Islamic Suicide Bombers
Islamic Suicide Bombers
The vast majority of Muslims do not condone terrorism, including suicide attacks. However, tiny minorities - essentially cults and sects of Islam - believe they have found a way to make the Koran support their evil actions.
''Suicide is a major sin in Islam,'' Maher Hathout, imam of the Islamic Center in Los Angeles, explained. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations pronounced that suicide ''would not be in accord with Islamic beliefs and practices.''
Well, sort of. The Koran does tell Muslims, ''Do not kill yourselves'' and warns that those who disobey will be ''cast into the fire.'' The Prophet Mohammed is reported to have said that a suicide cannot go to paradise.
Islamic laws oppose the practice.
This religious prohibition has had the intended effect. According to Franz Rosenthal, a scholar of the subject, ''suicide was of comparatively rare occurrence'' in traditional Muslim society. In contemporary Egypt, statistics bear out that suicide is exceedingly rare.
But those spokesmen are not telling the whole story, for Islamists consider suicide as not just legitimate, but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (holy war). Going into war knowing with the certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide (intihar) but martyrdom (istishhad), a much-praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of the houris in paradise.
A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations, but ''heroic martyrdom operations'' in which the kamikazes act not ''out of hopelessness and despair, but are driven by an overwhelming desire to cast terror and fear into the hearts of the oppressors.''
In other words, Islamists find suicide for personal reasons abominable, suicide for jihad admirable.
The jihad menace, Jerusalem Post (Israel), July 30, 2001. Guest Column by Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum
The history of suicide attacks stretches back at least to the 11th century, when the Assassins, the disciples of the Persian master Alamut, conducted suicide raids on neighboring fortresses. The Koran forbids suicide, Mr. Post noted, but he added that suicide bombers often consider their deaths acts of heroism, not self-destruction, and believe they will be elaborately rewarded in the afterlife. Harvey Kushner, an expert in terrorism and chairman of the department of criminal justice at Long Island University, noted that suicide attacks are not condoned by most Muslims, but are espoused ''by leaders of religious factions within the Islamic community'' who have what he described as ''a contorted view of what is spiritually permissible.'' After their deaths, suicide bombers are often celebrated as heroes, said Vamik Volkan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School and an expert on interethnic conflict.
Attackers Neither Mad Nor Desperate, New York Times Service, Sep. 13, 2001
In his 1996 book on jihad, Rudolph Peters, a Dutch scholar, argues that while the umma, or Muslim community, has a duty to ''expand the territory of the state,'' the doctrine of jihad forbids, among other things, the killing of noncombatants like children, women and old people. Thus, it would appear that even if Islamic law were stretched to consider women and children at the American Embassies combatants, the hundreds of Africans, many of whom are Muslim, who were killed near those embassies could not be considered combatants. Muslim law also provides that ambassadors and their missions be respected as long as they do not engage in espionage. (That's why the Islamic Government in Teheran insisted on characterizing the American Embassy where hostages were seized in the 1970's as ''a nest of spies'').
Professor Peters says a ''war against unbelievers may not be mounted without summoning them to Islam or submission before an attack.'' In other words, people should be given a chance to embrace Islam as their faith before they are killed. Mr. bin Laden's defense of and reported ties to Egyptian and Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli and American targets are also questionable under traditional Islamic precepts, scholars say. Islamic holy law forbids suicide. According to the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, which believers claim are divinely inspired, the punishment is eternal repetition of the act by which a person dies. So if a man hangs himself, he'll spend an eternity choking. But as Professor Awn points out, Islam endorses martyrdom -- fighting, and if necessary, dying for one's faith. And one Muslim's suicide might be another's martyrdom.
Even a Jihad Has Its Rules, New York Times, Aug. 29, 1999
Suicide operations caught the Arab imagination in 1983, when Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim guerrillas trained by Iran blew up 241 American servicemen and 58 French paratroops in a simultaneous operation in Beirut.
The technique - and the cult of martyrdom characteristic of the Shi'ite branch of Islam - was transferred to the Palestinians, leading to a series of bombs in Israeli buses and market places. Islam condemns suicide as a way to hell and damnation.
For the past 11 months of the intifada, Islamic scholars have debated whether blowing yourself up constitutes suicide or martyrdom. Some Saudi scholars continue to denounce suicide as a sin, but the argument has been won by the radicals who see it as a legitimate means of jihad, or holy struggle.
The term ''suicide bomber'' has been replaced with ''martyrdom operation''. Such is the prestige of the suicide bomber that no one in the Palestinian territories would dare to raise a voice against the practice.
