Islam: Religion of Peace or Terror?

Devotion, desire drive youths to 'martyrdom'

By Jack Kelley, USA TODAY

ZARQA, Jordan — The Hotaris are preparing for a party to celebrate the killing of 21 Israelis this month by their son, a suicide bomber. Neighbors hang pictures on their trees of Saeed Hotari holding seven sticks of dynamite. They spray-paint graffiti reading "21 and counting" on their stone walls. And they arrange flowers in the shapes of a heart and a bomb to display on their front doors. "I am very happy and proud of what my son did and, frankly, am a bit jealous," says Hassan Hotari, 54, father of the young man who carried out the attack June 1 outside a disco in Tel Aviv. It was Israel's worst suicide bombing in nearly four years. "I wish I had done (the bombing). My son has fulfilled the Prophet's (Mohammed's) wishes. He has become a hero! Tell me, what more could a father ask?"

In more than a dozen interviews with former and current members of the militant group Hamas and with Israeli security officials who track them, USA TODAY was given a rare look into the secretive and terrifying world of suicide bombers and the culture that creates them.

Lured by promises of financial stability for their families, eternal martyrdom and unlimited sex in the afterlife, dozens of militant Palestinians like Hotari aspire to blow themselves up, Israeli and Palestinian officials say. Their goal: to kill or injure as many Jews as possible in the hope that Israel will withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. Israel captured the land in 1967.

The bombings, which have spread fear and despair among Israelis, have proved to be the deadliest weapon in the Palestinian arsenal during the current intifada, or uprising. The intifada has claimed more than 600 lives, most of them Palestinian, since September.

"Even if we can't reach the goal of an end to occupation, we are inflicting losses on the enemy," says Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a spokesman for Hamas. The group has claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings. "Israelis will have no stability and no security until the occupation ends. Suicide
bombers are Israel's future."

Since 1993, nearly 190 people have been killed and thousands injured in 28 suicide bombings in Israel. Three of those bombings have occurred since March, including the Tel Aviv disco attack. A fragile Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire has held for nearly a month, but Hamas officials warn of two more bombings in the "very near future."

"When I walk outside, young (Palestinian) children come up to me and say, 'Conduct another bombing to make us happy, sheik,' " says Sheik Hasan Yosef, 45, the senior Hamas leader in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "I cannot disappoint them. They won't have to wait long."

Visions of paradise

At any time, Israeli officials believe, Hamas has from five to 20 men, ages 18 to 23, awaiting orders to carry out suicide attacks. The group also claims to have "tens of thousands" of youths ready to follow in their footsteps. "We like to grow them," Yosef says. "From kindergarten through college."

In Hamas-run kindergartens, signs on the walls read: "The children of the kindergarten are the shaheeds (holy martyrs) of tomorrow." The classroom signs at Al-Najah University in the West Bank and at Gaza's Islamic University say, "Israel has nuclear bombs, we have human bombs."

At an Islamic school in Gaza City run by Hamas, 11-year-old Palestinian student Ahmed's small frame and boyish smile are deceiving. They mask a determination to kill at any cost. "I will make my body a bomb that will blast the flesh of Zionists, the sons of pigs and monkeys," Ahmed says. "I will tear their bodies into little pieces and cause them more pain than they will ever know."

"Allahu Akbar," his classmates shout in response: "God is great." 

"May the virgins give you pleasure," his teacher yells, referring to one of the rewards awaiting martyrs in paradise. Even the principal smiles and nods his approval.

"You don't start educating a shaheed at age 22," says Roni Shaked, a terrorism expert and former officer in Israel's Shin Bet secret service. "You start at kindergarten so by the time he's 22, he's  looking for an opportunity to sacrifice his life."

Some suicide bombers, like Hotari, come to their deadly missions by a slightly different route. They turn themselves into human bombs because they are frustrated by the economic and political duress Palestinians experience in Jordan and throughout the region.

Hamas says its recruiters, most of whom Israeli officials describe as charismatic religious leaders, look for two qualities in a potential bomber: an intense interest in Islam and a clean criminal record so as not to raise the suspicions of Israel's secret service.

Saeed Hotari, who was 22, fit both of those criteria. He was "a devout Muslim who used to pray, observed fasting and performed all his religious obligations to the letter and spirit," his father says. One of nine children, he left Zarqa, outside the Jordanian capital of Amman, for the West Bank city of Qalqilya in 1999 to seek a better life.

