Blown to pieces in the name of Allah

At his funeral, Anwar Aziz's young widow smiled and said: `My happiest time was the day of his martyrdom'
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ON THE day of his immolation, 13 December 1993, Anwar Aziz was unique. Unlike most of the Middle East's suicide bombers, he left a wife, pregnant with their third child, when he blew himself up in a stolen car next to an Israeli army position in Gaza. A few Israelis were wounded. Aziz's shrivelled, carbonised corpse was left on the road for hours after the bombing; another Islamic Jihad "martyr".

Most of his colleagues-in- suicide had never wed, preferring death to be the consummation of their desires. Bilal Fahas, among the first of Lebanon's Islamic militants to kill himself, appeared on posters across Beirut after he had rammed his explosives-packed Mercedes into an Israeli patrol in the south of the country. Beneath his portrait - a thin-faced youth with a pencil moustache amid the streams and fountains of a Victorian-style paradise - ran the legend: "Bridegroom of the South."

Marrying death. Can there be a more terrifying conception - love and self-destruction combined to tear the living limb from limb, the smile of the bridegroom turned into the rictus of death?

The only US marine to see the Lebanese suicide bomber who atomised his barracks and killed 241 of his comrades in 1983 said later: "All I can remember was that the guy was smiling." In the posters of Hizbollah's suicide bombers, many of the "martyrs" are, indeed, faintly smiling. On the day of Anwar Aziz's funeral in Gaza - what there was left of him to bury - we asked his young widow about the good times they must have had together. She replied at once, just the feeblest of smiles playing over her face: "My happiest day was the day of his martyrdom."

No wonder Shimon Peres admitted last week that Israel had not yet found an answer to the suicide bomber. Of course it had not. The mujahedin of Lebanon drove the Israelis out of most of their country in just two years, smashing their bomb-laden cars intobarracks, convoys and artillery positions until one night, under fire at Bidias, an Israeli infantry unit cracked; its soldiers ran away, just as they did last autumn when the Hizbollah stormed the Israeli gun batteries at Dibshe in southern Lebanon. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, announced after the Natanya bombings last Sunday that the suicide bombers of Islamic Jihad would be "eradicated". But he promised, and failed, to do the same to the Hizbollah car bombers of southern Lebanon in thelate 1980s.

Not long after the Natanya slaughter - in which two Islamic Jihad members killed themselves and 21 Israelis, 19 of whom were soldiers - I asked a leading Palestinian advocate of suicide bombings how he would react if he was Yitzhak Rabin. He remained silent for almost a minute, then he began to giggle. His giggling turned to laughter, his shoulders shaking with mirth; sinister, frightening, unreal. It was a question of weapons, he said. The Israelis were all- powerful, but they feared death. He did not.

The 10th century Assassins of Persia might have understood this in their mountains at Alamut. But the Japanese kamikaze pilots of the Second World War thought they were dying for their god-emperor rather than a promise of paradise. Even Baruch Goldstein,who was almost torn limb from limb after he slaughtered 29 Palestinian worshippers at Hebron in February last year, must have realised his mission was suicidal. Yet frustration and hatred rather than heaven appears to have crippled his mind.

The actions of the first suicide bombers - in Lebanon - might be explained by the Shia Muslim epic of martyrdom personified by the Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet, whose death at Kerbala is illustrated on the walls of southern Lebanon, blood-red tulips springing from the gore of the battlefield around the Imam's slain horses. But the suicidal attacks of the Afghans against the Soviet invaders were carried out by Sunni Muslims - brave allies of "ours" in those days, men who "gave their lives in the cause of freedom", as the American right wing would have had us believe at the time. The difference between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist" depends on who you are blowing up as well as on who you are.

Individual motives can sometimes be found. In April 1983, for example, Ali Safiadin smashed his bomb-laden Mercedes into an Israeli convoy at Deir Qanoun en-Nahr in southern Lebanon. After his death, we discovered why he decided to kill himself. His brother, it transpired, had been arrested by the Israelis in 1982 and imprisoned in their Tyre military barracks. He was still there when another suicide bomber drove another explosives-wired car into the barracks, killing both Safiadin's brother and 59 othe rs, most of them Israeli soldiers. Safiadin blamed not the bomber but the Israelis for his brother's death. So he died attacking them, too.

