Recruited to die: An Arab's story

Bomber: A disillusioned teen attracted by the promise of paradise agrees to carry out a suicide attack.

February 20, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PETAH TIKVA, Israel - He is Palestinian, his name is Shadi Muhammad Bahlul, and Israelis can consider themselves lucky that he failed at becoming famous.

Until a few days ago, the 18-year-old lived in Nablus, in the West Bank, where he had no job and no prospects. His parents had divorced. He prayed at the mosque but professed to be confused by the teachings. He spent much of his time with a man whom Bahlul and Israeli police describe as a local recruiter for the militant group Islamic Jihad.

Three times, Bahlul says, he refused the request by Salah Buhari that he become a suicide bomber. The fourth time, Bahlul accepted.

On Feb. 6, Bahlul and others circumvented Israeli roadblocks and crossed into Israel. Strapped to Bahlul's waist was a belt with nine sticks of homemade dynamite stuffed into pockets. A wire ran beneath his baggy T-shirt to a detonator button in his hand.

Bahlul got as far as an Arab village just inside Israel. Tipped off about an attack, police had blocked the roads. Bahlul threw the belt into a trash can in a mosque.

As he and his accomplices drove back to Nablus, police arrested them.

Last week, Bahlul, his legs shackled at a police station in this Tel Aviv suburb, recounted his experiences. He has confessed to the attempted suicide bombing but has not yet been formally charged, a process that could take months.

The person the Islamic Jihad recruiter had hired to serve as Bahlul's guide, Tari Rashid Basalat, 22, was interviewed separately.

Appearing relaxed, Bahlul told of avoiding Israeli army patrols with Basalat on the winding roads of the West Bank, of stopping along the way to eat falafel sandwiches and of buying dark sunglasses in the hope of better blending in with Israelis.

Leaning back in his chair, Bahlul complained that Buhari, his recruiter, "didn't take into account that I'm young, that I'm at the beginning of my life. He didn't take into account that my parents are divorced and that I have sisters to take care of. I need to work.

"I told him about all that. He chose me because I'm young, poor. He used my age to convince me."

Bahlul remained ambivalent about the people he might have killed. More than 90 Palestinian suicide bombers have attacked Israelis in the past 28 months, killing more than 300 people.

"The Jews come to Nablus and Ramallah and are killing Palestinians," he said.

His 12-year-old cousin, he said, was shot and killed by Israeli troops in September while helping a woman cross a street during a curfew.

"What was their fault?" he asked.

Bahlul in many ways fits the mold of a suicide bomber: He's young, easily manipulated and estranged from his family in a society where family ties are paramount.

For some Palestinians, the bombers are heroes. Their pictures adorn posters in almost every city and village, and their parents invariably tell reporters that they are proud of their children's sacrifice. But the attacks have been criticized worldwide, and have undermined what moderate Palestinians see as their legitimate struggle against Israeli occupation.

Four reporters were allowed to interview Bahlul and his guide in the presence of an interrogator for the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency; the interrogator did not identify himself by name.

Shin Bet operatives conduct the questioning of bombing suspects and have considerable influence over how the defendants are viewed by the courts. As a condition of the interview, reporters were not allowed to ask about interrogation techniques.

Israeli police said they allowed the interviews in the hope of learning details that the suspects might not have divulged to authorities. It also was a way for Israeli officials to counter Palestinian statements describing bombers as martyrs sacrificing themselves in the face of Israeli aggression.

Reporters asked questions in English, and an Israeli official translated them into Hebrew. The interrogator then queried the suspects in Arabic and reversed the process for the answers. The interviews were taped, and The Sun later had the original Arabic translated into English.

There were some discrepancies. Asked why he confessed to the Israeli police, Bahlul said: "If I won't say, I will be eating [expletive]." But government officials had translated his remarks differently, quoting him as saying only that his situation would be "more complicated" if he had remained silent.

It was clear, though, that Islamic Jihad had preyed on Bahlul's vulnerabilities. Bahlul was attracted by the promise of eternal life in paradise. Basalat, his guide, had borrowed money from the Islamic Jihad recruiter for a wedding dowry, and guiding the bomber to Israel repaid part of the debt.

The recruiter, too, had a financial interest. Basalat said that when he called to warn that there were too many police, the recruiter told him that the bombing had to be carried out that day or he would lose a payment needed to buy food for a holiday feast.

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