January 21, 2004

January 21, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

Suicide Psyche

Another day, another terrorist suicide bombing in Israel. Atop more than 100 Palestinian suicide attacks in three years, it's almost not even news.

Yet last Wednesday's bombing in Gaza was different. The suicide killer was the first to be a mother and the first female bomber from the terrorist group Hamas. (The six previous female suicide attackers were members of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a group sponsored by Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO.) In the first suicide attack since Christmas, 21-year-old Reem Raiyishi orphaned a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter.

In a traditional pre-suicide videotape testimonial, Raiyishi, holding an AK-47 assault rifle almost as big as she was and wearing the green Hamas sash, said she long wanted "the honor" of being a suicide bomber and was "proud to be the first female [Hamas] martyr": "I have two children and love them very much. But my love to see God was stronger than my love for my children, and I'm sure that God will take care of them if I become a martyr," the woman from a middle-class Palestinian background said.

The attack signals a change in tactics for Hamas, which in the past hasn't used women as suicide bombers. Indeed, the group's founder and leader, Ahmed Yassin, doesn't approve of women traveling outside the home unchaperoned by men.

Yet after the bombing, he trumpeted, "Jihad is the obligation of all Muslims, both men and women .¤.¤. resistance will escalate against the Zionist enemy until they leave our land."

So much for the recent ceasefire.

Yassin went on to say that using a "female fighter" was a "new development in resistance against the enemy." Some terror groups have been reluctant to use women because their brand of Islam holds females to be unworthy of martyrdom. But women raise less suspicion with security personnel and often can get closer to their targets.

Who will Yassin recruit next as a human bomb: senior citizens and children?

What would possess a young mother in the prime of her life to strap on a belt laden with 10 pounds of plastic explosives, nails and ball bearings and to willfully widow her husband and orphan her children? (Her husband reportedly never knew of the plot.) It appears she was seized by Palestinian nationalism and religious fervor.

That doesn't necessarily mean she was crazy. Contrary to popular belief, suicide bombers aren't insane - in a clinical sense, at least. Most are carefully selected and trained and know full well what they are doing and what the consequences will be to themselves and their victims. Although suicide for reasons of personal distress is forbidden in Islam, like in most religions, to give one's life in the name of Allah is considered a divine act. (Justifying the killing of innocents is tougher, but of course terrorists convince themselves that their victims aren't innocents.)

Islamic culture has a long suicide-attack tradition, dating to the Assassins of the 11th to 13th centuries in modern-day Syria and Iran, who attacked Christian Crusaders and other prominent local officials in large public places, assuring the attackers' immediate capture, execution and martyrdom.

For Islamic terrorists, martyrdom may bring personal notoriety, new recruits to the cause, achieve revenge or give significant meaning to one's life. It can also be prompted by a desire for religious purification and entrance into heaven.

For many Muslims, heaven is a place of milk and wine rivers and honey lakes, where the martyr will see Allah's face, be joined by 70 chosen relatives, and enjoy the services of 72 virgins. Female martyrs are promised to dwell forever alongside the husband or fiance they have left behind. And the weight of earthly rules (including Islamic law) and responsibilities will no longer hang upon them like millstones in the afterlife.

In fact, suicide bombers have been known to smile widely and joyfully just before blowing themselves to kingdom come.

For those Palestinians who have indoctrinated their children in the glories of martyrdom, peer pressure provides an incentive to choose this fate as well. Today, instead of weapons of last resort, suicide bombings have become the weapon of choice in the modern terrorist's arsenal in the Middle East - and beyond.

This clear escalation of the conflict by Hamas is troubling for Israel and the prospects of Middle East peace. Attempting to resolve political disputes through terrorism is bad enough, but using the mother of young children - in a suicide run that will change nothing - is wrong and shameful.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East