Face to face with mastermind of Jerusalem suicide bombs

Abdul Rahman Makdad planned attacks this year on two Israeli buses. Nineteen were killed. He tells Donald Macintyre why he prefers civilian targets - and why he did not carry out the operations himself
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The Independent Online

He sat in the middle of the room, a few feet away from the Shin Bet interrogator he had got to know so well since he was arrested just under a month ago. With his well-kept beard, and dressed in a beige zip-up jacket over a white T-shirt, dark trousers, his feet sockless under brown lace-up shoes without laces, Abdul Rahman Makdad looked relaxed, perhaps even a little truculent.

As he began to speak, in a clear, unhesitant voice, it required effort, here in the heart of the Russian Compound prison, to conjure the full enormity of the mission Makdad was describing in such calm, matter-of-fact terms. On Saturday 21 February, just six weeks ago, he had sent his wife and infant son away to his parents-in-law, leaving him free to concentrate on the work ahead.

At 4pm Mohammed Za'ul, at 23 five years younger than Makdad, arrived at Makdad's home in Bethlehem so that the older man could give the younger one final instructions and spend the night meticulously preparing the explosives before packing them into the blue rucksack Za'ul would be wearing when he boarded the number 14 bus in Jewish West Jerusalem the following morning.

Neither man had slept that night; Makdad took the customary video of Za'ul's last testament as a man who had volunteered for martydom. Makdad saw to it that Za'ul was wearing clothes suitable for the Jerusalem weather that morning - jeans, jacket and a nondescript hat. The object, he explained, was to make Za'ul as unobtrusive - and as Jewish looking - as possible. "In general he wasn't frightened," said Makdad. "But I told him not to look at any police and security people and not to be frightened." Za'ul did not speak any Hebrew; so he had been under a standing instruction to detonate the bomb if he was spoken to by the bus driver. "But this is a rare situation."

Although only religious, by his own account, "in a general way, not an extreme one", Makdad had joined Za'ul in his last prayers. The two men ate breakfast together before Za'ul left at 6pm, to be guided by a construction worker carefully chosen for his local knowledge through the security cordon dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem and on to the centre of the city. It was after 8.30am that Makdad got the news that the bomb had detonated as a bus headed north along Kind David Street in rush hour, killing eight Israeli civilians and wounding more than 60. "I heard it on the radio," he said. "And I was happy."

If Makdad had somehow been broken by his interrogation he showed no sign of it. Asked early on in this rare hour-long interview whether he accepted the principal Israeli accusation that he had organised the February bomb on the number 14 bus and the one just a month earlier which had killed 11 people on a number 19 Jerusalem bus, he answered coolly: "I was responsible for the last two operations. I don't recall the numbers of the buses."

He showed impatience - turning to his unnamed Shin Bet interrogator, an Arabic speaker in his 30s dressed in jeans and a check shirt, to enjoy a joke with him at the expense of the sheer "Westernness" of our questions - when he was asked repeatedly exactly how the two men had spent the last 14 hours before Za'ul left on his mission. What had they eaten for breakfast? Did it matter? Maybe a little humus; he couldn't really remember. Why were we so obsessed with food? Were we hungry?

What had they spoken about when Makdad wasn't working on the explosives? "Ordinary conversation. There was no need at all to convince this man to carry out the operation. He himself chose to be a martyr." Indeed "the easiest thing [about such operations] is to find a martyr. In our nation we have thousands of people who want to be martyrs."

Makdad's journey to the leadership of a cell of four men, according to Makdad - which was part of a larger, interlocking, 20-strong Bethlehem-based cell according to the Israelis - had been a relatively long one. He was born in Egypt. His family had fled there as refugees after 1948 from near Ashkelon. Makdad lived there until he was 14, moving on to Libya, where he joined Fatah's Palestinian Liberation Army and took a commando course.

But with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the wake of the Oslo accords he came to Gaza and then to Jenin, where he served in the Palestinian Security Services. At this point, he said: "I believed in peace. I served with the police force." But then, as he put it: "I noticed that Israel didn't want peace."

The manifestations of the occupation remained in place - including what Makdad described as "Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people." He was transferred to Bethlehem, where he became a bodyguard to the PA governor, Mohammed Madami, and then to the man who took over the governate from Madami five months ago, Zuhair Manasra. He was in that job until he was arrested; indeed, as Makdad confirmed, his family continue to receive his salary now he is in detention. To Makdad this is entirely natural, despite the Authority's stated opposition to suicide bombings. "They treat me as a political prisoner not as a criminal. If I had been found out as a collaborator, they would have stopped my salary."

