The Bomber Next Door

<B>60 Minutes II:</B> What Makes A Female Suicide Bomber Tick?

Suicide bombings have been the trademark of Palestinian terror for 10 years now. But there's a new twist: female suicide bombers.

Just last week, a Palestinian teenager blew herself up and killed three Israelis. It was the sixth suicide attack by a Palestinian woman. Many more were apprehended before they could complete their mission.

Correspondent Bob Simon recently spent time on the West Bank to try to figure out what makes a female suicide bomber tick.
What he found is that a woman who straps on a backpack loaded with terror is, more likely than not, very hard to distinguish from the girl next door.


Ayat al-Akhras, 18, was a popular, outgoing girl from Bethlehem - a straight "A" student who was engaged to be married. She had a life full of promise, one would have thought. But apparently, she disagreed.

Last year, Ayat walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and pushed a button on her belt, killing herself and two Israelis in the explosion. The next morning, the women in Ayat's family were sad and defiant, and none more so than Ayat's younger sister.

"And God willing, her sisters will take out 30 Israelis. God willing, I swear, I swear, I swear, that my sister will be avenged by 30 people," says Ayat's sister. "She sacrificed her life so the people can live. We are alone…leave me alone, leave me alone!"

A year later, Ayat has become an icon in Bethlehem, this town of icons. And just down the road, at Jerusalem's Al Quds University, she is seen not only as a martyr, but as a model.

"Because she is doing this for us, and for our land, and for our mosques, our churches. Not because of her, because she want to die," says Ikram, at Al Quds University.

"She doesn't have everything to live for," adds Safa, also a student at Al Quds University. "She doesn't have her freedom. She doesn't have her state. She can't move from her house to another. So why to live for? Engagement and studies, it's not everything."


Andaleeb Taqatqa, a 21-year-old student, apparently agreed. Her studies ended in front of a bus in Jerusalem last April when she blew herself up and took six Israelis with her.

The next day, the men in Andaleeb's village outside of Bethlehem gathered for a wedding. They were symbolically getting married to Andaleeb, who had become the village's hero. Her father accepted congratulations, as fathers of brides do, and the women of the village sang their own song. "Oh martyr, we give our blood and our souls to you," they chanted.

"What do you expect? What are you going to lose? Living this life or dying," says Dr. Vivian Khamis, professor of psychology at Bethlehem University.

She's opposed to suicide bombings, but she says she understands what's behind them. "Missile attacks, tank attacks, gunshots. The sounds of helicopters all the night," says Khamis. "It's so terrorizing for the people and the children."

Sacrificing a life under Israeli military occupation, Dr. Khamis says, is hardly a sacrifice at all.

Right now, they can't move anywhere without passing through Israeli checkpoints. Palestinians believe they're set up - not to weed out future suicide bombers, as the Israelis say - but simply to make life miserable for them.

"I mean, look at you as an American when you are in the United States. When you take your car and somebody delays you for your work 10 minutes, you say, 'I'm going to sue you,'" says Khamis. "But they are delaying all our lives. People who are in prison are much better than me. At least when they are in prison, they go out as heroes."

But there are no women heroes, no Joans of Arc, in Islamic tradition. That is, until now. And that's the cultural revolution springing out of the West Bank today.

Lea Tsemel is an Israeli, but she has a unique perspective on Palestinian female suicide bombers. She is the lawyer for their families.

"I don't think this is a major motivation, just to be considered heroes," says Tsemel. "Maybe for women, it's maybe the need to be meaningful."

Five Palestinian women apparently found what they were looking for. Just last week, a 19-year-old woman set off a bomb at a mall, killing herself and three Israelis.

Lieutenant Commander Yonni Halevy studies suicide bombings for the Israeli Army. He says 17-20 more women have also attempted to blow themselves up. Some of these women are now in Israeli custody.

