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October 28, 2001

All Suicide Bombers Are Not Alike


Agostino Pacciani
Family members holding commemorations of Ismail al-Masawabi, a Gaza suicide bomber. ''I hope,'' said his mother, ''my other children do the same.''

Enlarge This Photograph

Hulton: Deutsch Collection Corbis
Kamikaze pilots killed thousands of American sailors in 1945.

A journey to Gaza, Cairo and Hamburg in search of what really made Sept. 11 possible.

Whoever kills himself with an iron weapon, then the iron weapon will remain in his hand, and he will continuously stab himself in his belly with it in the Fire of Hell eternally, forever and ever."

A few days after Sept. 11, that quotation from a sacred Muslim commentary turned up on an English-language Web site called There it was brandished by a Muslim scholar who argued that Islam could never, under any circumstances, justify the practice known in the West as ''suicide bombing.'' Suicide bombers, he seemed to be warning, would blow themselves up through eternity. It was, in its way, a comforting thought, but there was no assurance that this learned discussion on the Internet was being followed in Arab centers where the bombers were found and recruited. In the days after Sept. 11, it also became clear that there was no Arab leadership with the inclination or stature to call a jihad against suicide bombings and the latter-day cult of martyrdom that may date from the Iran-Iraq war, in which Iranian teenagers, sent out by the thousands to be human minefield sweepers, were given keys to wear around their necks. Those keys, they were promised, would open the doors of paradise.

Necrophiliac fervor at first seemed confined to Shiites (not just Iranians but the Lebanese factions that drove vehicles laden with explosives into the American Embassy and marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983). How suicide bombing then got adopted as a weapon by the Sunni Muslims of Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula -- and then by a multinational consortium drawing in Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans and Kenyans that found its prime targets on American soil -- is a tangled question for scholars. All that happened when we were looking the other way. We ticked off the bombings but didn't pay close attention when, three years ago, Osama bin Laden declared ''war'' on the United States. Other things -- like a White House sex scandal and the Nasdaq -- preoccupied us when he called us ''the most filthy sort of human beings'' and a ''lowly people.'' It didn't register when he said it was a sacred duty for Muslims to kill American civilians or praised young bombers for giving their lives to this ''killing and neck smiting.'' And beyond the caves of Afghanistan, few seemed to be listening anyhow -- as far as we knew or cared.

Wondering in the days after Sept. 11 how self-annihilation had gone from being a tactic for spreading gory mayhem on a local scale to a weapon of mass destruction, I started reading up on kamikazes and the Black Tigers of the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka. It seemed useful to recall that it wasn't only extremist Muslims who blew themselves up to inflict damage on an enemy. But the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombers still seemed to me different from any precursors: in their self-discipline, their ability to coordinate their efforts over long distances and many months, in the cold power they silently lorded over their fellow passengers as they waited to blow them -- and themselves -- to bits. They weren't around to be asked about their apocalyptic vision and motives, but they had plenty of contemporaries. As a reborn reporter, my instinct was to visit several Muslim centers -- Gaza, Cairo, Hamburg -- throwing myself into as many intense conversations as I could on the subject of suicide bombings, martyrdom and Sept. 11, especially with men in their 20's and 30's who might have given some thought to what moved their generational cohorts to take this path and stay on it till its calamitous end. I did not realize how different the perspectives could be in each place.


I picked Gaza as a place to start for the simple reason that it has a well-established production line for suicide bombers (though, conspicuously, there were no Palestinians on the Sept. 11 death flights). But I wasn't prepared for what I encountered there. In Gaza, feelings about suicide bombing turned out to be not very different from what feelings about capital punishment have been in this country for most of the last two decades. I'm not drawing an analogy between judicial execution and terrorism. I'm merely pointing to a climate of opinion. In Gaza, a poll taken in June that Palestinian and Israeli analysts both respect found that 78 percent of the population approved of the attacks carried out in their name in Israel or on its frontiers -- more by a long shot than presently approve of peace negotiations. In Gaza, in other words, support for bombings staged in support of the Palestinian cause has become a cultural norm.

Only, since it's universally accepted that suicide is contrary to the teachings of the Prophet, they are hardly ever called ''suicide bombings.'' That term -- our term -- can be translated into Arabic but seldom is. Those we call suicide bombers are called shaheed, or martyrs, which is how bin Laden has urged the entire Muslim world to view 19 hijackers who extinguished more lives in an hour and a half on a golden American morning than all those killed over the years, on both sides, in two intifadas and nearly five dozen suicide bombings launched by Palestinian groups -- three times more, in fact.

It's one thing to study a poll that says 78 percent of the people in Gaza support suicide bombing, another to visit a family in which the eldest son and brother has recently achieved martyrdom by obliterating his earthly existence. You might expect to see some small hint of demurral, and occasionally, I'm pleased to report, you do. But I could detect nothing of the kind at the spanking new apartment of a solemnly prideful Bashir al-Masawabi, whose 23-year-old son, Ismail, had blown himself to bits along with two Israeli Army sergeants on June 22, several days before his scheduled graduation from a local university.

The family had been living in a refugee-camp hovel when Ismail became a secret candidate for martyrdom. Now the circumstances of their lives had completely changed. The apartment, spacious by Gaza standards, had plastic grapevines running along the top of tiled walls. Everything in it looked new -- the appliances, rugs and stuffed furniture, the gaudy wall clocks, even the bracelet and rings Ismail's mother was wearing -- all made possible by supporters of Hamas, the organization that recruited Ismail. His father, a glazier, had a haunted look as he told how the community had turned out to congratulate him on his son's advent in paradise. His wife, completely covered except for her hands and her resolutely cheerful countenance, betrayed not a hint of sadness as she spoke of her departed son. ''I was very happy when I heard,'' she said. ''To be a martyr, that's something. Very few people can do it. I prayed to thank God. In the Koran it's said that a martyr does not die. I know my son is close to me. It is our belief.''

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