There was Muneira, who planned to blow herself up at a hospital near Tel Aviv. There was Jemilla, who escorted a young boy to his suicide bombing at a market; he was excited he soon would be meeting girls in Paradise. And there was Sabiha, who prepared explosives and trained other women to do the same.
With courage and compassion, Anat Berko, a criminologist and member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of Israel's Knesset, interviewed them all.
Their stories, and the insights they provide into the motives and lives of female suicide bombers, fill the pages of The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers, newly released in paperback. Though first published in 2012, the release of a new edition underscores the difficult, ongoing challenges suicide bombers pose, and the continued efforts to understand the relatively new phenomenon of women suicide bombers and the role of women in violent jihad.
To read more about Anat Berko's research, click here for an interview with her recently conducted by Abigail R. Esman.
Berko spent 15 years visiting Palestinian women in Israeli jails, gradually developing relationships that, if they could not be described as "friendships," were built on mutual trust and an unexpected respect. What she found, and what her readers discover through her, are women who seem never to have fully understood the weight of their own actions, puzzlingly detached from the reality of the murders they took part in – or had hoped to. She asked a woman she calls "Ayisha," for instance, if she "felt anything for her potential Israeli victims."
"I saw the blood of Palestinians and I didn't' think about my mother or my family," Ayisha replied, "so how could I think about Israelis I didn't know?"
Rather, Berko describes women far more concerned about themselves. "Rania," for instance, complains that newspaper accounts had referred to her as being nine months pregnant at the time of her attack, when she was actually in her third month. She feared people would condemn her for trying to kill her own child. Others speak frequently of fearing their husbands will take another wife before they are released.
Through her dedication to the issues and her genuine compassion for these women, Berko not only earned their trust; in writing of them, she humanizes them to the reader in the same way she seems to humanize Israelis and Jews to them. Hence we learn that not all of these women are in prison because they genuinely wished to kill Israelis; some rather saw prison as a preferable alternative to the oppressive and violent homes they were forced to share with their abusive husbands or fathers. Some, as Daniel Pipes observes in his Foreword, "pretend to attack Israelis so as to go to jail and leave their miserable home lives," or to "escape sexual dishonor through violence." They may wave a knife in the face of an Israeli soldier, and in some cases, return to prison as quickly as they can once they are released.
Berko also explores the stories of child would-be bombers, who – unlike most of the women – are recruited, often through deceit, and almost always with promises of a Paradise filled with virgins who await their swift arrival. Some also seek to emulate their fathers: "Qatada's" father, for instance, had served time in Israeli jails for attacking soldiers, and Qatada, 18 when Berko met him in prison, had been arrested for throwing stones at Israeli military. And others, like the women, seem to relate terrorism with violence at home: one told Berko that he "chose terrorism in revenge and to rebel against his parents."
Similarly, there are also those who see terrorism as a confirmation of their manhood, whose machismo is intricately tied with the notion that violence breeds respect – the same respect they sought from their own fathers. (Not incidentally, psychiatrist James Gilligan, who studies violent criminals in American jails, has found the same viewpoint among that population, as well.) "Fawaz," for instance, who was 15 when he was stopped, wearing an explosive belt on an Israeli bus, told Berko, "I had my picture taken with a gun and a Koran, and I felt I was a man and not weak; I felt I had power.... I felt brave and not afraid of anything."
In writing The Smarter Bomb, Berko set out to answer specific questions: "Can a woman be 'good' according to the criteria of Palestinian society, and a terrorist at the same time? Is the involvement in terrorism a sign of Palestinian women's liberation, or is it another way of oppressing? Who are they, the Palestinian women who dared to leave their homes (in most cases without their fathers' permission), what made them and Palestinian children join the terrorist machine? Can the human bombs of Islamic terrorism be stopped, and if so, how?"
By presenting the material as raw statement, largely uninterrupted by any interpretations of her own, Berko allows her readers to find those answers themselves, to draw their own parallels and discover any patterns – or lack of them – among these terrorists, who represent the most vulnerable members of Palestinian society.
But her studies have far wider significance, as she observes, "Suicide bombing terrorism is becoming refined, and it is contagious." Since the book first appeared in 2012, suicide attacks have killed dozens of men, women and children in Paris, Manchester, Brussels, and Istanbul. And non-suicide terrorism has murdered even more – including the shootings in San Bernardino, largely orchestrated by a woman, Tashfeen Malik.
Berko's work may be compassionate, but it is not about compassion. Rather, it is about understanding who these women and children are. It is about discovering what makes them seek solace through violence and death, so that we may potentially find a way to save them – and in so doing, save ourselves.
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.