He says there's a tactical advantage in sending a female suicide bomber, because women attract less suspicion. "Some of these male suicide bombers prefer to disguise like women in order to infiltrate into Israel."

What the Israelis have learned is that training female bombers usually lasts only four or five days. The idea is not to give people time to change their minds.

That's how it worked with Ayat al-Akhras last year. Enraged after a neighbor had been shot by Israelis in her Bethlehem refugee camp, she volunteered to blow herself up. She posed in front of a picture of the World Trade Center. And three days later, she recorded her last will and testament on videotape.

In Jerusalem, just four miles from Bethlehem, 17-year-old Rachel Levy and her mother, Abigail, were getting ready for the Sabbath.

Rachel grew up in California. More American than Israeli, she barely spoke Hebrew even after she moved to Jerusalem. She even expressed sympathy with the plight of Palestinians, but that didn't keep her out of danger.

"I was frightened for her, yes. And she knew that," says Abigail, Rachel's mother. "Whenever she's going somewhere, she used to call me. Something happened, she called me. 'Mom, don't worry. I'm okay.'"

Abigail Levy didn't worry on March 29 when her daughter left their apartment for a simple two-mile bus ride to the supermarket. But just before 2 p.m, Rachel walked up to the entrance of a supermarket in southern Jerusalem, armed with a shopping list for her mother's Sabbath dinner.

At the same moment, 18-year-old Ayat arrived, armed with something else. A belt of explosives was wrapped around her waist. The two girls entered the supermarket together and died together.

"I heard the sound of the sirens," remembers Abigail. "I heard them stopping nearby and I said, 'Something happened here in this area. Oh, my God. Rachel is at the supermarket!'"

Ayat's bomb killed Rachel and a security guard. Hours later, authorities at the scene asked Abigail if she would go to the morgue to identify her daughter.

"They didn't let me see her body because it was covered. I'm sure that she was in pieces. And I saw only her face," says Abigail.

"They put makeup on her face. So her hair was wet. Probably they cleaned her before I came to see her. But I was lucky to see her, you know, because many other, you know, people that got killed in suicide bomber, nothing left from them. I saw Rachel. And I said goodbye to her. I kissed her. And that's it. Was the day. Worst day in my life."

On the morning after his daughter Ayat blew up Rachel, Mohammed al-Akhras said he had no idea what Ayat was preparing to do. He even feels sympathy for Rachel's mother. But he won't condemn what his daughter did.
"We're proud of her and we respect her beliefs and we respect everybody's beliefs and we value everyone's blood," says Mohammed al-Akhras.

"I respect her convictions but I don't like the spilling of any blood. No one does this and asks for permission from their father or mother. I would rather die a hundred deaths than see the death of my child."

The family album is now packed with pictures of Ayat posing as a martyr in training. The house has become a memorial to their daughter.

But the pictures may not stay up for long. The Israelis believe in family responsibility.


Remember the father of the bride? His daughter, suicide bomber Andaleeb Taqatqa, was married to her village after she blew up six Israelis. Israelis blew up his home this past January. This is the Israeli part of the ritual. It happens all over the West Bank. And the house of Ayat al-Akhras may be next on the list.

What would Abigail Levy like to see happen to Ayat's parents? "I want them to feel the same pain that I feel now," she says. "Maybe they, when they are going to lose their house, maybe they're going to feel pain."

Every Friday, Abigail and her family visit Rachel's grave. "All she want to do was to go and buy groceries at the supermarket. Nothing else. And they killed her. And for that I hate them," says Abigail.

Her little girl, killed by another girl. A face on a poster. A poster on a wall. A wall with room for many more.

"I feel very proud. Really, when I see a postcard of a girl who bombed herself, I feel very proud," says Ikram. "I hope that I have the courage to be like her."

But could she imagine herself doing it?

"Why not? I live in, in a very, very difficult situation. I think that every girl in this Palestine thinks like me."
  • Rebecca Leung

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