain fiancé, Jaad Salem, in paradise, a notion she recalled thinking stupid even at the time.
”They abused me,” she said from her confinement.
But though she called suicide bombing a mistake, she said she understood it. ”It’s a result of the situation we live in,” she said. ”There are also innocent people killed on our side.”
Ms. Ahmed was interviewed in the presence of agents from the Israeli Internal Security Agency, known also as the Shin Bet, who objected only to questions about her interrogation. Asked how she had been treated, Ms. Ahmed said that she had not received prompt dental treatment for a toothache, but that she had otherwise been treated as she expected a prisoner would be.
Poised and seemingly at ease, she was dressed in street clothes — dark corduroy pants and a blue-and-white striped tunic — and she smiled and joked easily during almost two hours of conversation.
Ms. Ahmed said she wanted to be interviewed to discourage other Palestinians from conducting suicide attacks, and to gain sympathy for herself. The Israeli Security Agency appeared eager to illustrate how easily militants manipulate susceptible people and send them to kill and die.
But as much as any manipulative militant leader, it appears to be the very culture of a ravaged and disoriented Palestinian society that now feeds the recruitment of suicide bombers.
Ms. Ahmed said the only Palestinian she had ever heard criticize suicide bombing was her uncle, Omer Shaibat, a mechanical engineer trained in Long Beach, Calif.
”It is becoming a social phenomenon,” Mr. Shaibat said, sadly but unconsciously echoing the words of an Israeli intelligence agent as he sat in the family living room in Beit Sahur, a Christian town beside Bethlehem. ”Every time I wake up, I think, ‘What should I have done?’ You always think this isn’t going to happen to you; it’s going to happen to someone else.”
From 1993 until the beginning of this conflict in late September 2000, Israeli officials counted 61 attempted and successful suicide attacks; from the beginning of this conflict until the middle of this month, it counted almost twice that number, 116.
”The bottleneck on the Palestinian side is not the suicide attacker,” said a senior Israeli security official. ”It’s the bomb.”
Mr. Shaibat repeatedly returned to Ms. Ahmed’s upbringing: Her father died when she was 6 months old. Her mother remarried when she was 6 and left her in Beit Sahur; she now lives in Jordan. Ms. Ahmed made friends and was an excellent student, earning a partial scholarship to Bethlehem University. But it seemed to her family that she hid a great deal behind her bright smile.
The family resisted her liaison with the Tanzim leader, fearing precisely what proved his fate. Within a month of his death on March 8, Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem. Though Ms. Ahmed baked sweets and helped around the house during the 39-day Israeli siege, she was often glued to the television, following the Israeli offensive.
Then she quarreled bitterly with an aunt shortly before she undertook her mission, without a word to her family.
Ms. Ahmed’s uncle and aunts repeatedly said they felt guilty, and wondered if she was trying to punish them, using the kind of language that the families of suicides and attempted suicides in the United States often invoke.
”There is a saying in America,” Mr. Shaibat said. ”I didn’t see the writing on the wall.”
In an effort to understand the changing nature of suicide bombing, the Israeli defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, recently met separately with Ms. Ahmed and a would-be suicide bomber who was intercepted. He said he found little commonality but despair.
Ms. Ahmed was composed during the interview. Tears sprang to her eyes only when she recalled the death of her fiancé. ”So I lost all my future,” she said simply.
She insisted that the man she loved, Mr. Salem, attacked only soldiers — an account disputed by Israel — and said he had refused even to discuss with her the details of his operations. ”He didn’t want to put me in this,” she said. ”He was telling me all the time that I am his life.”
Scared for him, she tried to persuade Mr. Salem to stop fighting, but he replied, ”It’s too late.” His comrades would think he had become a collaborator, she explained.
Such pressures within Palestinian society are intense. The ”infrastructure of terror,” as the Israelis call it, has fragmented into small cells throughout the West Bank, each fighting its own parallel war. Separate, mid-level leaders emerge briefly, to be cut down by Israel and swiftly replaced. Such men are more than willing to seize on emotional turmoil, weakness of character or zealotry, to give someone a lethal backpack and to send him on his way, Israeli intelligence agents said.
Palestinian intelligence officials say the speed with which bombers are now primed makes intercepting them almost impossible. It used to be that during the long preparation, word of a planned attack might get around.
Israel rejects such accounts, saying Mr. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority is either cooperating or doing nothing to stop the suicidal killing.
Arien Ahmed and Issa Badir would not have made anyone’s list of likely killers. His brothers said Issa, like Palestinians in general, had been upset by watching images of Israeli military operations on television. But he seemed most passionate about swimming.
While attending a Lutheran high school in Bethlehem, Ms. Ahmed took part in joint discussions with Israeli students, and she made some friends among them, she said. ”Maybe if I check my e-mail, I will see e-mail from them,” she said, smiling.
Just as the bombers are becoming individually harder to identify and to stop, the broader cultural phenomenon of suicide bombing may prove difficult to restrain, experts say.
It appears that violent groups have seized on the method specifically because it is an effective means of killing but also one with an intrinsic political message of desperation and despair, which a car bomb or kidnapping might not convey.
”Our aim first is to show the world that we no longer love this life without our land,” said Dr. Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. One of Dr. Rayan’s sons died last fall in a suicidal shooting attack on a Jewish settlement, Eli Sinai.
Dr. Rayan, who studied martyrdom as a graduate student, brought his Toshiba laptop to a recent interview in Gaza City, so that he could call up relevant Islamic scripture.
He questioned what he described as American hypocrisy on the use of suicide as a weapon, saying Palestinians were at war with Israelis and had no other choice. ”If we had weapons like the Israelis, we would kill them in a way that is acceptable to Americans,” he said wryly.
In Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, Salah Othman is known as the ”live martyr.” In the service of Hamas, Mr. Othman joined in a suicidal attack on a Jerusalem bus almost nine years ago, during the first intifada, or uprising. He was shot in the head and back. Israel returned his nearly dead body to Gaza, where he recovered, married and now works in a Hamas rehabilitation center.
Mr. Othman said he required a great deal of psychological preparation. He prayed and fasted, he said, and tried to ”look at this life the way God looks at it.”
”This life — whatever we see now — for God, it’s not worth the wing of a mosquito,” he explained, sitting with his wife in their comfortable home. ”You cannot compare this life with the afterlife. It’s like a drop in the ocean. Why should I waste the ocean for this drop?”
Like Dr. Rayan, he said he hoped his children would martyr themselves. ”The new generation, they will be more fond of martyr attacks than the previous one,” he said with satisfaction.
On Wednesday, a group of 55 Palestinian intellectuals published an advertisement in an Arabic-language newspaper, Al Quds, calling for a halt to attacks on Israeli civilians.
”We urge those behind military attacks against civilians inside Israel to reconsider their positions and to stop pushing our youth to carry out these attacks, which only result in deepening hatred between the two peoples,” the advertisement read.
The group argued that ”military attacks” on Israeli civilians were counter to the Palestinian national interest — the same approach that Mr. Arafat has recently used to distance himself from suicide bombing. A poster of Issa Badir, ”martyr hero,” now adorns walls around Bethlehem.
For her part, Ms. Ahmed said she expected to be in prison for several years. But the security agency has recommended that she not be charged because she regrets her act, an official said tonight.
Eventually Ms. Ahmed hopes to make a new life in Jordan, because if she is eventually released, ”they will refuse me,” as a coward. Asked who would refuse her, she replied, ”My nation.” Autor: James Bennet