The Bomb Under the Abaya
The suicide vest, stuffed with explosives, nails, ball bearings and various metal fragments, weighed close to 40 pounds. But it felt "like roses on my shoulders," Shefa'a al-Qudsi told me when I interviewed her this spring in an Israeli security prison near Tel Aviv. "I was even more eager to do it after I put the vest on," said the now 31-year-old Palestinian from Tulkarem. "Many would have died. No fence in the world would have stopped me."
Wafa al-Biss, who is now 23, had the opposite reaction when she tried on the explosive pants she had been given for her mission. "I told them the pants were too tight and too heavy," she said, tugging at her headscarf with her scarred fingertips as she recounted her conversation with the men who were sending her to kill and die. "They said: ‘Don't worry. We have a bigger size for you!' I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize myself," al-Biss told me, her eyes welling with tears. "And I thought: What am I doing here?"
The two women with their opposite reactions to the prospect of becoming human bombs had been brought together by Israeli counterterrorism officials in Ward 12 of Hasharon Security Prison, an austere facility a half-hour drive north of Tel Aviv. The sprawling, multi-story concrete structure, surrounded by concertina wire and florescent-lit guard towers, is located in the Plain of Sharon where lush citrus groves embrace the prison in a sea of green. Clearly visible from a major highway, tens of thousands of Israeli commuters pass the unmarked facility each day en route to Tel Aviv.
Wafa al-Biss and Shefa'a al-Qudsi live among more than 60 other Palestinian women involved in terrorism — would-be bombers, spotters, supporters of and counselors to future shaheeds and shaheedas, male and female martyrs, as Palestinians call them. Twelve of some 22 women who have participated since 2002 in such suicide missions survived and are now confined here and in similar prisons, where Israeli intelligence officials have been studying them intensively. Cynics may say that these women prisoners were the beneficiaries of second thoughts, but Israeli officials assert that most of them, including Shefa'a al-Qudsi, were either apprehended before they could reach their targets, or, as in the case of Wafa al-Biss, discovered too late that the devices they were wearing were faulty.
What Israeli officials have more difficulty explaining is why they chose to sacrifice themselves to kill Israelis. Why are so many so eager to do something so profoundly contrary to the human instinct for survival?
Because I found conflicting and only partial answers in the many books that have already been written on suicide attacks, I went to the gates of Hasharon prison to talk to the women themselves. Since Israel has in detention among the largest number of people who have tried and failed to carry out istishhad, or religiously blessed self-sacrifice — nearly half of the 380 aspiring suicide bombers since 2002 have failed or were stopped before carrying out their missions — it seemed a natural place to start.
What led Palestinians to this deadly choice? Were the motives similar to those of the seemingly endless reservoir of suicide bombers who have killed so many Iraqis and Americans in Iraq? Are the motives similar to those of suicide bombers in Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians alike now face growing peril? Are New Yorkers and other Americans likely to confront suicide attacks like those that Israelis, Sri Lankans, Turks and others have endured?
* * *
The prison holding more than 60 Palestinian women was clean but icy cold on the spring morning that my translator and I arrived. Escorted by male and female prison guards armed with mace and revolvers, we were guided through a labyrinth of wire and steel, along long, narrow corridors separated by several thick steel doors and gates to Wards 11 and 12, where veterans of failed suicide missions and other serious security crimes are held.
Each ward has two tiers of cells, which vary in size, holding one to 10 prisoners. They surround a small open-air courtyard where the women eat in good weather, talk, read, play cards, and exercise. On the day of my visit, several were walking there, arm-in-arm. Others were sweeping the courtyard or wiping the narrow windows of the thick doors of the cells that confine them at night and during the day unless they are eating, praying, exercising, or studying Hebrew or other courses the prison offers. Shefa'a al-Qudsi, unusual among Palestinian women suicide bombers, who tend to be better educated than their male counterparts, earned her high school diploma here.
Most of the women in Ward 12 are members of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that wants to create an Islamic Palestinian state in all of Israel and refuses to recognize the existence of the Jewish state. Almost all wore headscarves.
Soon after we entered the ward, a tall, stern-looking young prisoner — the unit's designated political leader in hijab and jilbab, a full-length traditional dress — approached my male translator and me. She was all business: Who were we? she asked, her eyes narrowing. What did we want?
