One on One with Anat Berko: What makes human bombs tick?

'The Path to Paradise' author gives a glimpse into the psyche of suicide terrorists.

anat berko 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
anat berko 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Descending from the podium in a conference room at Mishkenot Sha'ananim where she has just finished a briefing to the foreign press, Anat Berko exits to the terrace. The occasion is the release of the English version of her book, The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers [Greenwood Publishing]. Removing her jacket, she pulls her knee-length braid from behind her back to avoid sitting on her hair. The noon-day sun beating down on the walls of the Old City across the valley is like a glaring spotlight on a classical Jerusalem view - one that points to the spectacular contrasts characteristic of the capital: ancient and modern; Arab and Israeli; Muslim and Jewish; Eastern and Western. Which makes the setting eerily appropriate for the subject matter at hand - the growing radical-Muslim method of mass murder through the use of human bombs. As Berko begins to explain the phenomenon, a barefooted boy on a donkey is honked at by the driver of a Honda Accord on the road below - a tangible testament to the "clash of civilizations" to which she attributes the war against the "infidels." Still, says Berko, a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center, "not all Muslims become suicide bombers." Indeed, says the retired IDF Lt.-Col. with a PhD in criminology from Bar-Ilan University, there is something distinct about someone who is willing to blow himself up, no matter what his ideology. After all, she comments wryly, the dispatchers prefer remaining in one piece - in spite of the sexual and other pleasures awaiting them in the very Paradise they preach. Nor do the self-exploders really resemble other kinds of killers, she asserts, claiming that they tend to lead otherwise normative lives as husbands or wives, parents, grandparents or children. To find out what makes such terrorists tick, so to speak, Berko spent years interviewing thwarted suicide bombers and their dispatchers incarcerated in Israeli prisons - among them Hamas spiritual mentor and operative leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed in 2004 by the IDF in a targeted assassination. In her research, Berko - whose "less-than-fluent conversational Arabic" comes from her being the child of Iraqi-born parents - was privy to hours upon hours of candid personal accounts from would-be human bombs and their handlers. This enabled the 47-year-old Ramat Gan resident entry into a mindset that is as foreign as it is unfathomable to "people like us who can see another people with different values and not necessarily want to destroy them." In an hour-long Hebrew interview with The Jerusalem Post, Berko - a married mother-of-three, whose husband, Reuven, is a former Arab-affairs adviser to the Israel Police - describes the workings of the phenomenon she has spent the better part of her life examining for the purpose of counteracting it. You make a distinction between suicide bombers and other types of murderers. Can you elaborate on that? First of all, I make a distinction between suicide bombers and their dispatchers. Understanding the dispatchers is crucial to understanding the whole phenomenon. There's a very clear division of labor. In the words of one dispatcher, "Everybody has his own role. I dispatch him; he blows himself up." The dispatcher is charismatic; a leader. The suicide bomber - the dispatcher's "missile," so to speak - is weaker and more marginal. He is often someone whose sexual identity is not quite formed. Which is one of the reasons he seeks recognition, and wants to show that he is a "man." In Arab society, there is a cult of virility. And some see suicide bombing as a way of achieving that. The shahid - the martyr - has a sense of omnipotence. It's a sense of being able to decide who lives and who dies - to decide whether to kill and maim this group of people or that. It makes him feel almost as powerful as Allah. It's a kind of satanic game that involves not only the ability to take lives, but to identify and choose the victims. Are you saying is that "manhood" or "omnipotence" takes precedence over the supposed aim of jihad against the infidels or the promise of Paradise? Yes, well, take the suicide bombings in Iraq, where Muslims are killing other Muslims. Is that jihad? The phenomenon is growing, and it's both cultural and a religious. The idea is that the shahid is not dead, but will continue his life in Paradise, under much better conditions. Everything that is forbidden to him on earth is allowed in Paradise. The men dream of the 72 "eternal virgins" with translucent skin and black eyes that they will have as their women. The women [suicide bombers] dream of being able to choose their husband in Paradise. This is especially true in cases where there is some kind of blemish on a family. The suicide bomber, then, also redeems the honor of his tribe. And he envisions all the admiration poured over him and his family after his death, with posters of him hung everywhere. But there's another point about the inner world of the suicide bombers. Their psyches resemble those of drug addicts and compulsive gamblers. Muslims talk about the " duda," - the "worm" that crawls into their heads and infiltrating their thoughts. The moment someone begins contemplating becoming a suicide bomber, it becomes an obsessive thought that takes control of his mind. Is that similar to the psyche of a serial killer? There are definite similarities - among them the issue of body parts. And I'm currently conducting research - with Nancy Corbin from the US and Prof. Edna Erez - on "serial killers by proxy," which is what the dispatchers are. But neither the suicide bombers nor their dispatchers are serial killers according to the strict criminological definition of the term. This is because, unlike serial killers, suicide bombers and their dispatchers are normative in their daily lives. Take Osama bin Laden, for example - a mega-serial killer by proxy. There are different ways to view him. We can say that he is a blood-thirsty murderer; but maybe he's a devoted husband and a good father. The point is that there is a distinct split in their psyches between their murdering and the other parts of their lives. And we have to find a way to work on this split. We have to cause such