The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombersby Anat Berko
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The Smarter Bomb offers a unique glimpse into the motivations of suicide bombers, especially women and children, and those who recruit and dispatch them. As a woman and a mother, Anat Berko was able to win the trust of imprisoned bombers and speak with them intimately. Entering Israel’s most heavily secured cells, she met with female and adolescent would-be suicide bombers and their dispatchers, lawyers, and interrogators.
She explores compelling questions: What leads individuals to place explosives on their bodies, kill and injure scores of civilians, and take their own lives? Do men really believe that death will transport them to paradise, where virgins and wine await them? Are women victims of unbearable pressure to commit this act of terror? Can a woman be “good” according to the criteria of Palestinian society and a terrorist at the same time? Is involvement in terrorism a sign of the liberation of Palestinian women or another way of preserving their social inferiority, thus explaining their low status and the inferior rewards the families of female suicide bombers receive? Who are the dispatchers, the agents who convince women and youngsters to go calmly to their death?
The answers to these questions offers a rare and candid portrayal that will be essential reading for all those wanting to understand the interior world of suicide bombers.
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The Smarter BombWomen and Children as Suicide Bombers
By Anat Berko
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Just As Long As the Girl Doesn't Make a Mistake"
When I entered the security wing after an absence of several months, the women gave me a warm welcome. Two in traditional Arab dress were playing backgammon but stopped when they saw me. One smiled and asked if I remembered our conversation some months previous. I smiled back and said, "How could I forget the taste of the juice you gave me?" Her face shone with joy. She asked me if I would say a few words to Abir, a security prisoner who had asked to talk to me on June 25, 2006, the day Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted by Hamas and taken deep into the Gaza Strip. I said yes, I would.
Abir's cell was very crowded. She came to the small grille in the door so that we could talk. I said, "I thought they had already released you ..." She shook her head, smiled, and said, "In another few months, with the help of Allah." I said good-bye and left her, but not before she had made me promise to visit her again.
I remembered my first visit with her, on the day of the Shalit abduction. I had come to interview ordinary female felons, not security prisoners, but some had been transferred to this prison after a violent disagreement had broken out between the women in their former jail. As I walked into the main prison yard, they shouted, "Doctora Anat!" from the other side of the fence. I walked over to them. Abir was wearing a brown jilbab and smiling from ear to ear. Across from the exercise yard was a flagpole with an Israeli flag waving in the breeze, and I wondered whether they resented it. I told them why I was there, and they were surprised to learn that I also spoke to regular criminal prisoners. I put my hand through the fence to shake hands with them, each one in turn, thinking privately that no man could do the same.
Abir waved to me with the embroidery she was working on. I admired it and told her she should frame it. She said, "I'll make you one just like it. Come on in, you know we won't do anything bad to you, you've sat and eaten with us before." I accepted her invitation, knowing it was important to them. The abduction of an Israeli soldier had raised both hopes and questions regarding their own fates. Abir said, "On Arab TV they said that maybe the soldier wasn't abducted, maybe he ran away. Israel has been in the Gaza Strip for sixty years. I know every inch of Gaza; where could someone hide him?" (Note: In point of fact, Israel was in Gaza for thirty-eight years, having withdrawn the year before this conversation took place, and Gaza was under Egyptian control before that.) I said, "We all know that Israeli news and Arab news are two different things," and Abir and her two cell mates laughed.
Abir said, "Not long ago a boy was abducted in Nablus, and then they let him go." I asked whether she meant the boy with American citizenship. She nodded, and I said, "No one wanted trouble with the Americans, not the Palestinians and not the Israelis." They laughed again, and the atmosphere lightened.
One of the prisoners said, "You know, before I went to prison I thought all the Jews were monsters. The TV kept saying how bad they were, but now I see that all people are the same. I made a mistake. Ask them to let you come into our cell, we want to talk to you."