We were journalists, I replied — from America, in my case.
"We don't like America because of the war in Iraq and your support for the Zionists and Jews," she declared abruptly and turned away.
The other women watched her carefully. As the ward's spokesperson, she defined what the women could say. This was the party line, and I sensed I would soon hear it again from the women who had agreed to meet me separately.
Ward 11 had four such "leaders" — one from each of the factions represented here, the Palestine Liberation Organization's Fatah, the two leading militant Islamic groups — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — and the leftist, secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The women, permitted to wear their own clothes, buy and cook their own food if they can afford it, are also allowed to celebrate holidays and visit with their families — if only through glass partitions and monitored telephones. Also in contrast to American jails where personal items are severely restricted, several of the women had numerous photographs and personal memorabilia in their cells, along with television sets. They watch what they want, the women told me, which in these wards were mostly soap operas and Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned satellite news station that champions Arab causes and praises suicide bombers in Palestine and Iraq as "martyrs."
I was unprepared for the children. When I entered Ward 12, one of the ward's two infants was being fed by her mother and fussed over by other inmates. Israel, I was told, lets babies remain with their mothers until they are two years old. Some of these women decided to become suicide bombers or support terrorism when, or perhaps because they were pregnant, or like Shefa'a, had an infant at home.
"We try to live our lives," Shefa'a al-Qudsi told me. "But prison is a graveyard for the living."
* * *
Shefa'a al-Qudsi had been in prison for five years, since she was 26. Her daughter, Diana, was a year old when the police arrested her at her parents' house hours before she was supposed to carry out her suicide attack at a hotel disco in Netanya, a beach town north of Tel Aviv. Now her daughter, whom she has rarely seen in prison, is six. Eager to be reunited with her, she is scheduled to be released in October.
"Although I've spent the best years of my life in here," she said. "I regret nothing. What I did was not wrong."
Shefa'a al-Qudsi is one of 10 children. She says she had a "good and comfortable life, everything I needed" before deciding to sacrifice herself for Palestine. A younger brother was also arrested en route to his own suicide attack in February 2002, two months before she was picked up. Shefa'a is also rare in having actively sought recruitment and planning her own attack.
"The guys wanted me to do the operation in Hadera," she said, referring to another neighboring seaside Israeli town. "But I had worked for eight years as a hair dresser, often in Israel. I had some Israeli clients and knew Netanya like the back of my hand. There was a hotel there with a dancing hall, a beautiful place by the sea. A lot of Orthodox Jews live nearby; it was usually crowded. Because the Israelis demolished everything beautiful in our lives, I wanted to do the same to them.
"I chose Netanya," she said proudly. "I told the guys: bring me the explosives; I'll do the rest." She also decided to disguise herself as a pregnant woman to avoid suspicion.
Several things led her to act, she told me. First was Israel's occupation. Life had become intolerable since the onset of the second Intifada in September 2000, the Palestinian uprising that followed the collapse of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis which had limped along since the 1993 Oslo peace accords, a period of great hope turned sour. While young Palestinians threw stones during the first Intifada, between 1987 and 1993, they discovered a more devastating weapon in round two. Suicide bombings soared after September 2000, with the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, sacred to Jews, and also the site of the Al Aqsa mosque, which Muslims revere. His visit was the flashpoint for the second, so-called "Al Aqsa" intifada. In January, 2002, a young Palestinian woman named Wafa Idris was catapulted into Palestinian celebrity by becoming the forty-seventh Palestinian suicide bomber — but the first woman to kill herself while murdering Israelis. Her picture was everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza — on Palestinian tv, on posters. Poets wrote songs in her honor. Women named daughters after her.
Shefa'a told me that Idris's example had inspired her. "She opened the door for women to do something important in our struggle," she said. "Til Wafa, women had just helped jihad by making food. I thought: We can do more."
Living conditions on the occupied West Bank and Gaza deteriorated as the second Intifada dragged on. "Two of my cousins were killed, my brother was jailed. The army invaded our city and demolished houses. A war raged inside me: Should I, or should I not do something? The Israelis were killing us like rats and nobody was doing anything, not the Arabs, nobody. And I thought: No one will help us. I must make these dogs know how we feel. Even bullets that miss make noise."
