The Psychology of Female Suicide Bombers Explored at IPT Forum
by Fern Sidman
The Jewish Voice
February 20, 2013
Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism
Sponsored by the internationally renowned Investigative Project on Terrorism headed by terrorism expert Steven Emerson, the forum featured Dr. Anat Berko, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and holds a PhD in criminology from Bar Ilan University in Israel. Her latest book, entitled, "The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers" explores the root causes and stark distinctions between the rudimentary objectives of male suicide bombers and their female and minor counterparts.
As a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and a researcher for the National Security Council, Dr. Berko was given free access to Israel's most heavily secured prison cells where she met with female and adolescent would-be suicide bombers and their dispatchers, lawyers and interrogators. As a woman and a mother and someone who possesses a cogent understanding of Muslim culture and values as she is of Iraqi descent, Dr. Berko was able to gain the trust of the imprisoned bombers and hold intimate and highly revealing discussions with them.
"For the most part, women in Palestinian society are pawns in men's hands, and passive during the stages of planning and carrying out terrorist attacks," says Dr. Berko. "They do not become terrorists as the logical outcome of a life of crime, as opposed to some of the male security prisoners. The examination of trial transcripts and discussions I held with Palestinian intellectuals made me suspect that the women sent on suicide bombing missions were often sexually exploited: "You're going to die anyway, so what difference does it make...?"
"When men become terrorists, the ideological motive is dominant," Dr. Berko says. "In contrast, women are pushed to carry out a terrorist attack and never choose to do so out of their own free will. There are always personal problems hidden in the background."
For instance, the first female suicide bomber of the second intifada, Wafa Idris, who blew herself up on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road in January 2002, killing an Israeli civilian, was in the midst of a divorce after her husband discovered that she could not have children.
"There are many stories like that," Dr. Berko notes, "but in prison, since they are now part of a group, these women are expected to rewrite their personal stories and to reconstruct them as acts of heroism on behalf of the Palestinian homeland. Yet, there is almost always a complex family history involved. For instance, a divorced woman is in a very weak position in Palestinian society, and it is thus easy to recruit her. Many of these women have an absent father - that is, the father is either chronically ill, dead or has other wives. One of the terrorists told me that, given her father's absence, she needed a man to defend her; in return for his protection, she assisted him in his terrorist work."
As opposed to Muslim males who are indoctrinated from an early age to embark on a life trajectory of becmoing a "Shaheed" (a martyr) for the cause of Islam and Palestinian statehood, women, says Dr. Berko, "want to take revenge for being oppressed by their male family members." She says that women who have a tarnished reputation in their villages or communities are usually the first to be recruited. "It is not uncommon at all for Muslim women to be raped by Muslim men and then have a suicide belt placed on their body."
Because Muslim culture is dictated by an extreme and bellicose interpretation of the Quran, male suicide bombers are promised a prominent place in heaven and eternal paradise with 72 virgins at their disposable, while women are promised "eternal virginity", the ability to marry a Shaheed in heaven and to see the face of Allah and the prophet Mohammed, says Dr. Berko.
Women carried out 10 suicide bombings in the second intifada, the most horrific one taking place in Haifa's Maxim restaurant in October 2003, when Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat set off her explosive belt and killed 21 people.
However, in Dr. Berko's opinion, participation in terrorist activities does not elevate the status of women in Palestinian society: Quite to the contrary, many senior members of the terrorist organizations oppose including women in their ranks, and Palestinian society as a whole does not offer much support for female participation in terrorist acts.
"The families of male suicide bombers are paid handsomely when their relative gives his life for the sake of martydom, but they do not pay the families of female suicide bombers," says Dr. Berko.
"Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir, a leading member of Hamas in the West Bank, told me explicitly that his organization strongly opposed women's participation in terrorist activities," recollects Dr. Berko. "He said that he would never allow his daughter to carry out a terrorist attack. One reason is a religious one - the lack of modesty. Female terrorists disguise themselves as Israeli women and sometimes wear revealing clothes. In the eyes of Hamas members, their innocence is thereby compromised."
In Berko's view, women's participation in terrorist attacks has nothing to do with feminist empowerment in Palestinian society.
"Israeli prisons are places of refuge for Muslim women. They can escape the constant torment that has come to define their lives. They are fed everyday and taken care of; they are allowed to have visitors, take college courses and get a degree and their lives are enhanced, " says Dr. Berko.