people to see their victims - something they are not capable of doing. Isn't that the definition of a sociopath? Someone who is incapable of empathy for the pain of others? Yes, that is one characteristic of an anti-social personality. But there's a crucial difference: Suicide bombers and their dispatchers are not mentally ill. It's true that among them there are a few who could be called "borderline." And, of course, it's easier for us to say they are crazy and be done with it, because it's so hard for us to understand their rationale. Your mentioning their rationale brings me to radical Islam. How much of their behavior is rooted in their religion, and how much a distortion of it? The fact is that not all Muslims become suicide bombers. There are some people, among them religious leaders, who provide the moral justification for killing women and children, which is otherwise forbidden by the Koran, as is suicide. But the minute it is considered neither killing nor suicide, but rather "self-sacrifice," there's no problem doing it. In other words, as long as it's jihad against the infidels - whether they be Americans, Israelis or anyone else - it is acceptable. As for the dispatchers: How can one expect them to feel sorry for their American or Israeli or British or Spanish victims when they don't feel sorry for their own people? Think about it. A dispatcher is capable of taking a classmate and persuading him to blow himself up. But if the dispatcher believes he's expediting his classmate's entrance into Paradise, why should he feel sorry for him? Note that while he is persuading someone else to commit suicide and using Paradise as an incentive, he himself isn't doing so. He himself is ready to wait to get to Paradise in due time. You're saying that there's manipulation going on here. Yes and it's both emotional and operative. In your briefing, you said that these young people receive much of their indoctrination to suicide bombing form the Internet, through jihadist Web sites. You also quoted a girl who said that, through TV and the Web, Arab youth witness all the freedoms the West enjoys which they are not allowed to have in their lives. Why is their exposure to TV and the Internet not influencing them in the opposite direction - that of the West? Because they reject it. They are part of the cultural conflict that Samuel Huntington called "The Clash of Civilizations." Even I, the daughter of Iraqi Jews who made aliya to Israel, am personally familiar with this East-West divide. As a girl growing up in such a household, I felt it very strongly. There were many things that were hard for my father to accept, such as when I became an IDF soldier. Eventually, he got used to it and even came to admire my military career. But in the beginning, he couldn't reconcile himself to it. This has nothing to do with education or a lack thereof. It's an issue of mentality. OK, your father initially couldn't accept it. But he didn't slit your throat for dishonoring the family. Well, that's true, but don't forget that though their background was Oriental, they were Jews - Jews who eventually became absorbed into Western, Israeli culture. What about when they were still in Iraq? Did they behave, culturally, like the Muslims surrounding them? Some of their culture derived from the environment, such as their style of dress and attitude towards women's modesty. But much of their behavior came from their Jewish background. Even the Arabic I know from home was more like a Jewish dialect - the way Yiddish is. But look, even Sheikh Ahmed Yassin acknowledged that his daughter was the most successful of all his children. I interviewed him while he was in prison for five hours straight in December 1996, and he told me that he was aware of the fact that his daughter was the smartest of his children. And he said he would allow her to go abroad and study and lecture, but only under certain conditions. I asked him what those were. He said that he wouldn't let her wear a skimpy teeshirt when she gave a lecture. I wanted to tell him, "Sheikh Yassin, even Western women don't wear skimpy tee-shirts when we give lectures." Other conditions were that he would make sure she was accompanied by a chaperone. In other words, even Yassin was aware that women are capable, but still they have to be guarded. All such cultural and religious norms are geared at achieving Paradise after death. It is a paradise in which there is an abundance of goodies, including sex and alcohol. If the Islamists consider these things desirable in the afterlife, why do they view them with such abhorrence when they see them in the West? Because that's their culture and their religion. They perceive the West as decaying. One of the sheikhs said to me, "The West is like a watermelon. When you open it up, it looks really beautiful, because you don't see its worms." They also think of Western women as loose and cheap. They think of the Western family unit as declining - not solid as it is in Eastern culture. In Eastern culture, the family unit is very strong and it provides a sense of empowerment to its members, who are a source of support for one another at home and outside the home. So, they think of themselves as much more moral than Westerners. It's very complicated. They live in a pressure cooker in which everything is forbidden, and everything is "shameful." It's very hard to live like that when you look around and see the West having freedom. So, they see Western culture, that infiltrates through every satellite dish, as threatening their way of life. Radical Islam, then, perceives itself as acting in self-defense. This seems strange to people like us who can see another people with different values and not necessarily want to destroy those values and the people who espouse them. You say that their family unit is a source of mutual support. Yet many Muslim women who escaped to the West have reported on widespread violence and incest within the Muslim-Arab family - as well as the common practice of honor killing. This fits in with what you said about everything's being "shameful," but contradicts your claims of parents protecting their children. You're talking about incest within Arab society. But I was speaking more generally about martyrs. One young woman I had interviewed in prison was released. Suddenly, I saw her there again not long afterwards. She said she had been sexually abused by a family member and when she complained about it, she was beaten up by another family member. So, what she did