Then her youngest brother was arrested. "Mahmoud was only 15 but prepared to be a martyr" she said. He is now serving an 18-year sentence in another security prison. "My family and I were shocked. But I was ashamed to be doing nothing."
Through a cousin, she contacted the shabbab — "the guys" from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, sponsored by the late Yasir Arafat's secular Al-Fatah. Though she had not been politically active, she persuaded them at a local mosque to help her become a suicide bomber. They initially hesitated, she recalled, asking about her daughter.
"I told them that my body would be a bridge to a better future that my daughter would walk over," she said. "Yes, I would die, but I would help give her a better life, a future without occupation. I was placing her fate in Allah's hands."
In the days before her attack, she kept her daughter close by as she read the Koran and prayed. While her family suspected something was wrong, since she was not normally religious, they said nothing. The plot was foiled only after an informant disclosed her plans to the Israelis, she complained bitterly. She was arrested the night before she was to receive a coded cell-phone message signaling the start of the operation: "The wedding has begun."
I sensed that al-Qudsi's motives were more complex, and as we talked, this seemingly determined young woman's confidence flagged as she recounted her failed marriage and the other disappointments that made martyrdom so attractive. While all of her siblings had finished college, she had dropped out of high school at 16 "to marry the man I loved," her first cousin. But Essam had humiliated her by marrying a Romanian while working in Europe and asking her for a divorce. At 19, she returned to her parents' home, rejected, a single mother with dubious remarriage prospects. Essam eventually asked her to remarry him after his second wife left him and their two children to return to Romania, she said. But she refused, "as a matter of dignity."
Al-Qudsi now claims to be optimistic about the future. Given her sacrifice, she says, "many jobs will be waiting for me." She may work in the part of the Palestinian Authority still run by Yasir Arafat's Fatah, or at the "prisoners club," which has paid her family 1,000 shekels a month since her incarceration — about $350 a month, not an insignificant sum in economically hard-pressed Palestine whose average per capita annual income is under $1,000. Her father has opened a new café in Tulkarem. With her enhanced social status as a would-be shaheeda, she looks forward to working with men now, she said. "I've had more than enough of women in jail," she laughed. But she does not want to remarry, to go "from one prison to another."
She has become "more political" and "closer to God" in prison, she says. She has also perfected her Hebrew. "We need to know the language of our enemy to better confront him, she said, a giggle softening the threat she is still determined to convey.
Would she discourage her daughter Diana from emulating her path towards martyrdom? I asked her. "I will teach her that education is the most important thing in life," she replied. "But our children can be shot coming home from school. The best of our children become martyrs, whether or not they want to be. So if she wanted to do this, I wouldn't try to stop her."
* * *
If Shefa'a al-Qudsi was a willing human weapon in her people's asymmetric war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, Wafa al-Biss, 23, is her opposite — the quintessential victim.
Now in the second year of a 12-year sentence, she was deeply distraught on the day she agreed to speak to me. She had never really wanted to become a suicide bomber, she told me tearfully. Life and bad luck had given her no choice. Born into wretched poverty in Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, one of 12 children, she said that much of her body and fingertips had been burned in a freak cooking accident at home the year before her failed mission. She had been coaxed, no, coerced into becoming a martyr by "Abul Khair," an older man from the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. "I wish I had never met him," she said bitterly.
With her lovely face and soft voice, Wafa al-Biss was not at all what I expected from what I had read about her and seen on videotape. Hours after her arrest on June 6, 2005 at the Erez crossing, the main transit point between Israel and Gaza, Israeli intelligence had hauled her before reporters to discuss her failed mission. Her neck and hands were still covered with scars and bandages from the kitchen gas explosion in her home months earlier.
At the press conference, according to several articles, Wafa al-Biss was a study in defiance — the model would-be martyr. Her greatest wish, her "dream" since childhood, she declared, was martyrdom. "I believe in death," she told reporters. Her target was an Israeli hospital, perhaps even Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where she had been treated for her burns, which had probably saved her life. "I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews. Yes!" she exclaimed, "even babies. You kill our babies!"
