Mind of a Terrorist

Abdul Kareem Shaghnoubi was pounding dough in an Israeli bakery on March 3 when his son Raad blew himself up, along with 18 Israelis on the No. 18 bus on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road.
Abdul Kareem Shaghnoubi was pounding dough in an Israeli bakery on March 3 when his son Raad blew himself up, along with 18 Israelis on the No. 18 bus on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road.

Mind of a Terrorist

Abdul Kareem Shaghnoubi was pounding dough in an Israeli bakery on March 3 when his son Raad blew himself up, along with 18 Israelis on the No. 18 bus on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. The Baker's Son, as he was known affectionately in Arabic, was the third of just four young men who in one terrifying week were able to shatter the peace hopes of millions. Raad, 24, like two of the other bombers Israeli authorities identified last week, was studying to become a teacher. He was a "quiet, sincere" youth, says Musa Seif, a fellow villager from Bourqa in the West Bank. "He used to teach my younger brother Arabic grammar." Raad's sister Amal says the family had no idea of her brother's involvement with the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. Speaking quickly through her kitchen window as Israeli soldiers enforced a 23-hour curfew in the town, Amal said her brother was a "believer" - no different than many in the region who mourned the assassination last January of bomb-making "Engineer" Yehiya Ayyash. "He was upset but not really more than that," she said. "He had friends whom he sometimes met - that's all I know."

International experts know little more about the psychology of suicide bombers, a rare breed among even the most extreme members of any political or religious movement. "The existing evidence does not show anything clearly abnormal," says Ariel Merari, head of political violence research at Tel Aviv University. Yet around the globe - in Sri Lanka, in Peru, in Ireland, even in North America - thousands continue to be drawn by the dubious glory of offering up their lives to bomb for a cause. What drives them? Who are they?

Typically, they are males in their late teens and early twenties from middle or lower-middle class backgrounds, often well-educated, and above all, raised in an atmosphere of perpetual conflict. They may be pious, though seldom fanatical. It is not religion, say experts, but ethnic and nationalist aspirations that spark their journey down the long, isolated road towards martyrdom. It is a legacy often highly revered in the local culture. An untimely death can be a romantic fate to those who are suitably primed psychologically. Playing on all these points, guerrilla talent scouts seek out impressionable young people to train for the role of human detonator.

In the case of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, most of the 16 suicide bombers who have taken at least 132 lives since 1994 came from families who were refugees from the 1948 war over the creation of Israel. Often they had a relative or close friend who had been killed, maimed or imprisoned by Israeli occupation forces. Raad Shaghnoubi had never been jailed by the Israelis, as many of his classmates were. But his elder brother Mahmoud, 26, was paralyzed in his right leg after being hit by a bullet in 1990 during the Palestinian intifadeh protests. Raad was deeply embittered by his brother's disability, which prevented him from contributing to the family income, says sister Amal.

Shaghnoubi was poor. But many other suicide bombers were not. Neither poverty nor religious extremism alone can be blamed as the driving force, say terrorism experts. In Lebanon, for example, two-thirds of the suicide bombings, which peaked between 1983 and 1985, were committed by completely secular organizations, rather than the high-profile Shia Muslim armed groups. In the West Bank and Gaza, polls show that 12- to 13-per-cent of Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of people, actively support the orthodox Muslim Hamas. Yet few have chosen violence. Even among militant Hamas members - 1,000 have been jailed - only about a dozen have so far become suicide bombers. "The religious character of the attacker is not the most crucial factor," says Merari. "Most religious people don't want to die. To commit suicide you have to be suicidal."

Merari notes that orthodox Muslims - like Orthodox Jews - believe they will go to heaven if martyred, but they condemn suicide. There is currently, he says, a fierce debate among the more militant Islamists over whether suicide is a legitimate form of jihad, or holy war. "Islam opposes suicide. It believes in jihad, but the goal is to die in battle," Merari says. Even the bombers of New York City's World Trade Center, who sprang from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, were inspired more by anti-American zealousness than religious faith, says terrorism expert John Thompson, director of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute. "Islamic fundamentalism is not really religious. The motivation is economic and ethnic expression." Still, some extreme Muslim groups have in recent years manipulated the Koran scriptures to convince the young that there is divine approval of violence - particularly since ayatollahs in Iran began to issue fatwas, or religious decrees, such as the one calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie.

