Anat Berko’s “The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers” is one of the most revealing, compelling and insightful books written about Palestinian suicide bombers and the men who dispatch them on their missions. What distinguishes this book is the author’s unique access to Palestinian prisoners who “failed” to carry out their suicide bombings or were arrested for organizing terrorist operations. This has enabled her to “open a window” into the inner world of these men and women.
Mrs. Berko, an Israeli, holds a doctorate in criminology and served as a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army. She’s currently a research fellow at the International Institute for Counterterrorism (ICT) in Herzliya. She grew up in a family that moved to Israel from Iraq in 1949, which exposed her to Arabic and Arab culture. Her husband, Reuven (who’s mentioned in the book), was a colonel in the Israeli National Police, serving as adviser on Arab affairs to Jerusalem’s police commissioner. (For the sake of full disclosure, I know both of them.)
To interview the Palestinian prisoners, Mrs. Berko had to overcome the “pain and anger” she felt toward individuals who were committed to killing Israelis, in order to encourage them to reveal their life stories, including details about their families and romantic relationships (relations before marriage are usually discouraged in Palestinian society). Mrs. Berko was so empathetic that over time, some of the female prisoners came to regard her as a friend and looked forward to her visits.
What did Mrs. Berko find? Becoming a shaheed (male martyr) or shaheeda (female martyr) as a way to enter paradise is a “concrete reality” in Palestinian society. The shaheeds truly believe that after their “earthly” death they will continue to live in paradise, where 72 virgins will await them. It is not quite clear, however, if the shaheeda is expected to serve as one of those 72 virgins, although, as for her male counterparts, all sins are expected to be forgiven.
While concrete grievances against Israel and its occupation policy — primarily in the West Bank — drive most Palestinian suicide bombers to attack Israelis, the cult of death through martyrdom is reinforced daily through indoctrination and hate propaganda in many Palestinian mosques, schools, media and popular music.
A majority of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israel have been thwarted (estimates range at between 75 and 90 percent), so Israeli prisons house hundreds of such “failed” bombers. It is therefore quite a shock when a suicide bombing operation fails and the bomber finds himself or herself in prison, not in “paradise.” The book’s interviewees make many references to how they have learned to accept their new reality, which humanizes their predicament.
There are two types of terrorist operatives: The dispatchers and the suicide bombers. The dispatchers are important figures in the system that produces suicide bombing attacks. Some are involved in recruitment as well. They have no compunction about sending others to certain death. According to Mrs. Berko, they often seek a “sad guy… social nonentities [lacking] status but who might get recognition by dying.” However, the dispatchers — and the Palestinian elite — rarely send members of their own families on such missions.
Certain social mechanisms are used to ensure that the shaheed candidate will not back out at the last moment. Another man or woman will stay with the candidate to reinforce his desire to kill himself, and to prevent him from changing his mind.
While most suicide bombers blow themselves up voluntarily, Mrs. Berko cites instances where some were coerced into becoming shaheedas because they posed “problems to the family honor.” Rather than having them killed or bring shame to their families (often, over romance), they are given the option of martyrdom as an “honorable” way out. As Mrs. Berko explains, “After their death no one dares to speak of the real reason the shaheed or shaheeda blow themselves up.”
How can suicide bombings be stopped? The key, Mrs. Berko believes, rests with Muslim religious leaders, who “have the moral responsibility to forcefully condemn suicide bombing attacks and to issue unequivocal fatwas against them.” They must emphatically state that those who carry out such attacks “not only do not automatically go to paradise, but that they automatically go to hell.”
The book contains a wealth of information about Palestinian society, such as the impact of polygamous families and arranged marriages on the sons and daughters who decide to become suicide martyrs.
“The Path to Paradise” is essential reading for understanding Palestinian suicide terrorism and the measures required to resolve it.
Joshua Sinai is a program manager for counterterrorism studies at the Analysis Corp.