She might have succeeded had the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, not warned checkpoints to be on the lookout for a female suicide bomber from Gaza. When a soldier noticed something odd in the young woman's gait as she entered the transit hall, she was ordered to stop and remove her long, dark cloak. Stranded between a metal turnstile behind her and an iron gate in front of her, Wafa al-Biss found herself alone in the evacuated hall. As military surveillance cameras recorded her every move, a solider ordered her again to disrobe and drop her bomb.
Panicked and frustrated, Wafa al-Biss decided to kill herself anyway. Security camera video shows her reaching into her right pocket to pull the detonator string. But instead of exploding in a lethal mass of fire, smoke, and metal shards, the string came out in her hand. Again and again she thrust her hand into her pocket, pushing the detonator. The cameras dispassionately record her failed mission's final moments — Wafa al-Biss, alone in the hall, screaming and crying, clawing at her face — condemned to live.
"I don't care about Jews and Arabs," she told me in the prison; she had never been political. Israelis at Soroka, where she had spent three months with her burns, treated her with "respect and dignity," she said. "They had been very kind," she said. "But I still wanted to kill myself."
She had tried to do so even before the gas accident, on her birthday in November 2004, that had scarred her body, deformed the fifth digits of both hands, and left her fingertips and chin discolored. Long before that, she told me, she had been in despair. She had grown up desperately poor. Her father was "primitive." He rarely let her go out except to school or the mosque. He and her brothers beat her. She tried to throw herself out a window at age 18, but courage failed her. "Islam says you can't kill yourself. I was afraid of the shame for my family," she said.
"If my family had been normal, if I could have afforded to have been treated in America, if I could wear my hair and live my life like yours," she said, "I would never have thought about killing myself."
Instead, she said, she approached a group known to be associated with the "Resistance." Would they accept her as a martyr?
At first, the man she came to know only as Abul Khair, whom she met secretly at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza, urged her to think it over. Despite the reverence that fellow Gazans showed martyrs and their families, she hesitated. She called him a week later to say she had changed her mind.
"But they hunted me like prey," she recalled. "Abul Khair kept calling," she said. "He told me a guy they were counting on had backed out of an operation; they needed me. ‘Look at your future,' they told me. ‘No one will ever marry you.' I knew it was true. I was not good at school. I had no future."
She agreed to meet him again, this time at the Haifa mosque. Would God grant her anything she wanted in paradise? she asked him. "Would he give me new skin?"
Yes, he told her.
"What did death feel like?" she pressed him.
She wouldn't feel anything, she quoted him as saying. "It's like a pin prick."
"I wanted to believe him," she told me. "He looked religious, like someone you could trust. He told me I was very brave. He made me feel important." She agreed to become a shaheeda.
When she returned home, upset and crying, her mother sensed something was wrong. "I lied and told her that my finger hurt. Her mother made her some food and told her it would be better soon, "inshallah," Wafa said. If her mother sensed what Wafa was about to do, she didn't let on, she insisted.
As the day of her operation approached, Wafa grew despondent. She had gone to a safe house in Gaza twice with young men who picked her up in a car on a corner near her home. Being in the company of men who were not family members was religiously and culturally forbidden in conservative Palestine. She initially feared they would "harm my dignity as a woman," she told me. Instead, they escorted her to a nondescript house on the edge of her city where she was asked to try on the explosive pants, test the detonator — a gift to the Al-Aqsa group from its ostensible rival, Hamas — and videotape a political statement about the need to kill Jews. "I didn't feel that way; I told them I wanted to say something else," she said.
Ultimately, however, she complied. She was taped reading the statement and holding a Kalashnikov — for the first time ever, she says. "It was heavy."
The day before her operation, she kept to herself, cried, prayed, and tried cheering herself up by serenading her two pet canaries with a song she sang for me that morning in prison — a popular prisoner anthem in many Arab countries. "I am running away from my cage, said the bird," as Wafa began humming.
"And the bird said: Hide me with you . . .
as a tear came out to his eye.
And he said his wings are broken,
And he can no longer fly."
The morning before her attack, she woke up in terror. She called Abul Khair to tell him she had changed her mind. "But they threatened me," she said. "They said they would bring the belt to my house and explode it on me." She relented and accompanied them to the safe house, she said, where she spent the night before the attack.
