A year ago, Yusra Abdu was a 17-year-old Palestinian girl in love with clothes, photography, and a charismatic young rebel named Hani Akad. Today, after a plot as full of twists and treachery as a Shakespearean tragedy, Hani is dead and Yusra is in jail, convicted of planning a suicide mission against Israel. David France reports on one of the youngest casualties of an unending conflict.
In the 1980s, when suicide bombings first made headlines, psychologists tended to label the perpetrators as mentally unstable religious fanatics. But today scholars agree that most are otherwise ordinary people whose ready passions and chronic disappointments make them easy recruits for larger political powers. "What people miss is the fact that religion is not the cause; it's the context," says Georgetown University professor of Islamic studies John L. Esposito, PhD, author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. Esposito offers another explanation—though not a justification—for what motivates bombers. "These are people who define their situation as hopeless. They feel that they have no way to respond against what they see as Israeli military aggression. They say, 'They have weapons on that side, and [we have] none on our side.' So they turn themselves into weapons."
Since 2000, 147 Palestinians—eight of them women—have undertaken suicide bombing missions in Israel, killing at least 500 and injuring more than 3,000, the vast majority of their victims civilians. And the number of female recruits is growing at an alarming pace. Of the estimated 67 women believed by Israeli security forces to have conspired to become bombers, most did so last year. Eleven of them were under 18.
What would make a girl take such a radical and grisly step?