In Qalqilya, he and two other Palestinian youths went to a mosque where Sheik Jamel Tawil, a Hamas leader, persuaded them to attend a Hamas-run class on Islamic study. All would eventually be suicide bombers and would carry out their attacks within days of each other.

At the Hamas-run classes, recruits are reminded of Israel's "illegal occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza, its "barbaric treatment" of Palestinians and the Islamic prophet Mohammed's call for Muslims to wage war against infidels. "Kill the idolaters wherever you find them," Yosef says.

(Israeli officials say they are targeting militant leaders like Yosef for arrest or assassination).

After several weeks of schooling, the youths often volunteer to be suicide bombers, Yosef says. "If someone confiscated your land, demolished your home, built settlements to prevent you from coming back, killed your children and blocked you from going to work, wouldn't you want to fight for your country?" Yosef asks.

In return for "martyrdom," Hamas tells the youths that their families will be financially compensated, their pictures will be posted in schools and mosques, and they will earn a special place in heaven.

They also are promised something more risqué: unlimited sex with 72 virgins in heaven. The Koran, the sacred book of Islam, describes the women as "beautiful like rubies, with complexions like diamonds and pearls." In one of the passages of the Koran, it is said the martyrs and virgins shall "delight themselves, lying on green cushions and beautiful carpets." Since the time of Mohammed, martyrs have always been considered those willing to die defending Islam.

Holy rewards for suffering

For some young Muslims, that offer is too much to turn down. "I know my life is poor compared to Europe or America, but I have something awaiting me that makes all my suffering worthwhile," says Bassam Khalifi, 16, a Hamas youth leader in Gaza's Bureij refugee camp. "Most boys can't
stop thinking about the virgins."

But in the end, says Shaked, the Israeli terrorism expert, most of the bombers don't sign up for martyrdom for the promise of unlimited sex. "They join because of their absolute devotion to God and their desire to die with Jewish blood on their hands," he says. "It's not a heroic thing, it's a holy

A would-be bomber is selected for his mission only days, sometimes hours, before it is to occur, Israeli officials say. As part of the preparation, the recruit is taken to a cemetery, where he is told to prepare for death by lying between gravesites for hours. He wears a white, hooded shroud normally used to cover bodies for burial, a former Hamas member says.

The recruit is then taken to a safe house. A video is made in which he states his consent to become a suicide bomber and his devotion to Islam. It will be played for the public after his death. A still photograph is taken that will be reproduced and displayed through the West Bank and Gaza to honor him after death.

Because secrecy is paramount, Hamas leaders will not allow the recruit to say goodbye to his family or tell them his plans.

Meanwhile, separate Hamas groups already have selected the target, constructed the bomb that will be attached to the recruit's belt and started preparations to get him to the site, Israeli officials say.

Once at the target site, the recruit is told to remain calm, blend in as much as possible and, when surrounded by Israelis, press a switch to explode the bomb, Hamas members say. Just as Hotari's friend Mahmoud Marmash did.

On May 18, Israeli security guard Lior Kamisa saw Marmash, 21, standing in line with dozens of Israelis outside a shopping mall in the Israeli seaside city of Netanya.

"We locked eyes," Kamisa recalls. "His eyes were frozen. They showed no emotion." Realizing that Marmash looked out of place among the Israelis and was wearing an oversized blue sport jacket, Kamisa radioed for help.

It was too late. Marmash slowly unbuttoned his jacket, slipped his hand inside and pressed a switch that ignited the dynamite. The explosion killed five Israelis. Kamisa looked for Marmash but couldn't find him. "He was gone. He had turned to dust."

On June 1, it was Hotari's turn. Israeli officials, quoting eyewitnesses, say two Hamas operatives drove him to the Dolphin Disco in Tel Aviv, a popular club often packed with Russian immigrant teenagers. They said Hotari slipped unnoticed into line and positioned himself among several girls, including a 14-year-old who had survived Marmash's attack in Netanya.

Then, while flirting with one of the girls, Hotari triggered the explosives. The blast was so intense that it tore limbs from the victims' bodies, scattered their flesh up to six blocks away and vaporized Hotari and the girl next to him.

It killed 21 people, in addition to Hotari, and injured nearly 100.

Now, nearly 30 days later, his parents are preparing to mark the anniversary of his death, as devout Muslims often do.

"My prayer is that Saeed's brothers, friends and fellow Palestinians will sacrifice their lives, too," Hotari's father says. "There is no better way to show God you love him."






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