The reluctant bomber - By James Bennet Back   Home  
Her face adorns no martyrís poster, but Arien Ahmed, 20, a 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. She has 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, is increasingly providing the only necessary indoctrination, experts on both sides say. Indeed, a survey by Israelís 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 January 27, groups tied to Yasser Arafatís 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 Ahmed, reasons as personal as lost love and as political as the hate-soaked conflict led her to act. Last month, 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. Five days before, 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 that her offer had been suddenly accepted.

On this day, Wednesday, May 22, 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 Letzion.

Ahmed was out to avenge the death of her fiancťe, 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 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," Ahmed recalled in a jailhouse interview, 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 anybodyís life."

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. Badir, 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 organisations like the one that sent Ahmed.

The range of recruits to suicide missions continues to broaden in often bewildering ways. Recently Israeli 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 bodybuilding, gathering adherents by presenting an ideal that is embraced, even unconsciously. "Once you create such a culture," 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 criticising the martyrs themselves. "You can say, ĎI condemn terror, I condemn killing civilians,í but you canít say, ĎI condemn martyrs,í because martyrs are prophets."

In her interview, Ahmed 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 fiancťe, 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 its appeal. "Itís a result of the situation we live in," she said. "There are also innocent people killed on our side."

Ahmed said the only Palestinian she had ever heard criticise suicide bombing was her uncle, Omer Shaibat, a mechanical engineer trained in Long Beach, California.

"It is becoming a social phenomenon," 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, ĎWhat should I have done?í You always think this isnít going to happen to you; itís 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.

Shaibat repeatedly returned to Ahmedís upbringing: Her father died when she was six months old. Her mother remarried when she was six years old and left her in Beit Sahur; she now lives in Jordan. 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 Ahmed baked sweets and helped around the house during the 39-day Israeli siege, she was often glued to the television, following the intense fighting.

Then she quarrelled bitterly with an aunt shortly before she undertook her mission, without a word to her family.

Ahmedís 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," Shaibat said. "I didnít see the writing on the wall."
Published in Asianage. By arrangement with the New York Times