What Motivates Suicide Bombers?

by Daniel Pipes

What Motivates Suicide Bombers

Hours after the killing of fifteen Israelis in a Jerusalem restaurant on Aug. 9, the brother of the 23-year-old suicide bomber delightedly announced that "This is a unique operation for its quality and success.... Palestinians everywhere can now hold up their heads."

Likewise, after a 22-year-old suicide bomber two months earlier killed twenty-one Israelis at a Tel Aviv discotheque, his father announced, "I am very happy and proud of what my son did and, frankly, am a bit jealous.... I wish I had done it myself."

And so it has been with nearly all suicide operations-family members rejoicing at the "martyrdom" of their brothers and children. Some fathers even publicly announce a hope that their children will kill Israelis in suicide operations. Puzzled by this apparent denial of the primal human urge to protect one's young, President Bush has commented, "I just can't understand this." He is hardly alone.

Two main factors account for this bizarre behavior. The first concerns the Palestinian Authority drumming into impressionable young people the glory of suicidal death while killing Israelis. PA television harps constantly on this message. On the "Children's Club" (a "Sesame Street"-like children's program), a young boy sings, "When I wander into Jerusalem, I will become a suicide bomber." A repeatedly-shown television clip calls on children to "Drop your toys. Pick up rocks." In another, the words to a children's song go: "How pleasant is the smell of martyrs, how pleasant the smell of land, the land enriched by the blood, the blood pouring out of a fresh body."

Ikrima Sabri, the PA's ranking religious leader, has said, "The younger the martyr, the greater and the more I respect him," while praising mothers who "willingly sacrifice their offspring for the sake of freedom." PA schools indoctrinate students on the virtues and joys of martyrdom, then honor and celebrate suicide killers. Four camps this past summer trained 8-to-12-year-olds for suicide bombings.

Organizations like Hamas promise to look after the financial needs of the killers' families. In all, notes Meyrav Wurmser, a Hudson Institute specialist on the indoctrination of students, the PA has developed "a state-run ideology that pushes [children] to their death."

The second factor explains why this indoctrination works and why Palestinian families enthusiastically send their children to die. What pressure could overcome the human instinct to protect one's beloved? That pressure is not hard to locate, for it pervades Middle Eastern life. It is an unrelenting, compulsive preoccupation with family honor. The power of this obligation goes far beyond anything Westerners encounter.

The fixation on family honor takes two main forms. The negative one, called "ird" in Arabic, concerns the sexual purity of women and it accounts for the Middle Eastern custom of murdering female relatives for perceived offenses to the family. Such honor killings are intended to purify the family from its shame; thus do brothers kill sisters, cousins kill cousins, fathers kill daughters and even sons kill mothers.

These men do so not because they want to-almost nothing could be more horrifying in the context of the tight-knit Middle Eastern family-but because they feel obliged to. Allowing a dishonored woman to remain alive brings ridicule and disdain on the entire family. In such circumstances, mere love for a daughter or sister dwindles into insignificance; she must be killed.

Thus, after an Egyptian father strangled his unmarried but pregnant daughter, cut her corpse in eight parts, and threw those down the toilet, he explained his reasons: "Shame kept following me [before the murder] wherever I went. The village's people had no mercy on me. They were making jokes and mocking me. I couldn't bear it and decided to put an end to this."

The positive form of honor ("sharaf" in Arabic) involves efforts to enhance the family's status by taking steps to win it praise and renown; and nothing can win a family as much glory as its willing sacrifice of a family member for a noble cause. Thanks to PA propaganda, suicide bombing has become a highly honored act. Thus, the Tel Aviv bomber's father crowed about his son, "He has become a hero! Tell me, what more could a father ask?"

Combined, the monstrous social environment created by the Palestinian Authority and the families' preoccupation with social status goes far to explain why Palestinians glory in the destruction of their youth.

Baptist Press

Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, is author of numerous books on the troubled region. His Website is DanielPipes.org