Why Suicide Bombing Is Now All The Rage


    Palestinians wearing hoods and mock bombs represent suicide bombers

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    And not just among fundamentalists. Last December the mainstream Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the nationalist group that forms the backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organization, entered the suicide-bombing business. Since then, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a Fatah offshoot, has taken part in at least 10 such attacks, some of them in collaboration with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. The Brigades activists are generally not religious fanatics. "Within Palestinian society, in the past year, a very broad mechanism of social approval has been created that makes it possible for even less religious people to commit suicide," says Ehud Sprinzak, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "There's enormous despair. There's no meaning to life."

    Officially, at least, members of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades part from the fundamentalists in their goals: they support the idea of a free Palestine living in peace beside Israel and say they want only to force Israel to allow that state to rise up. But for now, nationalists and fundamentalists are united in their strategy, which is to kill and maim as many Israelis as possible and to horrify and demoralize those who go unscathed.

    Executing a successful attack has grown easier in the past 1 1/2 years. Since bomber candidates are now volunteering, they are self-selected for commitment and do not require indoctrination. Each mission involves five or six layers of support and planning operatives--who do not commit suicide--including scouts, guards, drivers, explosives technicians, electricians and metalsmiths. Arafat's Palestinian Authority has at times worked to keep the militants in check, sporadically shutting down bombing networks to appease the Israelis. But during the recent violence, Arafat has got out of the way, so cells have greater freedom to operate.

    Most bombs are currently made out of triacetone-triperoxide (a substance also found in shoe-bomber suspect Richard Reid's sneakers). The explosive is simple to produce, although volatile. Several dozen Palestinians have died preparing the bombs. Hamas, which sometimes builds devices for the other groups, has four or five master bombmakers who prepare the explosives, according to Israeli estimates, and about 25 additional activists who make other parts of the bombs--often tinkering in rented apartments and garages to avoid capture. The total cost of each explosive belt is $1,500 to $4,300 depending on quality, according to Hamas activists. The bombmakers combine acetone and phosphate with water in a large bowl and put the mixture out to dry on roofs or balconies. Then they use a coffee grinder to break it down into powder. At this point, the material is packed into small bags, or preferably pipes, which break apart and become shrapnel in a blast. The 22-year-old who detonated a bomb outside the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv last June lifted his hands as he blew himself up, eyewitnesses reported, apparently so that his arms wouldn't obstruct shrapnel flying off the belt around his waist. One bombmaker on Israel's wanted list has started lacing bombs with rat poison, presumably to multiply the number of casualties, although the technique has yet to succeed, according to Israeli intelligence officials.

    After a bombing, the sponsoring organization usually distributes to the media a video documenting the bomber's last, triumphant words. The organization pays for the funeral, which includes a tent outside the family's home where neighbors can come to offer condolences and drink coffee. Hamas pays its bombers' survivors a permanent pension of $300 to $600 a month in addition to bankrolling the family's health care and the education of the bomber's children. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein also funds a one-time $20,000 payment for the families--increased from $10,000 about six months ago in a show of solidarity.

    The Middle East did not invent the suicide attack. In modern times the most notorious practitioners were the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. Today the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who are fighting their government for a separate Tamil state, are the unmatched leaders in the field. They have launched some 200 suicide attacks that have killed hundreds. "Any ideology can spur this action," says Pipes of the Middle East Forum. In 1987 Iranian teenagers were dispatched by the thousands to act as human minesweepers during the Iran-Iraq war. They wore keys around their necks that were said to open the doors of paradise. This probably inspired the first suicide bombings in the Middle East--in Lebanon by the Hizballah militia during the early 1980s.

    But the Palestinian practice is alarming for its sheer momentum. Says Bruce Hoffman, terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp.: "Groups there succeeded in what terrorist organizations have rarely been able to do, and that's transform their campaigns into almost mass movements, not dependent on a hard-core cadre of fighters but rather with people from the population readily stepping forward to replenish the terrorist ranks." In the Middle East the notion of the suicide bomber has a particularly toxic appeal. Other regions struggle with warfare and rage, but Islam offers potent rationales and rewards for "martyrdom." In Islam martyrdom washes away all past sins and guarantees the bomber places for 70 relatives in heaven.

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