Anat Berko has spent the past fifteen years in jails interviewing terrorists, giving her peerless authority on this subject among academic researchers; and no one has shown so great an ability as she to get interviewees to express themselves. The

Anat Berko has spent the past fifteen years in jails interviewing terrorists, giving her peerless authority on this subject among academic researchers; and no one has shown so great an ability as she to get interviewees to express themselves. The results, published in a series of studies on personalities, circumstances, and motives, has opened a hitherto mysterious topic to public scrutiny.

After focusing on male prisoners, Dr. Berko in this book turns her attention to women and children. The differences are profound, as one might expect, especially in Muslim society, where women are particularly disadvantaged. The strictures on sex that dominate a woman's life have deep implications for women's engagement in terrorism: Ch. 7 shows that women dream of "that thing" (i.e., sex) ceaselessly in paradise. Chs. 8 and 15 establish the pattern of women going on terrorist missions after having had sexual relations with their dispatchers. Ch. 11 demonstrates the remarkable fact that "a significant number [of Palestinian women] preferred an Israeli jail to their own homes" because of maltreatment by relatives; indeed, some of them pretend to attack Israelis so as to go to jail and leave their miserable home lives. Ch. 14 points to the recurring opportunity for women to escape sexual dishonor through violence.

Anat Berko, author of "The Smarter Bomb."

Dr. Berko, who works at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, provocatively asks, "Is a woman who carried out a suicide bombing attack a smart bomb or a stupid bomb?" In other words, do these women know what they are doing and are they effective? In reply to the first question, she discerns a wide range of terrorists, from well-educated and hyper-political sophisticates to illiterate bumpkins. As for their efficacy, with the exception of those sophisticates, generally women do a poor job, killing themselves without doing serious damage to Israelis.

The book contains a wealth of information, much of it presented as raw data in the form of reports on conversations. Others can benefit from Dr. Berko's valuable work to draw their own conclusions. Some of the major themes that emerge from the pages ahead include:

  • The contrast between the utility of women in terrorism (due to their raising fewer suspicions than men) and their poor performance (due to their being less ideological).
  • The tension between admiration for a woman who foregoes her life and the suspicion that her self-sacrifice involved some form of sexual guilt. As a Palestinian journalist put it, when a woman carries out a terrorist attack, others joke that "She blew up masturbating. … She didn't get enough sex. … She wasn't satisfied."
  • In some cases, desperate circumstances impel women to desperate actions in the hope of ending their wretched existences. As one accomplice to a suicide bombing put it, "Those girls don't think they will go to jail, they think they will die. They think death is better than living the way they do."
  • In other cases, female prisoners purposefully seek out jail as a safe haven to escape forced marriages, accusations of improper behavior, or domestic violence. To reach jail, they stab soldiers, wave knives in the air, or throw acid toward an Israeli soldier.
  • Terrorists see Israelis as less than human but after spending time in Israeli jails, where prisoners (as one put it) "give respect and are respected," they often develop improved attitudes: "the Jews take better care of me than us [Arabs]."
  • To a surprising extent, female terrorists engage in violence to associate closely with men to whom they are physically attracted. As a defense lawyer put it, "I never met a single woman who was motivated by ideology … every woman involved in terrorism is a romantic."
  • For these reasons, Dr. Berko finds that "a significant number" of female prisoners prefer remaining in an Israeli jail to returning to their own homes. As one put it, "I would rather be in jail, they help me here."
  • Prisoners generally come from broken families or families lacking a strong, protective male.
  • The whole notion of women waging war and going to prison upsets Palestinian concepts of order. In the illustrative words of the deputy head of Hamas, "If a woman is in jail for a long time she will become a man" (meaning, they get wrong-headed ideas of independence).
  • Accordingly, Palestinians keep their distance from female security prisoners: "She's a heroine, but I would never let my son or brother marry a woman like that."

A family member holds up a picture celebrating Fatma An-Najar, 57, the oldest female Palestinian suicide bomber.

In passing, Dr. Berko also reveals much about the daily circumstances of female security prisoners in Israeli jails. Perhaps most surprising is how optimistic many of them are about leaving jail as part of exchanges with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. It turns out that this is not just chivalry on the Government of Israel's part but rather a recognition that female terrorists are far less likely to re-engage in terrorism than male ones.

Finally, Dr. Berko's study hints at counterterrorism tactics. For example, the deep sensitivity about the naked female body being viewed, even in death, even blown up into many parts ("If a woman blows herself up all her flesh will be seen, and that leads to a very difficult situation"), suggests that the Israeli and other authorities can deter female Muslim suicide bombers by distributing pictures of their naked remains, and especially their sexual parts. (The same tactic, to a lesser degree, might also be useful vis-à-vis male Muslim terrorists)

Anat Berko's sensitive treatment of a repugnant topic brings the mentality and social universe of Israel's female enemies to light. The insights she gleans profit all engaged in counterterrorism concerning Muslim women, regardless of those women's location or cause.

Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.


Mar. 18, 2013 update: The Palestinians news service Ma'an provides confirmation of one of Berko's main points, the social bias against released female terrorists, in an article, "Gaza women face problems after leaving Israeli jails." It starts with a generalization:

Despite the warm reception and celebrations female prisoners receive in Gaza after being released from Israeli jails, many face social and familial difficulties upon returning to normal life. In many cases, ex-female prisoners either get divorced or remain single into old age if unmarried.

And then provides five examples:

Wafaa al-Bis, an ex-prisoner from Gaza, was detained in 2005 and sentenced to 12 years for allegedly planning an operation against Israel. She was released after seven years and told Ma'an she suffers from marginalization, exclusion and degrading treatment. "Our society views freed female prisoners as women who were raped. My question is whether they think female prisoners were raped willingly or raped while their hands were cuffed!" she told Ma'an. Wafaa has third degree burns from a past accident and complains that it is hard for her to get medical treatment due to her status as an ex-prisoner. "I can't obtain the very basic rights of getting appropriate treatment as a freed prisoner," she said. She has contacted several Palestinian officials, but to no avail.

When Fatima al-Ziq began taking part in resistance activities she was married and had eight children. She was arrested while pregnant, and gave birth in jail. Upon her release, she said all doors were closed on her and she had to beg for her rights. "We do not seek anybody's gratitude and praise even though we spent the prime of our youth in jail defending our homeland. However, we hope doors will not be shut to us as strugglers who fought on the front-lines."

Zahiyya Nofal was imprisoned for three years on charges of possessing weapons and helping resistance fighters. She was arrested when she was only 16, and upon being released her parents arranged for her to marry a Bedouin man. Despite giving birth to two children, when her husband learned that she had been in jail he began to assault her on a daily basis and called her a "terrorist." He filed for divorce and denied her access to her children, she said.

Given the attitude by many towards ex-female prisoners, Ruab Rajoubi decided to abstain from marriage. She was jailed for three years on charges of assisting fighters in 1996. She said many families are "embarrassed" that their female relatives were in jail.

Dala Abu Qamar agrees that life is difficult after leaving jail. She agreed to be a second wife after she was freed in 1982. She was affiliated to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Nobody will propose to a freed prisoner, due to the degrading view. I paid a heavy toll for the sacrifices I made toward my homeland. I was divorced after I gave birth to two children."

Comment: When politics and sex clash, sex wins.