The day of her attack, June 21, 2005, "was the hardest day of my life." She had failed at this as she had "so many other opportunities in my life."
She expected little now, she told me. No one was helping her; no group was paying or supporting her parents, she said. One day, she hoped to marry, but her pained expression suggested she knew this was unlikely. Perhaps she would be able to have her burns treated, she said. She would replace the birds, which had died since she went to jail.
* * *
While Shefa'a al-Qudsi's story of her failed suicide bombing was consistent over time with what she had told her Israeli interrogators soon after her arrest, Wafa's account was not. Who was the real Wafa al-Biss: the proud patriotic bomber who boasted of her desire to slaughter Jews, even babies, at the hospital that had saved her life? Or the tearful victim of a sophisticated martyrdom recruiting organization who had failed to kill herself, if not others, only because of a defective detonator? Which al-Biss was I to believe?
Smadar Perry, a journalist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot who has interviewed over a dozen would-be male and female martyrs in her many trips to Israeli prisons and detention centers, told me that what these prisoners say soon after their arrest is usually more reliable than what they are encouraged to say later on by fellow inmates and political mentors in jail.
What Wafa al-Biss omitted from her saga, however, shows how hard it is to understand the motives of suicide bombers and how complex those motives can be. She still had enough pride or shame to conceal from me facts that would have highlighted her despair. For unlike al-Qudsi, she was not motivated by the nationalist and religious reasons she claimed soon after her arrest. And it was not her long-standing "dream" to become a martyr. Nor did she act primarily because of Israel's occupation, though the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades, which had given her the bomb, driven her to the crossing, and shown her how to blow herself up, would have us believe that. Rather, she acted in large part because those she had loved and trusted the most had abandoned her.
She did not tell me, for instance, as nbc News reported a few days after her arrest and press conference, that she had been engaged to be married, or that her fiancé had broken off their engagement after her disfiguring accident. Nor did she say that, according to a Palestinian friend whose son Wafa had befriended at Soroka Hospital, she had resisted leaving after her three-month stay. Wafa's friend recalled how she had to be removed on a stretcher, crying and pleading not to be returned home.
In Gaza, she grew ever more despondent. While Israeli doctors at Soroka had strongly recommended counseling, her brothers had objected: neighbors might think she was crazy, bringing further shame upon the family.
Finally, although Wafa had told me her parents knew nothing of her plans, this, too, conflicted with what she told Israeli interrogators. Security sources told me that soon after her arrest she told them that although her parents had initially disapproved of her mission, they ultimately encouraged her. The video she told me had been made in the Al-Aqsa safe house, for instance, was actually taped on the second floor of her own home, with her parents' approval. Her own mother had helped her dress the morning of her attack. When the zipper of the explosive-laden pants tore as she was putting them on, her mother sewed it back up.
* * *
Wafa al-Biss, the ultimate victim, is the exception among suicide terrorists, says Yoram Schweitzer, an Israeli terrorism expert. "I reject the notion that all female suicide bombers are ‘damaged goods,'" he told me over coffee at the Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Only a tiny minority, he said, is really coerced into committing suicide. "Most are true volunteers. Men and women alike clamor to do this. I also reject the argument that women are more easily manipulated than men."
If anything, female suicide bombers, statistics show, tend to be better educated than their male counterparts. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of them have attended university. "They are the smarter of these smart weapons," says Anat Berko, an Israeli criminologist whose interviewed suicide bombers and those who sent them for her new book, The Path to Paradise (Praeger, 2007).
Now that suicide bombing has spread to some 32 groups in 28 countries, says Ami Pedahzur, an Israeli expert at the University of Texas, most counterterrorism experts have discarded the earlier "profiles" they assembled of the "average" suicide bomber. In the first wave of modern suicide bombing, which started against American and other western targets in Lebanon in the early 1980's, suicide bombers tended to be mostly young, male, and single. That is no longer the case.
The face of modern terrorism, and of suicide bombing in particular, is increasingly female. Though still a minority among suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq, the growing number of women willing to volunteer for such missions is especially evident in non-Palestinian and non-Islamic secular movements. Christoph Reuter, the German author of My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing (Princeton University Press, 2004), notes that one-third of the estimated 10,000 Tamil Tiger cadres in Sri Lanka have been female. Among suicide commandos, female participation is close to 60 percent.
