Sunday, June 21, 2009

Israeli researcher studied would-be suicide bombers face to face


by dan pine, staff writer

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When Israeli criminologist Anat Berko would show up at work to conduct an interview, her subjects would warmly greet her with the honorific "Doctora," offer her a cup of coffee and ask about her family

Anat Berko
All that courtesy clashes with the setting. For years, Berko worked in an Israeli prison, her subjects convicted terrorists — failed Palestinian suicide bombers and their dispatchers — in maximum security lock-up.

Berko is an Israeli criminologist who makes her living probing the minds of terrorists. Over the years she grew close with notorious figures like Sheik Ahmed Yassin (the Hamas co-founder assassinated by Israel in 2004) as well as scores of male and female would-be suicide bombers.

How could a 25-year veteran officer of the Israel Defense Forces — and a proud Zionist — have gained the trust of those who wanted nothing more than to blow up as many Jews as possible?

Comparing herself and her subjects to Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (from the film "Silence of the Lambs"), the Arabic-speaking daughter of Iraqi Jews said, "To do my research I had to use empathy to communicate with them."

That empathy, even when insincere, often elicited tears and hugs from imprisoned female terrorists, and bonhomie from the men. "They knew I could understand their mentality," Berko said while in San Francisco for a speaking engagement. "Both my parents were born in Baghdad. 'She's an Iraqi Jew,' they would say. 'She's a little Arab like us.' "

Berko wrote a 2007 book, "The Path to Paradise" (newly re-released in paperback) chronicling her experience in the heart of darkness. The book grew out of her Ph.D. dissertation, which compared the dispatchers of suicide bombers from the first intifada to petty criminals.

Tragically, she had no shortage of subjects to interview.

Berko did not delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the prisoners. Instead, she probed what she calls, "their inner world, their lives, their relationships with parents, siblings, and how they grew up."

Her most famous subject was Yassin, the Bin Laden of Israel thanks to his masterminding countless acts of terrorism. Oddly enough, he liked Berko.

"He cooperated with me and was ready to answer every question I asked him," Berko recalls. "He invited me to meet with him in Gaza. He was very nice to me but he was very bad to the Jewish people and Israel."

Much of her research focused on female would-be suicide bombers. Although the trend of female terrorists has grown in recent years, Berko says the women are not truly respected in Palestinian society.

To Palestinians, she says, "They are failures, and now they failed at this. They couldn't even blow themselves up. [Palestinians] will say they are heroes, but in a closed room they will say, 'Why did she do it? Is there something wrong with this woman?'"

This disdain led to despair among the female prisoners Berko got to know. Often they would cry on her shoulder. Some were victims of sexual abuse and feared returning home. Others wielded knives at checkpoints just to get themselves arrested.

That's because the prisoners receive good treatment in Israeli jails, Berko says. They get decent food, medical care and  educational opportunities. Some complete their diplomas while behind bars.

For the women prisoners, the good treatment may play a role in one of Berko's findings: There are next to no female repeat offenders when it comes to terrorism.

Berko just completed a year as a guest lecturer at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is now home in Israel.

Berko plans on writing a new book, this one focusing on the Palestinian women she has known in prison. She is the first to admit that any one of them would have been willing to kill Berko's three children.

At the same time, she can't help feeling a measure of sympathy.

"One failed suicide bomber, a 16-year-old, used to bite her nails," Berko recounts. "I took her hand and said, 'Don't do this!' She then squeezed my hand. It touched her heart that I told her 'Don't do it,' like a mother."

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