Anat Berko began her career researching the phenomenon of suicide terrorism while still fulfilling her military career in Israel – a career that saw her rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The daughter of Iraqi Jews who escaped to Israel as refugees, she since has become one of the foremost experts on the subject, advising NATO, the U.S. State Department, the FBI, Israel's National Security Council, and others. As a result of her remarkable work, including courageous interviews with would-be terrorists and women who have aided suicide bombers, President Benjamin Netanyahu invited her to run on Likkud's ticket. She was elected to the Knesset in 2015.
The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers is her second book, first published in 2012. She continues to share her knowledge and research through articles, consulting, and her work with various organizations worldwide.
Note: To read Abigail R. Esman's review of The Smarter Bomb, click here.
Abigail R. Esman: What inspired you to write this book?
Anat Berko: I started before the book, more than 20 years ago, with research for my dissertation, which was about the moral judgment of suicide bombers. If you remember in the 1990s there were a lot of suicide bombing attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – everywhere. It was like a hurricane of terror. So soon after that, I wrote Path to Paradise, which also included an interview with the founder of the Hamas organization. They called him the "spiritual leader," but I am sure that you know he was not just a spiritual leader – there is nothing like that, because this "spiritual leader" caused death and gave justification for murder and death. That's not spiritual. It's very, very physical.
And so after that I decided to deal with women and children because I felt that the next wave would be women. It had started already, but it was not yet a deep phenomenon. But I felt that the smarter bomb – the woman is the smarter bomb, she is more useful as a bomb, as a killer. And as you see right now, the she-bomber is very useful and very effective.
ARE: You dealt with these women as women, though, not as terrorists. When you read the book, there's a sense of you having real compassion for them.
AB: I felt that I must do that, to isolate my feelings and to be emotionally detached, socially – to use empathy as a tool. I even put that as a chapter, because to be able to empathize is a tool, to investigate in such a deep way, and I think because of that I got all that insight that could be so effective – also to be able to see forward to the future. And it helped to make the book something useful not just on the academic level but also for the practitioners. I am both in my work, so I see how it can be useful with, say, psychological warfare, or how men and women and youth can blow themselves up and kill in such a way and have the moral justification from Islamists, how they picture what is waiting for them in Paradise. For us that is something we cannot understand. Do they really, really believe they will meet with the virgins, and what the women are getting there?
To me, the women are victims of their own society, of Palestinian society, victims and victimizers. The punishment in their own society pushes them to terrorism. You can see right now the European women who convert to Islam like Muriel Degauque, with her blond hair and green eyes. She was the first to do it. And that is much more dangerous because you cannot have profiling here – so she is much more effective.
Also there is an attitude in crime and security: if I go out with my husband, everyone will ask at the mall or movie, do you have a weapon? But no one will ask me. But actually I could have a pistol in my purse. So this is a way that women are not suspected like men. They don't think of a pregnant woman who could have a bomb on her stomach, or a weapon and a baby, like car bombs with babies inside a car –we've seen that in Iraq.
ARE: Was it a problem to go into the prisons?
AB: I got a special permission – that everything is according to the ethics of conducting research. It was long before I was a Knesset member. So I applied for permission and there was no politics in this issue – it was pure research.
But what is interesting is some practical implications from this, not just the book, but if you read the articles I've written about jihad tourism, the research you get from the inside world, is so important to understand. We are in the West – even Israel, we are not in the West but we can say as people we do not understand the way of thinking and the rationale for conducting terrorism. As Jews, Christians, with Judeo-Christian values, they can use women and children, you see it on Gaza Strip and elsewhere, like Lebanon. Everything that started with Israel never stopped in Israel. So you can learn a lot from what is going on inside Israel.
ARE: Do you feel that Palestinian women are motivated to commit terrorist acts for reasons that have nothing specifically to do with Israel?
AB: Sure. Even one told me to be a shaheed, a suicide killer, it is a good solution to problems. And for women, everything related to so-called moral problems, things related to wedlock relations, even just suspicion of having an affair, instead of being killed – I don't like this term but they call it "honor killings" – they have the idea not to humiliate the family but to give respect and honor, to be a shaheed and give respect in this way. One journalist I spoke with said they call them in Arabic "shamuta" – whore. It is better to be a shaheed than a shamuta.
ARE: That's the sense I had from the book. Palestinian men want to kill Israelis; but from reading the book I have the feeling that it's not true for the women.
AB: Yes. For men it is ideology. For the women it is to solve a problem. Or for the men they think their sexual experience will be in Paradise. This is also solving a problem. For a society when they suppress sexuality, everything is shame, and it's shame and guilt and especially around sexuality, so they cannot behave in a free way, and when we're thinking about the youth in terrorism, the description is that everything that is forbidden in this world is allowed in Paradise. They want to have beer. Sex. For women the virginity that is necessary in the real world is not in Paradise.
On the one hand, they hate the West, but the dream is to live like the West in Paradise.
ARE: On a wider scale: do you feel like we are making progress?
AB: (sighs loudly): Progress in counterterrorism?
I think that the world understands much more right now, but I feel like – not really. Because you cannot appease those terrorists or the people who support those terrorists. I think we need to put this PC aside, and look at reality as we used to look without PC. Some people use propaganda against you, just say that. You don't need to hide that. It's very important to know and to put everything on the table. Without recognizing it, you cannot defend against it. And you also have cyber terrorism, like social media, which helps them to operate and coordinate and it's very difficult to combat it but we need to do it, and we need to demand that the giants of social media prevent it, to protect innocent people and civilians, who want to live.
ARE: Specifically for women and children, what can we do?
AB: Not allow polygamy and women trafficking, cheap dowry, isolating women, because even in the West and in Israel, you find polygamy – it's forbidden but they use sharia law. And abusing women – let's say someone has four women and 60 children – nobody understands that this causes damage to the women and children.
Also to end child marriage. People cover their eyes and say "this is the culture. Let them do that." No, you cannot let them do that. A 14-year-old girl is a girl; she cannot be a bride. It is not allowed by your law [in the West] – so please, impose it. To understand what are women in the family, what are males in the family – how it is different to have a brother and sister, what are their relations. One thing women told me, in Paradise she can choose her husband. Can you believe that? Or that if her husband is an abuser, he will go to hell and she will go to Paradise. These are what they think.
And this is another distinction: not to look at women as birth-machines but as women, humans, with dignity, with life, with an ideal to fulfill themselves.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her at @radicalstates.