The same is true for the pkk, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the largely secular Muslim militants who have been battling Turkey since the 1970s for Kurdish rights and autonomy. Eleven out of some 15 suicide bombings staged by the pkk since 1996 were conducted by women, as were three out of six foiled attacks. In Chechnya, women have conducted 43 percent of the attacks since suicide missions began there in 2000.
Even in Israel, where the total number of such attacks declined sharply in 2006, Reuven Ehrlich, who directs the Intelligence and Terrorist Information Center in Tel Aviv, reports in a recent study that a woman conducted one of the four suicide attacks.
Between 1985 and 2006, Schweitzer says, 220 women suicide bombers have accounted for 15 percent of the total number of successful or attempted attacks throughout the world. In 2006 alone, women were enlisted for suicide raids from Belgium, India, Iraq, Turkey, and the West Bank territories, he writes in Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality (Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, August 2006). Indeed, the phenomenon appears to be "contagious," especially among women, concludes Mia Bloom, an American expert.
Bloom and Schweitzer caution that the increase in women suicide bombers reflects neither a progressive attitude towards women nor gender equality in the religious, revolutionary, and national liberation movements that promote such terror. Women continue to play a distinctly marginal role in most of these groups. Even in death, inequality endures: A Palestinian family, for instance, is usually paid far less for a woman's suicide death than for a man's. And despite efforts to lionize their sacrifice and portray them as heroines, Schweitzer concludes, women serve mainly as "pawns and sacrificial lambs."
This perverse "feminization" of suicide attacks also undercuts the theory that women are more likely to choose peaceful mechanisms for conflict resolution than men. In her influential book, Dying to Kill (Columbia University Press, 2005). Bloom dismisses the notion that women are somehow inherently more inclined towards moderation. "But while male suicide bombers seem to be motivated by religious or nationalist fanaticism," she argues, female operatives, in Palestine and elsewhere, "appear more often motivated by very personal reasons." This was certainly the case for Shefa'a al-Qudsi, and even more dramatically for Wafa al-Biss, who seemed to have been driven by a "cocktail" of motives — personal distress and shame, a quest for revenge and enhanced social status for themselves and their families, nationalism, hatred of occupation, religious ideology, and political culture. Louise Richardson, a lecturer at Harvard, sums it up in what she calls the three "r's" — "exacting revenge, attaining renown, and eliciting a reaction."
Although both al-Qudsi and al-Biss sprinkled their speech with references to Islam and what it permitted or banned, neither said she was particularly devout; nor did the allure of Islamic paradise seem to hold much appeal. Both appeared focused on how their families and friends would react to their deed rather than on the prospect of eternal pleasures, such as the proverbial 72 black-eyed virgins who are said to await their male counterparts if they succeed. Al-Biss scoffed at the very notion of paradise. "I knew I was not going to heaven," she told me, "and that all the other martyrs were not going there either."
Al-Qudsi's vision of her eternal reward was consistent with the empowerment she felt as the mistress of her own failed martyrdom mission. In paradise, she said, she would not only become the wife of a martyr, she would be able to choose which martyr she married.
The prospect of choice is especially seductive in a culture that offers women so few of them. In such rigid, unforgiving societies in which a single transgression, real or even rumored, particularly by a woman, can result in the loss of family honor, a chance to marry, and occasionally even death at the hands of outraged relatives, choosing to redeem oneself through a suicide mission does not seem so terrible, or irrational an alternative.
What also seems clear — based on my interviews with the two would-be bombers and a survey of the scholarly literature — is that no matter how desperate they may be, such vulnerable, disposable young women and men do not act in a vacuum. It takes a sophisticated organization to launch such missions and political, social, and religious approbation to sanction them. Someone must recruit, train, arm, finance, and dispatch a volunteer jihadi. Bombs and explosive vests must be made, safe houses established, reliable drivers and escorts found, media teams ordered to write and videotape the bomber's final statements. Friends and family, schools and mosques where they meet, must be complicit. It takes what journalist Anne Marie Oliver calls a "martyrdom machine" to produce people willing to sacrifice their lives in the numbers we have seen in Palestine and Iraq today. And it takes an entire society, not merely a cult, to promote the culture of death that has taken root in Palestine. Encouraged by the ostensibly secular Palestine Authority and the allegedly religious-inspired Hamas alike, soccer tournaments are named after "martyrs." Parents dress their babies up as suicide bombers and photograph them in fancy studios. Posters bearing the martyrs' faces are plastered on walls of stores and schools in every town and village. Saudi diplomats write poems in their honor while children exchange "martyr cards."
