Israeli criminologist Anat Berko, a slightly built mother of three who favors putting her knee-length hair into a ponytail, readily compares herself to the fictional character Clarice Starling, the FBI agent who memorably came face to face with sociopathic evil in the form of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
(Jodie Foster won an Oscar for portraying Starling in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs.)
In 1996, Berko, as part of her 15-year effort to fully understand the terrorist mindset, spent the better part of six hours in an Israeli prison with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the co-founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, who many considered the mastermind behind a number of the group's fatal attacks on Israelis. Yassin — who was released in 1997, but later killed by Israeli forces in 2004 — was cordial and cooperative, even as he explained a philosophy that justified murder, said Berko.
Berko, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, recently delivered public lectures at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College; both programs were co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Without Physical Barriers
Over the course of 15 years, the retired lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Force has interviewed hundreds of captured terrorists, including unsuccessful suicide bombers, as well as dispatchers; these meetings have almost always been done without any physical barriers separating her from the men or — increasingly in recent years — the women who'd agreed to end their lives, while taking with them many others.
Berko, in an interview after her Penn talk, acknowledged that this kind of research comes with inherent risks. She needed permission from numerous authorities in order to gain access.
"It's not so difficult for them to kill me if they want. They have 46 or 50 life sentences, and their arms and legs were free," reported Berko, a visiting professor at George Washington University and author of the recently translated book The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers. "But I really want to look into their eyes in a very open way, to be able to infiltrate inside their minds and inside their hearts, and really understand what is going on there.
"I have to put aside all my career in the army, my feelings for victims of terrorism," she added. "I have to be able to isolate myself from emotion."
'There Is a Rationale'
During her Penn talk, Berko emphasized some striking differences between dispatchers and suicide bombers. Dispatchers tend to be charismatic leaders who manipulate marginal men and women — loners who don't fit in — into doing the unthinkable.
"Without the chief perpetrators, nothing would happen," Berko said in her talk. "They are not crazy, but they have analyzed the costs and benefits. It may not be our rationale, but there is a rationale."
Armed with approval and encouragement from religious authorities, and a culture that places a high value on martyrdom, while also dehumanizing the Israelis, dispatchers rarely display the slightest hint of remorse, according to Berko.
She often found huge contradictions in their lives, since many appeared to be devoted husbands and fathers who, when pressed, said they would never send their own children to become martyrs.
The actual bombers, especially the men among them, tend to be loners or troubled youths who are lacking both self-esteem and a strong sexual identity, and seek to detonate themselves as a way to prove their own manhood, according Berko. Many are not particularly religious.
Ironically, while most bombers seem to be in some way striking out at the West in the name of radical Islam, many envision paradise as a place not all that different from the West, where restrictions on sex and alcohol have been tossed aside.
" 'All that is forbidden in this world is permitted in paradise,' " Berko recounted hearing repeatedly from captured bombers.
The advent of female suicide bombers is a recent development; the first didn't strike in Israel until 2002.
It's become a far more common occurrence in Iraq, where more than 30 women have carried out suicide bombings.
The use of women, while rarely having been religiously sanctioned or given full social acceptance, has nonetheless grown as a phenomenon because females make more effective weapons, explained Berko. For instance, she argued, how can a male Israeli soldier strip-search a woman at a checkpoint to see if a bomb is strapped to her?
Palestinian women, she explained , are repressed in a myriad of ways; many cannot leave home without the permission of a male relative.
Some girls, said Berko, become involved with terrorist groups simply as a way to leave the house and interact with men.
Some Have No Choice
Many others feel they have no choice but to become martyrs: Even a false rumor that they have violated societal norms could damage an entire extended family's reputation for years.
The dispatchers search for any means they can to find more willing volunteers, but the more counterterrorists learn about the attributes and behaviors of bombers, the better chance they will have at foiling future perpetrators.
Still, the other side is relentless.
"This machine must go on," insisted Berko. "The dispatchers must recruit more and more people."