Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber

ByABC News

Dec. 6, 2001 — -- Although he has been condemned in much of the world as a murderous criminal, in the West Bank town of Kalkilia, at least, Saeed Hotari is a hero.

His face is plastered on posters everywhere. He's a legend. The children, especially, idolize him.

"When I grow up, I want to be just like him," said Hosni, a 9-year-old Palestinian boy.

But Hotari was not a rock star, famous athlete or a movie star. What makes him famous is what he did on the last night of his life — when he killed 21 people and himself at an Israeli disco.

On the night of Friday, June 1, Hotari stood in line at the Dolphinarium, which was one of the most popular Tel Aviv discos. The 22-year-old Palestinian had turned himself into a human bomb: Strapped to his chest was a deadly mix of powerful explosives and hundreds of steel ball bearings. At 11:26 p.m., he triggered the bomb, killing himself and leaving 21 others, mostly young girls, to die in one of Israel's worst suicide bombings ever.

In the past week, terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa have killed 25 Israelis and three other Palestinian suicide bombers. The recent violence led to Israeli military strikes against Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza.

What is it that would drive anyone to commit such a horrendous act, at the same time killing himself? As ABCNEWS' John Quiñones discovered, a look inside one town can shed light on why for some extremists death is more meaningful than life.

Residents of Kalkilia, where Hotari is celebrated as a hero, point to the Israeli tanks in the streets and bulletholes in their homes. They blame the Israeli government and the Americans, who they say support Israel.

"What would you do if this was your home?" asked one man.

A feeling of desperation and helplessness, residents say, is what fuels the suicide bomber.

"A sense of mission empowers him," explained Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist and one of the world's foremost experts on suicide bombers. "The identification with his people tells him that out of this misery, out of this despair, you have to act."

Suicide bombers are trained to dehumanize their victims, said Jerald Post, a psychologist at George Washington University in Washington who recently completed a project interviewing 35 imprisoned Palestinian terrorists.

"It isn't killing innocent victims," he said. "It's killing the enemy. And even children will grow up to be an enemy one day."

Hotari's act, said Sarraj, "gives his family the highest status ever. His name becomes immortal."

After the attack, Hotari's father Hassan was congratulated by the community.

"I am proud and I will never forget it until the last day of my life," he said. "This kind of death is better than any other kind of death. Thanks to God."

The younger Hotari was described by friends and relatives as devoutly religious, quiet and ordinary. And now, it is believed that as a martyr he is awarded a special place in heaven, the highest level of paradise, where some say 70 black-eyed virgins await him.

"The teaching of Islam tells you if you die for God, you don't actually die," said Sarraj. "In fact, you find in the last seconds of people acting this act, they smile."

Others, however, say there are also financial incentives. Terrorist organizations may promise to give money to the families of suicide bombers. For Hassan Hotari, this was a touchy subject, and he only laughed when asked for further details of any such arrangements.

The suicide bombing operation is very secretive. The bombers don't even say goodbye to their families, though they may sometimes record a farewell on videotape.

"It is a declaration, 'I am committed. Everyone is watching,' " said Sarraj. "People are usually so ecstatic about it."

After recording the farewell, bombers may also be less likely to change their minds.

Hotari did not leave behind a farewell. But he has left a legacy.

"I want to join an operation attack just like Saeed," said 9-year-old Hosni, a cousin of Hotari.

Hosni is one of many. Post, who works with government agencies to develop profiles of terrorists, said: "He who wasn't joining the group was the unusual one. Everybody was joining, one of the terrorists told us. And it was the unusual person who didn't join."

According to Sarraj, for every young man who commits this horrendous act, many others are waiting for the same opportunity.

"It's frightening and it's sad," said Sarraj. "For the young mind, this kind of behavior becomes the model."

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