* * *
While scholars dispute what causes suicide attacks and how best to prevent them, they agree that the tactic itself — what Diego Gambetta of Oxford's Nuffield College calls the "defining act of political violence of our age" — has spread so far and so fast, among secular and religious groups alike, because it is effective. The 9/11 attacks led many Americans to equate suicide bombing with Islamic militants, but secular groups have used the tactic with equal tenacity.
Though still rare in the universe of armed conflicts, says Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago, suicide bombing has been 12 times deadlier than any other form of terrorism. While such attacks constituted 3 percent of terrorist acts between 1980 to 2003, they caused 48 percent of terrorism deaths, excluding September 11.
While the average shooting attack between 1980 and June 2005 killed 3.32 people and remote control bombs killed an average of 6.92 people per attack, suicide bombers wearing explosive belts claimed an average of 81.48 victims. If the bomber was driving an explosive-laden car, as are so many in Iraq, says Ami Pedahzur, the average soared to 97.81 victims.
The upward trend that began in 1999 has continued to grow exponentially in some places. Between 1981 and the end of 2003, there were 535 successful suicide missions. But in just two years — from January 2004 to December 2005 — there were no less than 555 successful attacks, 84 percent of which took place in Iraq.
The experts, divided over what causes this pernicious form of terrorism, are even more at odds over how to prevent it. Pape argues that because suicide attacks are not a religious phenomenon but mainly "a response to foreign occupation," the most obvious solution is withdrawal from disputed territory. Suicide attacks in Lebanon virtually ended after Israel withdrew in 2000, he notes, and they also declined dramatically after Israel's unilateral withdrawal two years ago from Gaza two years ago. But the best evidence of his thesis, he claims, is Iraq. The country that had no suicide attacks before the U.S. invasion had 20 in 2003. And since American forces have been stationed there, Iraq's rate of suicide bombings has doubled each year. The only way to stop them, he argues, is to withdraw American forces there.
Though his analysis seems statistically compelling, few scholars agree with him. Assaf Moghadam, a German-Iranian scholar at Harvard's Olin Institute in Cambridge, and Mohammed Hafez, at the University of Missouri, argue that territorial struggle does not explain movements like al Qaeda or their increasing tendency to cross geographic boundaries and conduct missions along sectarian lines as in Iraq. These now "globalized" suicide attacks are truly transnational in nature and aspiration.
Nor would unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank — which few consider a politically viable option for Israel — be likely to satisfy Hamas or Islamic Jihad, since they claim all Israeli territory as their own. Yes, says Bruce Hoffman, a leading terrorism expert at Georgetown University, suicide missions dropped both in Lebanon and Gaza after Israel unilaterally withdrew. But in the absence of Israeli forces, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza imported, produced and used vast arsenals of rockets and missiles against Israel, built defensive tunnels and infrastructure to better counter Israeli strikes, and intensified the training of fighters and jihadis for future confrontations. "Militant Islamists switched tactics after Israel's withdrawal," Hoffman said. "It sent rockets rather than people to kill. It did not stop fighting."
Israeli security officials have, in fact, dramatically reduced the number of suicide attacks and casualties since their peak in 2002 by resorting to other controversial measures. Ehrlich notes that while 22 civilians were killed in 2005 (and 55 in 2004), 15 people were killed in such attacks and 104 wounded in 2006.
Many Israeli and American terrorism experts assert that Israel's extension of its security fence and buffer zone — the much loathed "Wall" to Palestinians — to cover roughly half of the border between Israeli and Palestinian territory has not only reduced suicide attacks —at least temporarily — but all violent and property crime, an assertion heatedly challenged by Palestinians. Second, Israel has significantly increased the number of Palestinians it detains on suspicion of terrorist activities: whereas 4,532 Palestinians were arrested in 2005, 6,968 suspects were detained last year.