After a while I did go into their cell, which was clean and tidy, and they gave me fruit juice to drink. We sat together on one of the beds. Abir told me that her brother died as a shaheed in a suicide bombing attack and that her fiancé, who had been on Israel's wanted list, was killed in an assault by an Israeli helicopter. A female cousin carried out a suicide bombing attack in 2002, and a male cousin also died a shaheed. I asked the women whether they thought that people on the outside respected them. Abir said, "People on the outside don't think of us as heroines; they don't think about us at all. There are people who say that a girl is not a man and shouldn't do things like that. They respect a girl for it, but it won't be easy for her to find a husband. The women in the man's family won't respect a girl who was in jail, but the men are respected. A girl who has been in jail is like a man, and other women are afraid of her. The old women in the family are afraid of women who were in jail because when they were young, the only time they left their homes was to go to their husband's house or to the hospital. There are families that don't let the girls go out of the house at all."
Abir began a romantic relationship with Nabil, the dispatcher who sent her brother on a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv (see chapter 15), when he came to her parents' house to pay a condolence call. She said that now that both of them were in jail, they were going to get married. It is common for the dispatcher who sends a suicide bomber to his death to visit the parents' house to console and congratulate them. He often uses the situation to enlist other family members for attacks. Not wanting to waste time, he exploits the mourning, anger, and desire for revenge against Israel to seek a candidate for the next attack. I asked her whether it upset her to be romantically involved with the man who had sent her brother to his death. She said, "My brother wanted to go and blow himself up, it wasn't that Nabil wanted to send him. It doesn't bother me. If Nabil hadn't sent him, someone else would have." Her brother was apparently easy to recruit and fit the profile of a potential suicide bomber: an introverted young man on the fringes of society whose masculine identity was not well defined, with low self-esteem and in search of recognition, if not in life, then at least in death. Some time later, Abir and her cell mates were returned to the security-prisoner jail they had come from.
A few days later I asked to speak to Jemilla, about whom I had heard from several sources. She was the girl who had not spoken when she was supposed to testify in court. When a terrorist operative asked her to carry out a suicide bombing attack, she said, "No way, I'm not going to blow myself up. I like being alive." In prison she slowly achieved status among the security prisoners. She belonged to the "secular" Fatah wing, whose spokeswoman was Houda. After a power struggle between them that led to repeated violations of prison discipline, Houda was removed from the wing, and Jemilla inherited the status of leader.
A thin girl came into the room dressed in low-slung, well-worn jeans, an orange-and-black-striped cotton knit shirt, and flip-flop sandals with gold sequins pasted on them. She had wavy, shoulder-length hair and no head scarf. Her face was not made up. She had thin eyebrows and large eyes that reflected optimism and curiosity. I imagined she was about seventeen years old and was surprised to learn she was twenty-five. She smiled and said in fluent Hebrew, "Everyone thinks I'm younger than I am." She looked Western, fragile, but she broadcast self-confidence and power. According to her indictment, she was "bloodthirsty, devilish, methodical, and intent on murder and destruction."
She said, "I've seen you here many times." "Yes," I said, "and I've heard a lot about you. Now that you're the leader in this wing, I've come to talk to you to find out more." Jemilla was overjoyed. I could see she needed reinforcement and formal recognition of her position—it would be hard to take Houda's place. If Houda had not been removed from the wing, they would have had a violent power struggle. Like a beehive, there was room for only one queen.