The Israeli charge sheet against Makdad is lengthy, going back to shooting attacks in 2001. In 2003, the Israelis say, he took instructions from Ahmed Mugrabi, whom Makdad had first met in Libya. Makdad managed to stay in contact with Mugrabi after his detention for his part in a 2002 suicide bombing in Beit Yisrael.

As late as last month, just a week after dispatching the second bus bomber to Jerusalem, Makdad is accused of planning a spectacular but foiled hijacking of an Israeli bus. Two suicide bombers would have driven the bus to Bethlehem, forcing it and its passengers into the Church of the Nativity to negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners in return for the passengers' lives. If anything had gone wrong, the bombers would have blown up the bus.

So why had he agreed to talk to us, five reporters from European and American newspapers, invited to the Russian Compound by his Israeli enemies? "The main purpose of this meeting is to give a clear picture of our strategy, which is reacting to killing by killing." He used this last phrase several times, justifying the killing of innocent civilians as a response to the deaths caused by Israeli targeted assassinations and incursions into the occupied territories. Makdad told us: "We prefer to do the explosions in a bus. Sometimes it has to be in Jerusalem in a crowded area. But the main thing is to create more casualties."

What had the tactic, internationally reviled as it was, achieved for the Palestinian cause? If the Israelis continued to kill Palestinians, this would eventually help to achieve the Palestinian goals "in the long term and in the future".

If we had asked about his interrogation, the Israeli officials supervising the interview would have ended it immediately. Although officials admit privately that prisoners like Makdad sometimes give information because they are allowed to believe falsely that their wife and children are under threat of detention, this prohibition was not, they insisted, because he might reveal maltreatment at the hands of his captors. Five years ago, after repeated and well-documented accusations that the Israelis had regularly tortured prisoners, the Supreme Court ruled against any physical abuse of prisoners.

But in any case, what had been the gain in this, at times surreal, meeting for the Israeli authorities themselves? Occasionally, perhaps, a prisoner may give information in such circumstances that he will withhold from his interrogators. Explaining that his cell was a freelance one, beholden to none of the well-known armed factions, Makdad disclosed, apparently for the first time, that the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade had been allowed to claim responsibility for the bombing in return for providing 3,000 shekels (£400) through Makdad's brother, Maher. The "credit" for the operation had, in effect, been sold.

But the other, more potent factor may well have been Makdad's role as an employee of the PA, particularly in Bethlehem where from 2002 until two months ago the Authority was in theory left in charge of security. According to the Israelis, this allowed the militant factions to establish themselves in the town.

Makdad himself insisted that if the PA - or the Bethlehem Governor - had known about his activities he would have been arrested. Seven miles away in his office in Bethlehem, Governor Manasra indeed said he had been "astonished" at Makdad's arrest and subsequent confession. "All I ask of my bodyguards is that they are polite to people and balanced in their behaviour. He was both these things." But while adamant that he opposed attacks on innocent civilians he warned that incursions, checkpoints and seizure of land to accommodate the route of the security barrier which were stopping "patients getting to their doctors, children to their schools, students to their universities" and devastating the local economy created a feeling of hopelessness among Palestinian youth. "Give me one day in 2003 or 2004 in which the Israelis did not kill a Palestinian," he added. "What the Israelis do is going to make more and more Palestinians radical and violent. They leave no way for a reasonable or pragmatic way of doing things."

He claimed that even though the Israelis had not backed a security plan to transfer known militants to Jericho, the PA was "every day stopping actions [by militants] because we think that to kill civilians is to escalate the conflict". He had been obliged in January to release a dozen prisoners held in Bethlehem only when the Israeli Army had raided the city and demanded they be handed over to them.

Back in Jerusalem, awaiting what is likely to be life sentence, an unrepentant Makdad insisted he "had no regrets. I have done nothing wrong" Two more questions. Why, if he was strong believer in martyrdom, had he not carried out of the bombings himself? If he went on such a mission, he would no longer be able to organise others to do so. But he had been ready to do the February bombing himself if it had been necessary because no martyr could be found. And was his career of organising attacks on Israelis over? Well, prisoner swaps are a feature of the conflict. "No I don't think it is over."