Speaking to "Amjad", an Israeli-Arab lawyers who obtained his degree in London, about children and adolescents whose fervent desire to is sacrifice their lives for the glory of Islam, Dr. Berko reports that he said, "The people who dispatch children use them as cannon fodder. It is easier for children to fight the Israeli army. The people who incite them want the army to shoot at them so they have something to tell the media. When I was studying in London, I was surprised by how much influence the Palestinians had with the media. They learned it from the Jews, In Europe, the Palestinians are stronger in the media than Jews."
Following a series of questions that were posed to Dr. Berko by IPT head, Steven Emerson, the floor was opened to probing questions from the audience and the alarming facts that are inherent in the "culture of death" that defines radical Islam were addressed in great detail.
"We should not be shocked to learn that today that in such places as Syria, Iraq and other countries, women are being recruited for martydom and will continue to play a key role in the eternal fight against the perceived enemies of Islam," she said.
Reader comments on this item
'Motivation' towards suicide murder?
Submitted by Babs, Aug 4, 2013 06:16
Can these women and children really be said to be volunteers in the sense usually meant? Muslim women are perceived to be inferior and are objectiified and children are treated as possession of their parents. I would imagine they would rarely dare NOT to do as they are told!
Add to the lack of respect and nurturing the instrumental approach and sociopathic manipulation of suicide bomber handlers who see these people as means to their own grisly ends, and the result is a highly toxic mix.
As I see it, the long term answer lies in education of women and raising their status if that can be done, and also in targeting the recruiters to the suicide murder cult and punishing them to the fullest extent of the law
The phenomenon of pushing women to be a suicide bomber is result of incremental steps that women undergo to form their perception about themselves
Submitted by Muna, Feb 22, 2013 13:33
As Christian born and lived my teenager in Middle East, I understand the phenomenon of pushing women to be a suicide bomber, as result of incremental steps that women undergo to form their perception about themselves as a member of society, and as individual in this life at large. The perception women gets in their so early age is that, women are inferior member in the society, and that their reputation and virginity is what they worth, without them women have no value in life, and do not deserve to live…For the observer, it may looks so absurd and easy to overcome. But it is not easy done as said, women in final step when they already formed this perception about themselves are so weak and easy to be controlled, especially when will be encountered with any life event, like rape, loosing virginity to a love, or any other horrible problem…. Middle eastern Christians also been indoctrinated by the same rule, because they lived under the same rule in middle east, but they do not admitted, and continue to live by this rule even when they live in United States and Europe, because it has been a part of their growing, and that's why they have problems in adjusting sometimes to different culture.
Psychology of Female Suicide Bombers
Submitted by Scott, Feb 22, 2013 01:13
Perhaps one area not thoroughly explored in this area is the culture of hate bred by war.
Hamas strike Israel; Israel in return level a city block either way the families of the dead suffer. I recall seeing an interview with a palestinian woman she was asked :
why did she want to become a suicide bomber?
"the Israeli bomds destroyed my house killed my parents , my family and my children, I want those who did this to pay, I have lost everything there is nothing for me to live for, I want to kill those who did this."
Grief, loss, pain and suffering during times of calamity and war over the world have always been strong psychological motivators to "make someone pay" I am also very sure there are many Israelis who feel the same hurt and pain.
I think that there are many psychological precursers to make such a decision to become a suicide bomber, cultural alienation and cultural norms may be only part of a larger reason.
I firmly believe that the environment plays a strong part in the psychological stressors, understandings and perception that we as humans experience.
It must be acknowledged that given the military background of Dr Anat Berko in that she served as a Lt Col and has a Phd in Criminology that her background ,life experience training will provide pre-existing environmental precursers that have changed her Psychology and her perception. (I served.. I still remember the dead, these critical incidents changed my perception / psychology...It happens)
I am not in any way detracting from the reasearch and work that Dr Anat Berko has conducted in this field, however I think given the sensitive subject matter and the influence of environmental factors, predispositions, beliefs and bias that it should be taken into account whilst reading her work.
I believe that we should examine this question more thoroughly, I would be interested in the outcome of a study with these women, outside the prison, by a psychologist or psychiatrist with an clearer interest into the make up and the complexitities as to how such a decision has been formed.
"Israeli prisons are a place of refuge for muslim women" but its still PRISON. I believe the location (environment) taints the evidence and the explianations for their behaviours.
yes the recruiting will continue but as long as the "war" environment persists we will always have fresh fodder, filled with grief pain and loss to draw from