New assassins queue eagerly for martyrdom, Daily Telegraph (England), Sep. 13, 2001
ZARQA, Jordan -- The Hotaris are preparing for a party to celebrate the killing of 21 Israelis this month by their son, a suicide bomber.
Neighbors hang pictures on their trees of Saeed Hotari holding seven sticks of dynamite. They spray-paint graffiti reading ''21 and counting'' on their stone walls. And they arrange flowers in the shapes of a heart and a bomb to display on their front doors.
''I am very happy and proud of what my son did and, frankly, am a bit jealous,'' says Hassan Hotari, 54, father of the young man who carried out the attack June 1 outside a disco in Tel Aviv. It was Israel's worst suicide bombing in nearly four years. ''I wish I had done (the bombing). My son has fulfilled the Prophet's (Mohammed's) wishes. He has become a hero! Tell me, what more could a father ask?''
In more than a dozen interviews with former and current members of the militant group Hamas and with Israeli security officials who track them, USA TODAY was given a rare look into the secretive and terrifying world of suicide bombers and the culture that creates them.
Lured by promises of financial stability for their families, eternal martyrdom and unlimited sex in the afterlife, dozens of militant Palestinians like Hotari aspire to blow themselves up, Israeli and Palestinian officials say. Their goal: to kill or injure as many Jews as possible in the hope that Israel will withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. Israel captured the land in 1967.
Since 1993, nearly 190 people have been killed and thousands injured in 28 suicide bombings in Israel.
''When I walk outside, young (Palestinian) children come up to me and say, 'Conduct another bombing to make us happy, sheik,' '' says Sheik Hasan Yosef, 45, the senior Hamas leader in the West Bank city of Ramallah. ''I cannot disappoint them. They won't have to wait long.''
At any time, Israeli officials believe, Hamas has from five to 20 men, ages 18 to 23, awaiting orders to carry out suicide attacks. The group also claims to have ''tens of thousands'' of youths ready to follow in their footsteps. ''We like to grow them,'' Yosef says. ''From kindergarten through college.''
In Hamas-run kindergartens, signs on the walls read: ''The children of the kindergarten are the shaheeds (holy martyrs) of tomorrow.'' The classroom signs at Al-Najah University in the West Bank and at Gaza's Islamic University say, ''Israel has nuclear bombs, we have human bombs.''
At an Islamic school in Gaza City run by Hamas, 11-year-old Palestinian student Ahmed's small frame and boyish smile are deceiving. They mask a determination to kill at any cost. ''I will make my body a bomb that will blast the flesh of Zionists, the sons of pigs and monkeys,'' Ahmed says. ''I will tear their bodies into little pieces and cause them more pain than they will ever know.''
''Allahu Akbar,'' his classmates shout in response: ''God is great.''
''May the virgins give you pleasure,'' his teacher yells, referring to one of the rewards awaiting martyrs in paradise. Even the principal smiles and nods his approval.
''You don't start educating a shaheed at age 22,'' says Roni Shaked, a terrorism expert and former officer in Israel's Shin Bet secret service. ''You start at kindergarten so by the time he's 22, he's looking for an opportunity to sacrifice his life.''
Some suicide bombers, like Hotari, come to their deadly missions by a slightly different route. They turn themselves into human bombs because they are frustrated by the economic and political duress Palestinians experience in Jordan and throughout the region.
Hamas says its recruiters, most of whom Israeli officials describe as charismatic religious leaders, look for two qualities in a potential bomber: an intense interest in Islam and a clean criminal record so as not to raise the suspicions of Israel's secret service.
Saeed Hotari, who was 22, fit both of those criteria. He was ''a devout Muslim who used to pray, observed fasting and performed all his religious obligations to the letter and spirit,'' his father says. One of nine children, he left Zarqa, outside the Jordanian capital of Amman, for the West Bank city of Qalqilya in 1999 to seek a better life.
In Qalqilya, he and two other Palestinian youths went to a mosque where Sheik Jamel Tawil, a Hamas leader, persuaded them to attend a Hamas-run class on Islamic study. All would eventually be suicide bombers and would carry out their attacks within days of each other.
After several weeks of schooling, the youths often volunteer to be suicide bombers, Yosef says. ''If someone confiscated your land, demolished your home, built settlements to prevent you from coming back, killed your children and blocked you from going to work, wouldn't you want to fight for your country?'' Yosef asks.