"It's the intel, stupid," says Hoffman. Israel has managed to reduce the rate of attacks by penetrating Palestinian bombing networks and stopping them before they occur. Withdrawing from territory absent a political solution, he fears, may make it harder for Israel to collect such vital information.
But scholars like Mia Bloom worry about the longer-term impact of such policies. Yes, harsh Israeli counterterror measures such as the use of targeted assassination, increasing detentions, and building a wall appear to have stemmed suicide terror in the short run. Yet over time, she argues, such heavy-handed tactics will only further humiliate and enrage Palestinians, providing ever more recruits for martyrdom missions. If the ultimate challenge is to make the Shefa'a al-Qudsi's and Wafa al-Biss's of Palestine forgo suicide terror and make their sacrifice unacceptable to Palestinian society, only a political compromise satisfactory to the key parties is likely to succeed. Between the Oslo peace accords of 1993 until the autumn of 2000, Palestinian support for suicide terror never exceeded one-third of the population, she notes. Today, that figure is well over 80 percent.
What lies ahead for the United States abroad and at home is even harder to project, and not surprisingly, equally divisive among scholars. Israeli-style "walls" in Iraq and Afghanistan will not keep out militants opposed to America's presence or policies there or contain Iraq's deadly sectarian violence that so far shows little sign of abating. A political compromise acceptable to the major factions, or neighbors who feed various insurgents, has so far proven elusive. At home, Americans have yet to adopt a psychology of what one Israeli security official called "hardening your hearts as well as our targets" when terrorists strike. Israeli security takes pride in restoring "normal" life in Israel within hours after a suicide attack. Many Americans, by contrast, remain traumatized by the September 11 attacks.
On the other hand, many Israeli, Arab, and American scholars and security officials doubt that America is likely to endure domestically the waves of suicide terror that Israeli has weathered. Gil Kleiman, a former superintendent of the Israeli National Police who was partly raised in the U.S., says, "you need to control geographic and political territory to use the suicide weapon effectively. That space does not exist in America." Yes, non-Islamic fanatics, such as Timothy McVeigh, the right-wing militiaman whose 1995 Oklahoma bombing attack killed more Americans domestically than any other single terrorist strike prior to 9/11, have an infrastructure and friendly territory in which to work, build, and proselytize, Hoffman acknowledges. And McVeigh, in fact, contemplated a suicide strike against his target until he discovered how vulnerable it was.
Yet Hoffman argues that for all their faults, the counterterrorism measures adopted since 9/11 make it harder to conduct such an attack today than it was before. Al Qaeda still appears to lack an infrastructure in this country. Nor does the United States have the vast unassimilated foreign Muslim populations that have been radicalized in Europe and may be capable of launching sustained attacks.
Brian M. Jenkins of the Rand Corporation, notes that with a population of 350 million, Europe is home to between 30 and 50 million Muslims. By 2050, one-third of all children born there will be Muslim. The U.S., by contrast, with 300 million people, has about 4.7 million Muslims, many of them native Americans. And of the 3.5 million Arab-Americans, fewer than 25 percent are Muslim. "Can we see individuals or a small cluster who self-radicalize and carry out even a devastating attack in this country? Yes, clearly," he told me. "The small conspiracy likely to lead to one-off attacks is always possible, maybe even likely. But I see nothing so far that would support a campaign such as what we have seen in the occupied territories or Iraq."
Of course, even a "one-off" attack in the United States involving a weapon of mass destruction, which al Qaeda and like-minded militants have repeatedly sought to acquire and would not hesitate to use, would be psychologically devastating to Americans. And as I left Hasharon prison, it was hard not to be shaken by my meetings with al-Qudsi and al-Biss — by their despair-driven determination, their plight, and finally, the enormity of what they had tried to do. The fact that neither was a religious extremist nor obviously deranged suggested that the reservoir of potential suicide bombers might be larger than many Americans appreciate. But while complacency about such terrorism was a luxury Americans could ill-afford, a panicky overreaction might jeopardize the very immunity to jihadist ideology, to the culture of death gripping Palestine and Iraq, that is still our nation's best, most enviable defense.