I offered Jemilla the mineral water I had brought with me and joked that coffee would be better. She immediately called to one of the women, and a few minutes later a tray was brought in with two small glasses of coffee laced with cardamom and a plate of tiny cookies. I took a sip and said, "It not only smells good, it tastes good, but no cookies for me, I'm on a diet." Jemilla laughed. "L'chaim" [to life!/Cheers!], I said, raising my glass, and she smiled and sipped her coffee. The atmosphere was friendly and open, and Jemilla began to talk:
"I was born in Tulkarm and I'm twenty-five. I have a brother who is twenty-three. I studied sociology at An-Najah University in Nablus for two and a half years. My mother is a housewife and my father worked in a bakery in Israel until the intifada. Now he sells cheese in the West Bank. I didn't lack for anything; I'm the only girl in the family and I have everything. My father studied medicine in Greece but had to come home before he finished because his father died and he was the oldest son. He didn't want a large family, only a few children he could give everything to. Why have a lot of children and not be able to give them anything? So he said, 'Two children and that's enough, and I can give them everything they want.'" It was the first time I had ever heard anyone say such a thing about a Palestinian family. The general opinion is that the more children there are, the better, both for the sake of the hamoula and as a weapon in the demographic war with Israel.
Jemilla shifted on her chair to find a more comfortable position and said, "I have been here in prison for five years and I miss my family. Only my mother visits me, and I miss her the most. I haven't seen her for a month. Every time she comes, she cries and complains, 'Why did you do it, what need did it fill?' She says, 'You didn't like the life we had.'" I saw that Jemilla was looking for words in Hebrew and couldn't find them. I hold her she could speak Arabic because I understood a little, my parents came from Iraq. That made her curious, and she asked whether I had ever been there, whether my parents had gone back to visit. I told her no, never, and that surprised her. She said, "Now that there is no Saddam Hussein, maybe you could visit." She was even more surprised to learn that Jewish refugees from Iraq could not visit, even if they had been born there. The magnificent Iraqi Jewish community, which had existed since 586 BC, had been persecuted, expelled, and completely destroyed.
Jemilla continued: "My real name is like a prayer to Allah. I am not religious, I belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] even before I was sent here. I like the way they think. There is democracy for women in the Popular Front. In the [Palestinian Authority–administered] territories it is hard for women to do things, but the Popular Front respects women and thinks a woman is like a man, that she can do what she thinks; they don't treat women like furniture," she said, and pointed to the chair she was sitting on. She used that simile often.
Her Hebrew being what it was, when she said "a woman is like a man" (ish in Hebrew), she pronounced it like the word for fire (esh), and I could not help but think that a female terrorist is like fire; people keep away from it for fear of being burned. The "liberality" of the secular Popular Front was another way of attracting girls to the organization. The organization's proclaimed equality tempted women who were happy to join an organization that accepted them and seemed not to treat them as inferior. Jemilla became excited as she continued, and she explained her feminist perspective: "There are places where they treat women like furniture, and that's bad. We are also human; we think and we feel. I have everything, I don't lack for anything, and if I study and can work, I'm like a man—what makes me less than a man?" She shook her head, and I could tell that she spent a lot of time thinking about gender equality and that entering the world of terrorism satisfied her demand for some kind of recognition. "Why can a man do what he wants to and I can't? If we make the same mistake, he will be forgiven, and I will have to spend the rest of my life worrying about what I did ..."
She talked about the kinds of mistakes women are liable to make—forbidden romantic alliances and sexual relations before marriage. She was far more ready than the other female terrorists to talk about such issues. Many of the Arab women prisoners I spoke to, both terrorists and ordinary criminals, used the word "mistake" to refer to premarital sex: "Just as long as the girl doesn't make a mistake," because the entire family would pay for it.
Jemilla continued, saying, "I already wanted to belong to the organization, the Popular Front, when I was in my first year at the university in Nablus. I liked the way they thought, not just the way they related to women, and I joined. My parents didn't know. They said, 'As long as you don't go near anything dangerous you can do as you please.'" I asked what she meant by "going near," and she said, "Something that would bring me here. My parents didn't care what I wore, but they didn't want me to get into trouble. My mother always wears a kerchief and a jilbab, but I wear jeans. My mother says, 'For Allah be religious, so that Allah will not be angry with you,' but my father says, 'Do what you like and when you grow up, think about it.' In most families it is the opposite, it is the mother who says do what you like and the father who uses force and says, 'Do what I tell you.'" Jemilla smiled and said that the girls in prison didn't believe her father was such a liberal; they had lived their entire lives in the shadows of their fathers' threats.
