Saturday, May. 03, 2003

New Recruits

Another suicide bombing in Israel, another Muslim sacrificing his life to kill and maim innocent civilians. Last week's headlines were sickeningly familiar, but this time there were some new twists to the bloody tale. The two bombers who targeted a waterfront Tel Aviv bar, popular with foreign tourists and just 20 m from the U.S. embassy, were Britons — the first foreign suicide bombers to successfully carry out such an attack during the 31-month intifadeh.

At around 1 a.m., Asif Mohammed Hanif, a 21-year-old student from west London, allegedly blew himself up with a nail-filled bomb at Mike's Place, killing two musicians and a French-born waitress, and injuring dozens more. His suspected accomplice, 27-year-old Omar Khan Sharif, who was born and raised in the Midlands city of Derby, went on the run after shucking off his bomb-belt when it failed to detonate. In the massive manhunt that followed, Israeli security forces traced the taxi drivers who drove the duo in the Gaza Strip and from the Erez border checkpoint to Tel Aviv. Investigators believe the men initially traveled through Egypt, probably crossing into the Gaza Strip at Rafah about a week before the attack and using Erez as an entry point because, until now, foreigners needed only to show a passport there, as opposed to the lengthy interrogations they undergo at airports for flights landing in Tel Aviv. Both men were carrying valid British passports; Sharif's was found in his discarded coat and Hanif's in the bombed area after the attack. Back in Britain, antiterrorist police arrested five people in the Midlands and one in London in connection with the Tel Aviv bombing.

In Israel, investigators claimed the two bombers spent a few days in Rafah, where they joined peace activists of the International Solidarity Movement (I.S.M.), who were acting as human shields for Palestinians and demonstrating against the Israeli demolition of houses in the refugee camp. But I.S.M. coordinator Tom Wallace, who is stationed near Bethlehem, denies any connection with the men. He concedes that, together with many members of the public, they may have attended a memorial service in Rafah for Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in March by an Israeli bulldozer. The Israeli reaction was to announce Friday that foreign peace activists in Gaza and the West Bank would be deported.

Could the bombers have tried to use the peace activists as cover to move around and pick up explosives, or perhaps to strengthen their resolve for their upcoming mission? Israeli sources tell TIME that the explosives used in the attack and found on Sharif's discarded bomb-belt were not the usual homemade variety favored by Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza, but more sophisticated material that would have to be smuggled in from outside Israel.

There were also questions over the claim by the Islamic militant group Hamas that it was responsible for the bombing, in conjunction with al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. Although Israeli sources told Time they thought that Hamas was probably involved in the attack, they believed Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese fundamentalist group, was likely to be the prime culprit. Unusually, Hamas officials refused to further discuss the attack. Says Magnus Ranstorp, terrorism expert at Scotland's St. Andrews University, "This is certainly a Hizballah modus operandi." Ranstorp cites four cases of Hizballah using foreigners or forged foreign passports to carry out missions in Israel in recent years. One was Jihad Shuman, a British-Lebanese, who traveled on his British passport as Gerard Shuman before being arrested in East Jerusalem while preparing a major bombing campaign. Another was Hussein Mikdad, an accountant for Hizballah, who carried a British passport in the name of Andrew Newman. The document was discovered to have been forged after Mikdad was found legless and blind when his bomb went off in his lap in a Jerusalem hotel.

More puzzling than the logistics of the attack is what drove two well-educated young men raised in quiet English suburbs to suicide and carnage. The news of the crime certainly stunned the men's relatives and neighbors. Sharif, whose father was a successful Derby businessman, grew up in a comfortable house, and enjoyed football and skateboarding like any British teenager. He went to university in London but dropped out. When he returned to Derby he was married to a woman who always wore a burqa. He had become devout and exchanged his Western clothes for robes.

Asif Hanif's life had a similar arc. Polite and gentle, he was described by his brother, Taz, as "just a big teddy bear, that's what people said about him." Hanif was studying business at college, had worked part-time at Heathrow Airport and also reportedly grew more and more interested in religion. He eventually went to Damascus University in Syria to study Arabic with the aim of teaching it in London. Sharif, who reportedly left Derby before the Iraq war, also said he was going to Syria.

Somewhere along the way, the two men became radicalized, an experience shared by other British Muslims. The "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, jailed for life in the U.S. for trying to blow up an airliner in December 2001, changed from an amiable young man into an extremist, according to one London imam. Somewhere, too, middle-class Omar Saeed Sheikh was turned, and the clever London School of Economics student took jihad to the extreme. He was sentenced to death in Pakistan for the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. There are another nine Britons, captured during the Afghan fighting held in Camp X-Ray, and still others who died in Afghanistan without their parents in Britain even knowing they had joined the jihad. They too asked what had happened to their sons.

One answer seems to be preachers like fundamentalist Abu Qatada, whose sermons inspired the members of 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta's cell, and Jamaican-born cleric Abdullah al-Faisal, who urged his followers in Britain to kill non-believers with guns and even chemical weapons. Abu Hamza al-Masri's militant rhetoric at north London's Finsbury Park mosque apparently inspired many prominent terror suspects, from Richard Reid to Zacarias Moussaoui — and possibly Sharif, too.

Abu Qatada and al-Faisal are now in prison, and the government has initiated moves to remove Hamza's British passport. But Al-Muhajiroun, an extremist Muslim youth movement with offices in Derby and other cities, is still active. It has long been suspected of influencing young men to train for the jihad. According to its Syrian-born founder, Omar Bakri Muhammad, both Sharif and Hanif attended his Shar'ia law lectures though neither were members of the group. Its U.K. leader, Anjem Choudary, will not denounce the latest suicide bombing; he says jihad is a Muslim duty, Palestine a "Muslim land suffering atrocities" and "it's no surprise some should go there and fulfill their duty in this way."

Although the vast majority of British Muslims denounce terrorism, there are few who do not passionately support the Palestinian cause. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told TIME that he has warned British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, "You have to act against those in Britain who encourage these people and incite them against Jews and against Israel." But to prevent more Britons from taking up the extremist calls to "fulfill their duty," the road map to peace in the Middle East must actually lead somewhere — and soon.