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.