Both the Hizbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad - respectively Shia and Sunni Muslims - have recorded how would-be "martyrs" would ask to be chosen for death, how they would initially be encouraged to abandon their project, how only those who insisted upon "martyrdom" would be allowed to drive bombs at the Israelis or to strap explosives to their bodies.

They would be shown photographs of the terrain, snapshots of the target area - the road up which an Israeli supply convoy would pass, a checkpoint on the coast road - and would sometimes make "dummy" runs near the target, as the two Netanya bombers must have done near that fatal bus-stop. Then the Islamists would wait for a message.

In Lebanon, those about to die would receive their instructions in the form of symbolic words, often passed on by men who did not know their import. Imams would be asked to utter words in the course of Friday prayers - the names of trees or colours - anda young man amid the congregation would know that it was his turn to die. The Israelis claim that they have found similar, apparently meaningless words written on the walls of mosques in the occupied West Bank.

On the night before their deaths, the bombers would make their last videotapes for posthumous screening - always they would express "happiness" - or write their last messages. Anwar Aziz, the 1993 Gaza suicide bomber, was seen by his friends attending evening prayers only hours before he killed himself; they noticed he had just bathed and shaved off his fluffy beard. After a natural death, his relatives would have bathed and shaved him - but there is not much to wash and shave after a bomb has incinerated flesh. He was anticipating the condition of his own corpse.

Perhaps the last condition of the bombers is trance-like - after the marine-bombing in Beirut, the Americans characteristically decided that the culprits must have been drugged - but Islamist groups insist their only preparation is prayer, a rather too innocent explanation. When I asked Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Hizbollah leader, why a young man should kill himself in this way, he suggested that "martyrdom" was a form of satisfaction, comparing a suicide bomber to a man suffering in the heat of a sauna who knows that an air conditioned room - equipped with "an armchair, cocktails and classical music" - awaited him next door. "What does he do?" Nasrallah asked. "He opens the door."

There is, of course, a financial incentive; knowledge that Islamic charities or the militant movement's "social services department" will provide for a "martyr's" family, give them money, health care and food. Yet this is an inadequate explanation. AbbasMoussawi, Nasrallah's Hizbollah predecessor, tried to explain a truck bomber's motives to me shortly before the Israelis assassinated him, along with his wife and child. "Some people are known to kill themselves for love of a woman," he said. "We may understand this, but we think it is stupid. Yet can you not understand someone who will kill themselves for God and the defeat of his enemies? This is not a stupid way to die."

Such certainties might account for the absence of any doubt among most of the suicide bombers about the physical result of their actions. The torn corpses of men, women and children are an obscenity, not an image of heaven. Could not the Hamas bomber whoset off his explosives amid a bus-load of civilians in Tel Aviv last October understand the meaning of cruelty? Perhaps the grief and pain of innocents is not part of the "martyr's" imagination. Of course, the Islamists point out that Israelis have killed innocents with little remorse; they claim the bombers choose death over the "hell" of military oppression, that they hate Israel. But there can be no doubt that there is a strong element of psychological preparation for those about to kill and die, not only of intense readings from the Koran but of repeated promises of posthumous admiration and pleasure.

Several young Islamists have insisted to me that they believe beautiful women await them in paradise - "all the girls are virgins", an Egyptian member of the "Jihad Islamiya" claimed. Do the militants, perhaps, think they will become sex symbols after death? Such notions are not as ridiculous as they sound. "To me, he is a hero," a young Iranian woman vouchsafed to me once about a young Lebanese man who seemed certain to kill himself. No wonder Bilal Fahas was called the bridegroom of the south. In a patriarchal, chauvinist society, self-immolation breaks through the crust of a restrictive, hermetically-sealed, sexually segregated world.

But it is a world that has been in torment for decades, in which massive, sophisticated weaponry and super-power support has hitherto assured Israel's military preponderance. The suicide bomber has changed all that. It is the same equation with which theAmericans and then the Israelis themselves failed to come to terms in Lebanon - to which, as Mr Peres admitted last week, Israel has not yet found the answer: the conflict of high-technology versus theology, an invincible army against an individual who will not accept the logic of power.