By Gordon Thomas
Martyr or Murderer: Wafa’a Ali Idris blew herself up in a crowded Jerusalem street on a Sunday afternoon killing an 81-year-old man and injuring more than 100 other men, women and children. Afterwards, hundreds of people came to celebrate her martyrdom. Since her death, three more young women followed her lead, their actions described as “sacred explosions.” Yet the act of suicide is forbidden in Islam.
She hoped as many Jews as possible would suffer a similar fate from her actions. She was about to become a shaheed, a martyr to her militant cause — a suicide bomber to the rest of the world.
There had been many bombers before her, but Wafa’a was assured of her place in the pantheon of martyrdom: the first woman suicide bomber to launch herself against unsuspecting Israelis.
In the photographs which would be issued after her mission, she is not exactly beautiful. She has her fine angles, but any single picture is either too flattering or too stark.
Her mother, Wasfiya, would later say you had to watch her only daughter in motion to really appreciate her. Her neighbours in the impoverished Palestinian refugee camp in Ramallah said Wafa’a always seemed to be in motion as she strolled through streets which have no names, smiling at the men, but rarely stopping.
Wasfiya’s home has a living room and two bedrooms. The floor is bare earth covered with cheap rugs bought in one of the nearby souks. There is a naked electric light and an oil lamp in case the Israelis cut the electricity supply. It happens.
The furniture is dominated by a couch made of camel skin. But Wasfiya prefers to sit on the floor. It is a throwback to her days as a child when the family lived in a tent.
On that Sunday morning Wafa’a was close to her 32nd birthday. Her proudest gift was a framed photo of Yasser Arafat, personally given to her by the chairman of the PLO. She had been a member of his Fatah organization since.
Descending into a World of Ruthless Violence
At 18, she married a distant cousin who was a blacksmith. Ten years later, his mother had forced the couple to divorce because Wafa’a had been unable to produce a child.
As simply as that, the chain of events, link by link, had been forged which had finally brought Wafa’a to this Sunday morning.
First she had joined the Red Crescent Society after the divorce, working as a paramedic for Islam’s equivalent of the Red Cross.
After the October 2000 intifada began, “She was in the thick of the fighting. She would help the injured and often carry the badly wounded and dying children,” her mother would later say with pride. “At the end of a long day in the front line, my daughter would cry in my arms as she recalled the terrible things she witnessed.”
Socially, Wafa’a’s circle of friends started to change.
In the back street cafe she sipped coffee with members of Hamas. Founded in 1987 during the first intifada, in which she had participated, she listened to their plans for sweeping changes in a new state.
She also began to mix with Hezbollah, an equally extreme group. Its members filled her mind with a brand of radicalism that embraced political terrorism.
Israel’s Shin Beth — its internal security force — later established that she became involved with Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It was another step into the world of ruthless militancy that now permeated her life.
During the month of Ramadan, 2001, she met a recruiter for the Al-Aosa Martyrs Brigades. It provides the largest number of suicide bombers. The Martyrs — as they are known — are the most violent of all Israel’s internal enemies.
Now, on this Sunday, five months after she had been accepted by The Martyrs, she was finally ready to die for them.
"The Tailor of Death"
On Saturday, the night before, while the streets of Ramallah had been filled with young disco-goers, an elderly woman had delivered a packet to the house where Wafa’a lived with her widowed mother.
The packet contained a new bra and panties, along with a customized body suit. It was designed to conceal up to six pounds of high explosives and specially sharpened nails and razor fragments.
The suit was designed to fit under Wafa’a’s street clothes. It had several pockets deep enough to take sticks of explosives. They would be distributed around her upper torso. Other pockets around her waist were for the nail and razor fragments.
There was a separate pouch which extended over the genitalia. Later, Dr. Ariel Merari, a ranking expert on the techniques of suicide bombers at Tel Aviv University, suggested the pouch was created “because the Israeli security forces never search Arab women in that area of their body.”
Wafa’a had never met the person who had made the suit. He was said to come from the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, reported to be the “capital of suicide attackers” and recently decimated by Israeli forces.
To Shin Beth the man was known as “The Tailor of Death.” The intelligence service eventually established he was a highly skilled craftsman who uses a treble stitch to sew the suit. It is made from a cloth sold in Arab shops for making undershirts. The sewing cotton came from a similar source. Shin Beth decided the tailor probably used an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine which was hand-operated.
Again but only later would it emerge from the Israeli intelligence community that Wafa’a’s suit, like all those worn by male suicide bombers, had been designed so that the distribution of explosives was carefully balanced and that the explosive effect would cover the widest possible area.
Wafa’a may also have received advice on the choice of outer clothing.
“We know that some male suicide bombers have worn wigs and been well dressed. This has helped them to gain access to upmarket cafes and restaurants which have been among their targets,” said Dr. Merari.
Wafa’a’s mother later recalled her daughter had laid out her body suit and clean underwear on her bed early on that Sunday morning. Then she had chosen her finest hipster jeans and a loose-fitting blouse to conceal her body suit.
By then she had been joined by her “spiritual adviser” — a male member of The Martyrs.
Together they had set off on the long hike over the hills and along dry river beds toward Jerusalem.
The only clue we have as to what Wafa’a was like in those last moments on earth comes from her mother.
Sitting on the floor of her living room in Ramallah, cradling the signed photograph of a smiling Yasser Arafat, Wasfiya Ali Idris spoke of the last time she saw her daughter alive.
“She was very calm. She told me I was not to worry.” Shortly after noon on that Sunday, Wafa’a Ali Idris blew herself up in a crowded Jerusalem street. She killed an 81-year-old man and injured more than 100 other men, women and children.
The explosives blew off her head and one arm, and left a gaping hole in her abdomen. An hour later, the radios in Ramallah proclaimed her to be “a true heroine of our people.”
On that Sunday when she killed herself, the Jihad Committee in Ramallah issued her photograph to the media. That evening her mother was a guest of honour at a celebration in the street where Wafa’a lived.
Hundreds of people came to celebrate her martyrdom; the street party resembled something close to a wedding. Soft drinks and cakes were served and her mother ululated in joy over the honour Allah had bestowed upon her family.
As the evening wore on, there was talk that The Martyrs would not only from now on use more women but also children. By May 2002 that decision had been partly endorsed at a “terror summit” — the words are those of a Mossad intelligence officer — held in the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon. The summit was attended by the leaders of The Martyrs who had sent Wafa’a to her death. Present too were senior members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
It was decided that for the moment children under 12 would not be used. But women of 16 years and upwards would be trained to die.
Since Wafa’a died, three more young women have experienced similar fates. Between them they killed or injured close to 50 more Israelis.
Their actions were described as “sacred explosions.” The act of suicide is forbidden in Islam. But the spin doctors of The Martyrs are well versed in the black art of propaganda.
How had Wafa’a been manipulated in the name of religious extremism?
The answer lies in the dark and dangerous world of manipulative psychological techniques which ultimately led to the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and all the other suicide bomber attacks across the Middle East, in Pakistan and in the Philippines.