In Sri Lanka, as well, the Hindu belief in reincarnation has been used by Tamil Tiger guerrillas to perpetuate the lore that for every freedom fighter who dies, another is born to take his place. About 1,500 Tigers have died by taking cyanide rather than be captured, according to Sri Lankan researchers tracking Tamil militancy. Another 250 have perished in direct suicide missions since the first Tiger - the son of a bank manager - drove a truck of explosives into a government army base in July, 1987. A sense of injustice shared by boys and girls raised in regions of protracted conflict around the world usually lies behind the phenomenon. Thirty to 40 percent of current recruits to Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tigers are girls. Similarly, in Lebanon, some young female bombers were among the perpetrators of about 40 suicide attacks there.

Tamil journalist D. B. S. Jeyaraj, who covered the rise of the Tigers before moving to Canada seven years ago, says high schools and universities are the main recruitment grounds. Tiger propaganda appeals to the young person's desire to infuse his or her life with meaning. "When the whole area is full of war and ongoing conflict, the logic is easy," says Jeyaraj. "The Tamil nation itself is in peril, they tell them. This is not the time for studies, this is the time to do your bit. The whole climate is really emotional."

Unlike Hamas's Qassam Brigades, Tamil Tigers do not seek out specific candidates for suicide missions. Recruitment is broadly based, and non-coercive. "Once they join, the Tiger machinery clicks into place and it is very hard to get out," says Jeyaraj. One in five trainees eventually volunteers to be a Black Tiger, prepared to actively seek death. They are taken for special instruction, then returned to camp with a black head- or arm-band. Before a suicide mission, Black Tigers go to a secret location where they draw lots. The "winner" is taken for a meal with Tiger leader Velupillai Prabakharan. Tiger journals publish photos of the auspicious meeting after the martyrdom. The dead are also glorified at large monuments. Their families are given special treatment for life. And each year in late November, the entire Tamil region marks Great Heroes Week. Says Jeyaraj: "Even if you are anti-Tiger you still honor the dead."

In Northern Ireland, too, where suicide bombing is not part of the culture, glorifying the Irish Republican Army's dead is part of longstanding tradition. "People point to the great history of resistance," says Rev. Gerry Reynolds of Belfast's Clonard Monastery. "It is seen as the new generation taking up the old fight." Reynolds, who has been involved as an intermediary in peace talks, says ordinary youth in the streets of Belfast grow up with a deep sense of injustice and grievance that recruiters from the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, exploit to gain new members. "Being part of a movement that has noble ideas give them something to live for," he says. Just last week the IRA was blamed for another bombing in London, the fourth since it called off its ceasefire Feb. 9. No one was killed this time. Anger, says Reynolds, can easily turn into hate when leaders demonize the other side. "They [youth] are drawn in because they have a feeling of being excluded."

Toronto's Thompson warns that feelings of frustration and exclusion mean that even North American cities can be breeding grounds for future bombers. "That has me worried for our own society, with university-educated people working as waitresses," he says. Thompson notes that the brutal Shining Path Maoist guerrillas in Peru are educated middle-class malcontents who sense they cannot reach the "brass ring" and fault society for it. Similarly, blaming minorities, as neo-Nazis do, or the federal government, as do right-wing militias in the United States, is the kind of reaction that led directly to the death of 167 people in the April, 1995, Oklahoma bombing. "The extreme right don't see that they can have the family farm, the car, the good life they saw as children," says Thompson. "The same goes for animal-rights terrorists of the left."

In Canada, native militancy and Quebec nationalism are flashpoints. While Thompson is not predicting a 1990s revival of the FLQ - or, for that matter, anglophone terrorists - the risk is present. "The more tense or more passionate the national situation becomes, the more chance there is that it will happen here," he says.

It may seem a giant leap from fur protests in Vancouver to the highly charged streets of Gaza or the West Bank. But political violence springs from the emotional realm of the true believer. Raad Shaghnoubi was likely kept in seclusion for days to prevent him from changing his mind or inadvertently disclosing plans of the suicide mission. He may have been told it was a time of "purification," or even been blessed by a religious authority before heading out for the No. 18 bus that would make him a shahid, or martyr. Now Shaghnoubi is gone, "with no funeral and no grave, like he never lived," says his sister. His baker father has been sentenced to six months in jail for working in Israel without a permit, while his mother and eight other siblings have fled the Israeli crackdown. Washington has sent supersensitive bomb detection equipment to Israel to help fight terrorism. But even the most sophisticated device cannot identify which seemingly ordinary student will choose to fill his backpack or wrap his body with explosives.

Maclean's March 18, 1996