Mind Of The Suicide Bomber

<b>Bob Simon </b>Speaks To Two Would-Be Martyrs.

Murad Tawalbi was arrested near Haifa. He had planned to blow himself up in a crowded marketplace. He is 19 years old and comes from a refugee camp near the West Bank town of Jenin.

Who recruited him and gave him the bomb? His older brother.

"I went down to him, he showed it to me," says Murad. "I took his hand and kissed it because he wanted to give me something precious."

"He wasn't trying to make me wear an explosive belt. He was giving me a ticket to heaven. Because he loves me, he wants me to become a martyr. Because martyrdom is the most exalted thing in our religion. Not just anyone gets the chance to become a martyr."

Murad failed. But others succeeded. Fifty-four Israelis were killed, and 636 were wounded in suicide bombings this past year. Many of the bombers came from Gaza, a desolate strip along the Mediterranean which has spawned so many revolts against Israeli occupation. Correspondent Bob Simon reports.


Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a Muslim, heads up Gaza's only psychiatric clinic. The families of suicide bombers often come to him for help after the deed is done. That's how he has built up his profile. But are the people who want to become suicide bombers especially violent?

"No. On the contrary. If you look at their personal histories, they usually were very timid people, introvert, their problem was always communication in public or communicating their feelings, so they were not violent at all," says Sarraj.

"There is a pool of suicide bombers everywhere in the world among the community of Islam and Arabs everywhere. They are ready to act when the time comes. Anybody who is living in this area, including yourself, would have seen the rise of temperature, the rise of hatred, the rise of anger every year after year because of the continuous suffering of these people."

And in Gaza, if you want to tap into this pool of hatred and suicide bombers, you don't need to go further than the neighborhood mosque.

"If they know I am the one who is going to recruit, they will come for me. I just give the message in the mosque that this is what we should do," says Sarraj. "And then people who are ready will contact me."

Hamd Abu Mailek, 23, a student of business administration, found that somebody. On June 17, he wound up driving a donkey cart down a Gaza road towards an Israeli checkpoint. Next to him was 20 kilos of explosives and lots of nails.

"The explosives were connected to a button, and the minute I would press it, the bomb would explode," says Hamd. "The explosives didn't go off. It just didn't work."

There was something wrong with the detonator. There was nothing wrong with the explosives. The Israelis blew them up a few minutes later, along with the cart and the donkey. As for Hamd, they'd shot him three times in the legs, and then captured him.

Was Hamd disappointed that he didn't kill any Israelis? "Naturally one feels sad because the operation was not come off, and Jews were not killed," he says.

But Hamd should still be in good shape with his God. Just listen to the sermon in Gaza's main mosque, broadcast live on Palestinian TV last month. The message: "Whoever joins a holy war is considered a martyr and is worthy of entering Paradise even if he didn't accomplish his goal."

But it's not just the vision of Paradise that attracts these young men. In fact, many of them, Murad and Hamd included, say they were not particularly religious before they decided to become martyrs.

In Gaza, there is a cult of the suicide bomber. There is no higher calling, no higher fashion statement, than the bomb around the belt. The martyr is worshipped. He is on walls and in windows.

"He is like an idol for many young people now. It is something to aspire to be, a martyr," says Sarraj. "In all my teenage time, my symbols were body-builders and movie stars and singers and people like that. Then it changed ... the guerrilla, the fighter, then it was the stone thrower, and today it is the martyr."

But many people in the United States would see these suicide bombers as simply crazy, psychotic.

Does Sarraj agree? "No. They are not psychotic."

Dr. Ariel Merari, head of the Center for Political Violence at Tel Aviv University, has studied every suicide bombing in the Middle East since the U.S. Marine barracks were blown up in Beirut 18 years ago. He says the only abnormal thing about the suicide bomber is, at a certain point, a total absence of fear.

"I don't know of a single case of a person who is really psychotic," says Merari. "And still, this absolute absence of fear, I doubt that it is a general personality characteristic. I doubt that this person under any circumstances would be fearless. On this mission, to which he was prepared for so long, like a coiled spring that just wants to be released."

It's the job of the organization, the cell, to get the terrorist to that point, the point of no return. The aspiring martyr is told to write last letters to his family and friends. He is photographed in a heroic pose. He makes a video explaining why he is becoming a martyr.

Imagine coming home after all that.

"After I saw the bomb I wrote my will. And I was on video," remembers Murad. "I read a verse of the Koran. That is my will, and then everybody says goodbye to their own family, so that when my mother hears on television that I have become a martyr, she will burst with joy and make cries of joy."

After that point, Merari says, the suicide candidate is called the living martyr. It's kind of like being part of the walking dead.

"Being at that stage, a person sees himself as already dead," says Merari. "There is no return for him without really losing any self-respect, the respect of others, but also because his mental state is already focused on killing himself, on being dead. He is already there, on the other side, actually."

Murad explained, "I was very happy. I was waiting for the time to come. I was counting the seconds before I went down. I felt very calm, as if nothing were happening. When I put on the belt of explosives, it felt like it was nothing at all. My brother put it on me, and I was watching him, looking for tears in his eyes, but there weren't any. He was smiling, and that encouraged me more."

It took Murad 30 minutes to drive to the border. What was going on in his mind before he attempted to blow himself up?

"I was just thinking about saving the Palestinian people. That's all," remembers Murad. "I never felt so calm in my life. It was the will of God."

As a man who studied this phenomenon more than anyone else, how well does Merari think he understands the state of mind of one of these men in the minutes before he dies?

"Some of them were elated, apparently. Ecstatic, in the last moments," says Merari. "You probably remember the description of the suicide guy who drove a truck into the Marine Barracks in Lebanon in October 1983. He was described by the guard at the entrance to the compound, and the guy said amazingly, 'He was smiling.'"

"They just saw the new door, the new life. Strongly people believe here and in Islam that you don't die," adds Merari. "When you join an army, there is a possibility to die, but in this case you are not going to die … As a martyr for Islam and for Palestine, it is absolutely sure that you are going to come out alive."

A 100 percent guarantee? "Guaranteed by God," says Merari.
  • Rebecca Leung

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