In return for ''martyrdom,'' Hamas tells the youths that their families will be financially compensated, their pictures will be posted in schools and mosques, and they will earn a special place in heaven.
They also are promised something more risqué: unlimited sex with 72 virgins in heaven. The Koran, the sacred book of Islam, describes the women as ''beautiful like rubies, with complexions like diamonds and pearls.'' In one of the passages of the Koran, it is said the martyrs and virgins shall ''delight themselves, lying on green cushions and beautiful carpets.'' Since the time of Mohammed, martyrs have always been considered those willing to die defending Islam.
For some young Muslims, that offer is too much to turn down.
''I know my life is poor compared to Europe or America, but I have something awaiting me that makes all my suffering worthwhile,'' says Bassam Khalifi, 16, a Hamas youth leader in Gaza's Bureij refugee camp. ''Most boys can't stop thinking about the virgins.''
But in the end, says Shaked, the Israeli terrorism expert, most of the bombers don't sign up for martyrdom for the promise of unlimited sex. ''They join because of their absolute devotion to God and their desire to die with Jewish blood on their hands,'' he says. ''It's not a heroic thing, it's a holy thing.''
A would-be bomber is selected for his mission only days, sometimes hours, before it is to occur, Israeli officials say. As part of the preparation, the recruit is taken to a cemetery, where he is told to prepare for death by lying between gravesites for hours. He wears a white, hooded shroud normally used to cover bodies for burial, a former Hamas member says.
The recruit is then taken to a safe house. A video is made in which he states his consent to become a suicide bomber and his devotion to Islam. It will be played for the public after his death. A still photograph is taken that will be reproduced and displayed through the West Bank and Gaza to honor him after death.
Because secrecy is paramount, Hamas leaders will not allow the recruit to say goodbye to his family or tell them his plans.
Once at the target site, the recruit is told to remain calm, blend in as much as possible and, when surrounded by Israelis, press a switch to explode the bomb, Hamas members say.
On June 1, it was Hotari's turn. Israeli officials, quoting eyewitnesses, say two Hamas operatives drove him to the Dolphin Disco in Tel Aviv, a popular club often packed with Russian immigrant teenagers. They said Hotari slipped unnoticed into line and positioned himself among several girls, including a 14-year-old who had survived Marmash's attack in Netanya.
Then, while flirting with one of the girls, Hotari triggered the explosives. The blast was so intense that it tore limbs from the victims' bodies, scattered their flesh up to six blocks away and vaporized Hotari and the girl next to him.
It killed 21 people, in addition to Hotari, and injured nearly 100.
Now, nearly 30 days later, his parents are preparing to mark the anniversary of his death, as devout Muslims often do.
''My prayer is that Saeed's brothers, friends and fellow Palestinians will sacrifice their lives, too,'' Hotari's father says. ''There is no better way to show God you love him.''
Devotion, desire drive youths to 'martyrdom' : Palestinians in pursuit of paradise turn their own bodies into weapons, USA Today, June 26, 2001
Collected sayings of Mohammed, called hadiths, and other writings may reconcile some of the apparent conflicts. One says: "If people do good to you, do good to them; and if they mistreat you, still refrain from being unjust." Another story tells of Mohammed ordering his soldiers not to mistreat women and children, even during a battle. Both the Quran and hadiths offer examples of respect given to Christians and Jews – both considered along with Muslims as "people of the Book."
But Mr. bin Laden and some other terrorists say the less militant parts of Muslim teachings simply don't apply to their war with the West. This belief can be traced to a few well-known figures of relatively recent Muslim history.
Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was a contemporary of George Washington. His supporters say he was a religious reformer who cleaned up a corrupted version of Islam practiced in his part of Arabia. Opponents call him a political opportunist who used religion as a weapon. In either case, he declared that Islam had been corrupted a generation or so after the death of Mohammed, and he condemned any theology, customs or practices developed after that.
It was as if a Christian suggested that Augustine and Aquinas and every later Christian theologian were heretics. Or as if an Orthodox Jewish scholar challenged the validity of the Talmud.
Mr. al-Wahhab and his supporters took over what is now Saudi Arabia. Their descendents still control the area and are among the most influential religious leaders in much of the Middle East.
Muslims concerned about image, Dallas Morning News, Sep. 16, 2001
» See also the articles in our news articles database
Understanding Islamic Terrorism: Muhammad, Islam and Terrorism
Triumph of Disorder : Islamic Fundamentalism, the New Face of War By Morgan Norval. Published: April, 1999 (Review)
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