Suicide Bombers: A Breakdown

Sajida Arishawy is in a Jordanian jail now, singing English pop tunes to herself as she waits in solitary confinement to see if her death sentence is carried out.  Her lawyer calls her "the bride of Al Qaeda," the woman who married another terrorist so they could travel together legally under Islamic law. Their honeymoon plans: blow up a Jordanian wedding party.

Those plans succeeded with devastating effect. Arishawy and her husband, both Iraqis, were among four bombers who came to Jordan to blow up three hotels in Amman in the Nov. 2005 attack that would take 57 lives. The Arishawy couple took part in the deadliest part of that attack—at the Days Inn, where he was to take out the groom's side and she the bride's side. Her bomb, however, failed to explode; she claimed later that both her main detonator, a button, and a back-up pull cord, failed to activate.

Suicide bombers don't fall into easy categories. Like most stereotypes, the one that they are usually impoverished, disaffected young men with few prospects is often, but not always, true. "If you're living in hell, why not go to paradise," says Saif al din Ali Ahmed, chief of security for the Kurdish regional government in Suleimaniya, explaining what might prompt Iraqis to take up arms.  But women like Arishawy are more than the exception that prove the rule. "They [insurgent leaders] are getting very well-off people with great potential to carry out attacks," says Hadi Ameri, head of the security committee in the Iraqi Parliament.

NEWSWEEK has interviewed the families of some who carried out murderous missions, or tried to. Some are mourning the loss of their loved ones, others are jubilant at what they see as a magnificent martyrdom.

Didar Khalid was one of the dimmer perpetrators. A would-be bomber wearing a suicide vest, he approached a group of policemen in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in 2004. Seeing him wearing an overcoat on a hot day, one of the officers pointed his gun at him and shouted, "Put up your hands", and he did. The cops quickly grabbed his arms before he could push the button. Khalid's arrest led authorities there to roll up the bomber's entire cell, nine members who included finance, explosives, indoctrination and surveillance experts.  NEWSWEEK photographed them in a Kurdish lockup near Suleimaniya, but was not allowed to identify them.

At a higher end of the intelligence scale was Ahmed Said Ahmed al-Ghamdi, 20, a medical student in the Sudan, whose father was reportedly a Saudi diplomat. Al-Ghamdi was identified by the international Arabic al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper as the suicide bomber who blew himself up in the middle of the mess hall at a U.S. military base in Mosul, killing 22, most of them U.S. servicemen — the single biggest loss of American life on a military base. Al-Ghamdi carried out his Dec., 21, 2004, attack in an explosives-laden vest and carrying a bag full of shrapnel in the form of ball bearings. He had been recruited by Ansar al-Sunna, an extremist group which claimed responsibility for the attack on Web postings showing a video of both the bomber and the explosion's aftermath.  Three other members of the large al-Ghamdi tribe in Saudi Arabia were among the suicide hijackers recruited to carry out the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Ahmed Rawi, 30, was an Iraqi teacher in Fallujah and a father of two. He was also an explosives expert as well who was active in an insurgent group known as the Mujahidin Army.  After two of his brothers were killed in fighting, he decided to join them in paradise.  "His work was most appreciated by our family," says his older brother Abdullah, 45 (not his real name). "My mother was always praying for him." About a week before Abdullah last saw his brother, he remembers a conversation where Ahmed said he was ready to carry out a suicide attack. Ahmed seems to have chosen the date carefully; he killed himself on April 8, 2005,—the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. He rammed a Toyota sedan rigged with explosives into a passing American convoy near Fallujah. "As a family, we are very proud of Ahmed," says Abdullah. But by their yardstick, Ahmed may have sold his life cheaply; only one death, that of a Marine, was reported in Fallujah that day.

Rawi is one of many bombers who suffered a traumatic loss before undertaking a mission.  Bilal Ahmed, 22, was considered a typical Iraqi college student and a football fanatic. He played on a local team and plastered posters of his favorite player Ronaldinho across his room. Bilal's younger brother Musab, an 18-year old high school student, says the trouble started on a cold night last November. The distant sound of crackling gunfire got closer and closer to their home in Hurriya until a large number of armed militiamen were marching through Bilal's street. "You're not welcome in this city anymore. It's your last night here," one of the gunmen shouted. "Come out of your houses, you infidel Sunnis!" A firefight broke out between the gunmen and several neighborhood residents. Bilal's father grabbed an AK-47 and ran to the roof, despite screaming protests from his mother and sisters. There was a heavy exchange of gunfire as Bilal's father shot at the gunmen, who the family thought were members of the Shiite Mahdi Army, from the roof of the house. Within minutes, Bilal's father was shot in the shoulder. A number of gunmen broke into the house and shot him in the head. They threw the body down into the yard. "Bilal swore he would take revenge on the Mahdi Army that night," says Musab. "This became his only goal in life."

