Understanding Female Suicide Bombers

by Daniel Pipes
The Smarter Bomb, Women and Children as Suicide Bombers
October 2012

By Anat Berko
Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2012. 212 pp., $42
ISBN: 978-1-4422-1952-6

[N.B.: This is the author’s original, unexpurgated text, different from the one edited down by the publisher]

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Anat Berko has spent the past fifteen years in jails interviewing terrorists, giving her peerless authority on this subject among academic researchers; and no one has shown so great an ability as she to get interviewees to express themselves. The results, published in a series of studies on personalities, circumstances, and motives, has opened a hitherto mysterious topic to public scrutiny.

After focusing on male prisoners, Dr. Berko in this book turns her attention to women and children. The differences are profound, as one might expect, especially in Muslim society, where women are particularly disadvantaged. The strictures on sex that dominate a woman’s life have deep implications for women’s engagement in terrorism: Ch. 7 shows that women dream of “that thing” (i.e., sex) ceaselessly in paradise. Chs. 8 and 15 establish the pattern of women going on terrorist missions after having had sexual relations with their dispatchers. Ch. 11 demonstrates the remarkable fact that “a significant number [of Palestinian women] preferred an Israeli jail to their own homes” because of maltreatment by relatives; indeed, some of them pretend to attack Israelis so as to go to jail and leave their miserable home lives. Ch. 14 points to the recurring opportunity for women to escape sexual dishonor through violence.

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Anat Berko, author of “The Smarter Bomb.”

Dr. Berko, who works at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, provocatively asks, “Is a woman who carried out a suicide bombing attack a smart bomb or a stupid bomb?” In other words, do these women know what they are doing and are they effective? In reply to the first question, she discerns a wide range of terrorists, from well-educated and hyper-political sophisticates to illiterate bumpkins. As for their efficacy, with the exception of those sophisticates, generally women do a poor job, killing themselves without doing serious damage to Israelis.

The book contains a wealth of information, much of it presented as raw data in the form of reports on conversations. Others can benefit from Dr. Berko’s valuable work to draw their own conclusions. Some of the major themes that emerge from the pages ahead include:

  • The contrast between the utility of women in terrorism (due to their raising fewer suspicions than men) and their poor performance (due to their being less ideological).
  • The tension between admiration for a woman who foregoes her life and the suspicion that her self-sacrifice involved some form of sexual guilt. As a Palestinian journalist put it, when a woman carries out a terrorist attack, others joke that “She blew up masturbating. … She didn’t get enough sex. … She wasn’t satisfied.”
  • In some cases, desperate circumstances impel women to desperate actions in the hope of ending their wretched existences. As one accomplice to a suicide bombing put it, “Those girls don’t think they will go to jail, they think they will die. They think death is better than living the way they do.”
  • In other cases, female prisoners purposefully seek out jail as a safe haven to escape forced marriages, accusations of improper behavior, or domestic violence. To reach jail, they stab soldiers, wave knives in the air, or throw acid toward an Israeli soldier.
  • Terrorists see Israelis as less than human but after spending time in Israeli jails, where prisoners (as one put it) “give respect and are respected,” they often develop improved attitudes: “the Jews take better care of me than us [Arabs].”
  • To a surprising extent, female terrorists engage in violence to associate closely with men to whom they are physically attracted. As a defense lawyer put it, “I never met a single woman who was motivated by ideology … every woman involved in terrorism is a romantic.”
  • For these reasons, Dr. Berko finds that “a significant number” of female prisoners prefer remaining in an Israeli jail to returning to their own homes. As one put it, “I would rather be in jail, they help me here.”
  • Prisoners generally come from broken families or families lacking a strong, protective male.
  • The whole notion of women waging war and going to prison upsets Palestinian concepts of order. In the illustrative words of the deputy head of Hamas, “If a woman is in jail for a long time she will become a man” (meaning, they get wrong-headed ideas of independence).
  • Accordingly, Palestinians keep their distance from female security prisoners: “She’s a heroine, but I would never let my son or brother marry a woman like that.”
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A family member holds up a picture celebrating Fatma An-Najar, 57, the oldest female Palestinian suicide bomber.

In passing, Dr. Berko also reveals much about the daily circumstances of female security prisoners in Israeli jails. Perhaps most surprising is how optimistic many of them are about leaving jail as part of exchanges with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. It turns out that this is not just chivalry on the Government of Israel’s part but rather a recognition that female terrorists are far less likely to re-engage in terrorism than male ones.

Finally, Dr. Berko’s study hints at counterterrorism tactics. For example, the deep sensitivity about the naked female body being viewed, even in death, even blown up into many parts (“If a woman blows herself up all her flesh will be seen, and that leads to a very difficult situation”), suggests that the Israeli and other authorities can deter female Muslim suicide bombers by distributing pictures of their naked remains, and especially their sexual parts. (The same tactic, to a lesser degree, might also be useful vis-à-vis male Muslim terrorists)

Anat Berko’s sensitive treatment of a repugnant topic brings the mentality and social universe of Israel’s female enemies to light. The insights she gleans profit all engaged in counterterrorism concerning Muslim women, regardless of those women’s location or cause.

Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

Source material can be found at this site.

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