Books: What makes them tick?

Anat Berko interviewed many people for her fascinating and original book, 'The Smarter Bomb,' on female suicide bombers.

The Smarter Bomb 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Smarter Bomb 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nabil is studying political science at the Open University in Israel. He is doing so via correspondence while serving four consecutive life sentences for sending a woman to blow herself up at an IDF roadblock in 2002.
“She was studying at the university in Nablus, and she told me how she felt and why she thought about killing herself,” he explains. “She saw women and children being killed on television by IDF rockets and wanted to do something.... I sent her cousin on a suicide bombing attack, and she escorted him to the site and that’s how she met me.”
Nabil is one of many people Anat Berko interviewed for her fascinating and original book on female suicide bombers. Berko, who holds a PhD in criminology and serves as a lieutenant-colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, has been given unprecedented access to numerous terrorists and would-be terrorists in the country’s prisons, and she has apparently won their trust. In interview after interview, men and women open up to her and relate the most intimate details about the phenomenon of female suicide attacks against Israel during the second intifada.
Some of these women who failed in their attempts or who were involved in terror attacks were released in the 2011 Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange with Hamas. However, this book still resonates.
Berko set out to understand why women became involved in suicide attacks, and also to understand the different terrorist organizations’ viewpoints on using women in their war against Israel.
Muneira, a would-be terrorist, dropped out of university, and her father used to beat her.
“I would never get married,” she says.
“He said I would be a cripple for life. I have third-degree burns from my neck to my knees, and psychologically I am also wounded. Now I am in jail. My health is poor and I am sorry for what I did. The man who sent me exploited me – I was disappointed in love.”
The politics of sex is a major theme in The Smarter Bomb. Some of the women recruited had been sexually abused; one had been raped by her father and uncles.
In the conservative Palestinian society, a woman who carries out a suicide attack is seen as entering the man’s domain.
“There are families that don’t let the girls go out of the house at all,” relates one woman in prison. “The women in the man’s family won’t respect a girl who was in jail.”
Berko says she discovered “that many of the women involved in terrorism had lost their fathers or had weak fathers.”
In this sense, the fathers didn’t raise their daughters “properly” because the women became too free; they sought out men and left the house at all hours, and eventually ended up working for terrorist organizations.
Muhammad Abu Tir, the famous deputy head of Hamas who dyes his beard red, claims in his interview with the author that “it is forbidden for a girl to live outside the house, especially to live in jail. Even if we send her to study at university we don’t feel good about it.”
This is the dispute between terror organizations over whether it is correct to recruit women for such activities. For instance, the communist PFLP organization has long embraced women, although not usually as fighters. For Hamas, the use of women has been much more controversial.
Berko seems to imply that in many cases, the women are victims – victims of a patriarchal society, victims of men who exploit or abuse them, and then victims in prison, sometimes of other female inmates. Yet her book is full of fascinating stories and insights precisely because she lets the people speak for themselves. In other texts, there is often a sense of wanting to explain Hamas or some other organization to the West through the medium of a narrator who supposedly knows the organization better than it knows itself. But through her interviews, Berko provides men like Abu Tir an open forum to explain their views, many of which are repugnant.
The major downside is that the book is not organized in a clear or chronological fashion. Each chapter is a sort of stand-alone story, usually about one person or a group of people, such as Chapter 6, which is about a brother and sister who both attempted to become “martyrs” to the cause. There is little stepping back and explaining the context or the organizations’ backgrounds, nor does Berko provide the last names of some of the people interviewed. In this sense, the reader is left feeling like he or she is viewing a series of case studies rather than a comprehensive work.
Nevertheless, this remains one of the most interesting studies on terrorism to have been produced in recent years.