After his father's death, Bilal abandoned his studies and the football matches. He became more introverted and began reading the Qur'an and listening to religious lectures on tapes. He frequently went out to pray at the local mosque and sometimes disappeared for a number of days without contacting his family. Once, his brother Musab recalls, Bilal asked the local imam about suicide bombing and the imam told him there are other ways to confront the enemy. In an interview, the imam at Bilal's local mosque in Adel, Sheikh Ahmed, reiterated his opposition to suicide bombing. But he didn't condemn fighting against Americans. "Fighting the occupiers is a religious and national duty," Sheikh Ahmed said. "History has taught us that occupiers can never be builders. They came for their own interests and to destroy our great Islamic values."

The last time Musab saw Bilal was in late February this year. "He asked me to be strong and to take care of our sisters and mother," says Musab. "It was just like he was making his will." He didn't hear anything more from Bilal until he received a strange text message on March 1. "Yesterday, Bilal was blessed with the martyrdom that will lead him to paradise. He carried out a heroic act by exploding his car at a police station in Baghdad, killing a group of traitorous police." Musab was stunned. "It was a big shock to me and my mother and all of the family," Musab says. "It was even worse than my father's death." One week later, Musab received a series of phone calls from strangers who claimed to be Bilal's friends. Their accents sounded Iraqi. They offered money to help with Bilal's funeral and asked to meet Musab in person to give him the cash. "I got the impression that these guys misled my brother," Musab says. "I felt the money was just a price for my brother's life, a thing that I would never accept."

Bilal too sold his life cheaply.  His attack on a police station—most Iraqi police are Shia—succeeded only in killing two innocent bystanders and no cops.

Attitudes were strikingly different in the family of an Iraqi woman suicide bomber, Muna (her family requested that their names be changed as a condition of speaking frankly), a 23-year-old medical student. Muna became obsessed with the case of American soldiers charged with raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl in Mahmoudiya, family members say. She began cursing Americans, and praying intensely; she sought out videos of insurgent operations, and whenever she heard of Americans being killed, she passed out candy to neighbors. One day she asked her parents for approval to carry out a "martyrdom operation."  Her father simply walked out of the room; her mother consented. "I wish I would have seen her wedding, but she chose her way and we did not object," says her mother, Fatima. "We believe Allah has taken her to paradise." Her attack apparently killed one U.S. soldier and three Iraqi civilians in Fallujah on Nov. 25, 2006.

For Raed al Bena, 30, a Jordanian who blew himself up somewhere in Iraq, the grudge was very personal—and very petty. Raed hardly would have aroused any profiler's suspicions. After working for the United Nations in Jordan, he obtained a student visa to the United States and went to Los Angeles; there he got a job at the Los Angeles International (LAX) airport. Although his visa did not allow him to work, he nevertheless passed security checks, his family says.  After a brief visit to Jordan, he returned to the U.S. and an immigration officer in Chicago stopped him. When she realized he had been working instead of studying, she expelled him on the spot. "He was distraught when he came back," says his father, Mansour al Bena. "He said, 'This woman destroyed my future'."  For a few months he lay around at home, going out at night and frittering away his savings, living large.  Then he made some new friends and started going with them to pray daily. "When you see your son going every day to mosque, you feel relieved," Mansour said, not realizing he had fallen in with a group of Salafis from Salt, a town in Jordan famous for Islamic extremism.  One day in January 2005 Raed told his parents he was going to Saudi Arabia to work. On March 1, Mansour's other son got a mysterious call from an unknown number: "We are your brothers from Iraq, from Mosul. We want to inform you of the martyrdom of Raed." The terrorists confirmed the message by saying that Raed wanted them to pass along his apology to a friend for not repaying $100 that he owed. When word got out, several sheikhs showed up at the family's home during the mourning ceremonies to express their happiness.  Mansour says he rejected them, though Jordanian press reports described the family as celebrating joyfully.  Listening to all this, Raed's mother, Nareman, flared up. "Why do you say 'suicide bomb'? It's 'martyrdom'. One who wants to commit suicide will kill himself in the house. As long as there's invasion and occupation, this will happen." It's unclear where Raed died; those who called said he had been martyred in Mosul, but no successful suicide operations were reported there during that period. Some officials think he was the suicide bomber who killed 123 civilians in Hilla around that time.

Then there's the jailed Sarida Arishawy. Her lawyer, Hussein al Masna says she's a woman with "dead eyes" who tried during the trial to depict herself as mentally disturbed, but neither he nor the court believed her. What they did believe was that all three of her brothers had been killed fighting in Iraq, and she herself was unmarried at 36. "She was an ugly woman, for an ugly deed," al Masna says. "Al Qaeda found her a husband. There's an Arabic saying: you can't be forced to drink water." As for her own marriage, says al Masna: it was never consummated.