was bring a knife to a checkpoint and make sure the Israeli soldiers saw it. She told me they didn't want to arrest her, but she insisted. In jail, she said, she is treated better than at home. Her jailer, she said, is nicer to her than her mother, who hit her when she complained about being raped by her brother. Would she still be capable of blowing herself up and killing women like her jailer? Oh yes. Look, I interviewed a suicide bomber who told me she had been in a coexistence program for Jews and Palestinians. She told me about all the Israeli girls she liked in the program. She reminisced about her friends Liat and Leah and Lilach, etc. This is a girl who was planning on blowing herself up in Israel. So I asked her if she wasn't afraid that she might have blown up Liat and Leah and Lilach. And she said, "Oh, I didn't want to kill them. I wanted to kill Jews." How do you explain the disconnect? There's a lack of integration. And it has to be studied and understood in order to work on it. One of the ways different Israeli groups have tried to "work on this" is to organize joint Israeli-Palestinian coexistence programs. The point of "Seeds of Peace" and other such movements is to break the cycle of "mutual demonization" among the two peoples. Yet, here is an example of a girl who participated in such a program, who went on to become a [thwarted] suicide bomber. Apparently, such coexistence efforts don't work so well from the Palestinian side. In the case of this particular girl, she was corresponding with someone via the Internet. He was from Kuwait. She called him "my lover," even though she'd never seen him in person. Her mother lived in Jordan; her father died when she was a baby. When she was 10, her mother remarried. This meant that she had to be moved to her paternal grandparents' home, so that a strange man wouldn't be raising her. Muslim children belong to the father. So, this girl was having a virtual romance on the Web, and then they began talking on their cell phones. This led to more religious indoctrination. This is a girl who was in her third year at the university - an intelligent, educated girl. When she got involved on campus with extremist groups, she was persuaded to become a suicide bomber. Before she left for her mission, her dispatchers asked her whether she had any savings, and she did. They told her she wouldn't be needing them in Paradise, so she handed over her money to them. While recounting this story to me, she laughed at how stupid she'd been. She said, "They used me and abused me." This sounds cult-like - with charismatic figures who persuade otherwise intelligent people to give up their money and their lives for some supposedly higher ideal. Yes, and its indoctrination is part of a surrounding atmosphere that's very hard to escape. One female would-be suicide bomber told me that she used to take care of her nephew, her sister's little boy. In their tribe-like family structure, she was almost like a mother to him. When he was two, he began asking her about Paradise. She said she knew she could ignite him in a second by telling him about Paradise. "I could make him long for it.," she said. "But I decided against it, because I didn't want him to die." I asked her why, if she herself was willing to become a suicide bomber, she didn't want him to become one. She answered: "Because I wanted him to live." I told her that when her nephew was two, she had some degree of control over what he heard about Paradise. But as he gets older, he hears about it on TV, the Internet and from others around him. At that point, it becomes out of her control entirely. She agreed. The point is that even in the case of families who don't want their children to become suicide bombers, there is still this incredibly powerful surrounding atmosphere. Palestinian Media Watch has followed the broadcasting of a film clip on PA TV of an actor playing Muhammad al-Dura, who invites other children to join him in Paradise, which looks like one big amusement park. Is this part of the atmosphere you're talking about? Of course! Such clips are tools for recruitment. Look how often we debate about the negative effects of TV violence on our own children. There is no question that this contributes to the duda (the worm) that infiltrates their minds. Does this influence secular Palestinians as well? It's hard to find secular Muslims; even the secular ones are traditional. Even Arafat didn't reject Islam. He prayed occasionally, and he used religious imagery in his ideology. Did any of your interviewees in prison express remorse for what they had been planning? On the contrary. The longer they're in prison, the more indoctrinated they become. They are with other "political prisoners," and they conduct seminars; they learn English and Hebrew; they have classes in religion and politics. Literally. They sit in the yard and someone teaches them. It's not like in criminal prison, where it's every man for himself. This is a collective. In other words, there is something wrong with the form their incarceration takes. Look, you can't keep them in separate cells, the way they did for a while at Guantanamo. But it's true that those who enter as "petty" terrorists become heavy-duty ones in prison. You got a genuine glimpse into the workings of the minds of suicide bombers. What did you learn from all of this about how to tackle this phenomenon? Today, there is no true Western answer to all the networks that broadcast in Arabic, or even in English, to the Muslim world. The radicals are the only real players in the arena. They are conducting constant psychological warfare through their broadcasts. The Arab world needs to be exposed to alternative content in their own language. We need to be saying to Muslim parents, "Hey, look! They're taking your children to become suicide bombers, but they're not sending their own children to do it. Their children are off in America getting degrees in political science, while yours are being turned into cannon fodder." We have to bombard them with examples of the distinction made in their world between "masters" and "servants," and show them they are the victims of it. The fact is that their leaders are not suicide bombers, nor are their leaders' children. [Hamas prime minister Ismail] Haniyeh said in so many words that his own son wouldn't be one. Of course not. Haniyeh sends other people's sons to blow themselves into bits. We also have to stress that this is not just Israel's problem, but rather a worldwide problem..