"Before I went to the university," she said, "I sat with my father every night and he said that he was familiar with university life, that I would have friends. He said, 'I want you to tell me everything you want and I'll help you, and don't worry, I don't care about other people who will say things about you, but just tell me if you have any problems.' I think about it all the time, about the first time I lied to my father about involvement in a terrorist attack, and that's what brought me here, to jail."
During the interviews I discovered that many of the women involved in terrorism had lost their fathers or had weak fathers. The absence of a father makes a girl easy prey for terrorist organization recruiters. Jemilla's father, according to the criteria of Arab society, was weak and did not raise his daughter properly. In Arab society, removing a father's protection from a girl is a terrible violation of the strict rules of accepted behavior and is liable to lead to a campaign of revenge against dispatchers, recruiters, and family members. Sometimes, to prevent the family of a female terrorist from taking revenge, the woman must sign a kind of contract stating that she herself approached the organization of her own free will and asked to carry out a terrorist attack.
Jemilla said, "At first my family was angry with me. To this day my brother won't talk to me. All the other girls in the family have to do what their parents want them to, but I do as I please. My uncles used to say to my father, 'Enough. She needs to be like other women; she shouldn't wear what she wants to and do what she likes.' One of my uncles has one daughter and five sons, and she isn't allowed to dress the way she wants to or do what she wants to. She keeps telling me how lucky I am. My uncles complain to my mother about me. When I was first sent to jail my father was very angry and said it was entirely his fault, and that he was sorry he let me do what I pleased. He said he should have listened to my uncles, who told him I had to be kept within limits."
The intervention of her uncles, her father's brothers, in her life was not something unusual. In Western families it would be unacceptable, because the Western nuclear family is an autonomous unit, and any and all intervention is considered a violation of privacy. In Middle Eastern (Arab) families, however, the father's brothers, especially his big brother, intervene in the lives of their relatives. I remember how my father used to speak about his nieces and nephews regarding their success at school or their behavior, and I remember him taking his sister to task. That was how it was in Iraq, and for him that was how it was in Israel. Jemilla's father, like my father's sister, did not regard the intervention as an invasion of privacy. The opposite was true; it was regarded as a sign of closeness and showed that Jemilla's uncles cared about them.
Before her incarceration, Jemilla rented an apartment with two other girls in Nablus. One came from Jordan and the other from Saudi Arabia, but they both had grandparents in the Palestinian Authority–administered territories. Three Muslim Arab girls lived with no male supervision in one apartment. I asked her how the people around her received the news. She said, "It upset the older women. They said, 'It's not good for girls to live alone without a man, and it's frightening. Don't go anywhere except to the university! Your girlfriends can come to the apartment, but not boys.'"
Thus on the one hand, most older women object to the relative freedom the girls have, and on the other, there are also older women in the terrorist chain, mother figures who encourage the desire of the potential suicide bombers to blow themselves up. One Iraqi woman, about fifty-five years old, said she had recruited eighty female suicide bombers, some of whom had been raped to ensure they carried out their attacks. The recruitment process was carried out in the woman's own house from among the friends who came to visit her daughters.
Older Muslim women treat young girls very strictly if they think the girls have rebelled against societal conventions. In their own youth they suffered from discrimination but internalized it, and in effect they use the same patriarchal methods and conventions to oppress young women and girls. They are the women who hold little girls down to have their clitorises excised. In Chechnya, older women participated in recruiting and escorting female suicide bombers to their targets. Many of the terrorists were regularly drugged, and some were even abducted and forced to carry out suicide bombing attacks. However, that is not the situation among Palestinian terrorists.
Excerpted from The Smarter Bomb by Anat Berko Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Anat Berkoholds a Ph.D. in criminology and served as lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces. She has been a visiting professor at George Washington University and is a member of the Knesset, where she serves on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
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