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?
Last year, in seemingly random events, the violence struck Yusra's family twice—first her uncle and then her younger brother were injured by sniper bullets. So perhaps it was not surprising that last summer Yusra fell in love with Hani Akad, the most dangerous man in town, a handsome 24-year-old who, as everybody in Nablus (a 4,500-year-old city an hour north of Jerusalem) knows, was the top guy in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the armed factions.
To many local supporters, he was a freedom fighter who battled the occupying army. To Israel he was a terrorist and an explosives expert. According to her statement, Yusra approached him in the neighborhood and introduced herself with a most improbable line: "I want to become a suicide bomber." She told her interrogators, "Hani asked me, 'Do you have patriotic motives?' I told him, 'No, I'm just bored with life.'"
Perhaps on the miserable streets of Nablus, offering to enlist as a suicide bomber was a young girl's way of flirting. If so, apparently it worked. A romance blossomed, and the subject of suicide never came up again. The pair didn't have the luxury of holding hands in the park, though such behavior would not have been permitted by local mores. Instead they would visit her brother in the hospital together, her family says, and steal other opportunities to socialize. In her statement, Yusra said Hani proposed to her in the summer of 2004. Though she was just 17, she accepted.
What unfolded over the next few weeks is a desperate tale of crossed signals, betrayal, and disastrous consequences that ended last September, when Hani Akad was killed in a massive Israeli army operation.
Yusra's military prosecutor, Captain Raid Shannan, acknowledges that Yusra never handled explosives and, in the end, didn't intend to follow through on a suicide mission; but merely by consenting—first flirtatiously, later under coercion—she crossed the line. Shannan considers her an ongoing danger to the state of Israel. "I think she has the background to do this thing," he says. "Her family, or village, or neighborhood, or city—maybe they all encouraged her. It's not unusual that you have girls in that region who want to do these things." Yusra is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit willful manslaughter, for which she could receive up to seven years, says a West Bank-based lawyer for Defense for Children International, Khaled Quzmar. "We're seeing a number of cases like this—where initiating a conversation is enough to be arrested and accused. We have never had this before."
She is undoubtedly a fleeting footnote in the long history of Middle East conflict, and her story cannot settle for Palestinians and Israelis the profound debates over terrorism and freedom. But understanding the bad decisions made by one girl might suggest a way to stop others from taking the same path—in other words, might help save lives.
As this story went to press, we learned that Yusra received a 15-month sentence.