She looked like many of the other young women on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. Seeing her in the shopping district with her rucksack and pretty face, you might have thought she was on her way to meet a boyfriend, or to buy some long-coveted item of clothing. The woman's name was Wafa Idris. She wasn't shopping, or meeting a boyfriend. Her rucksack contained a 10kg bomb, and she was about to sacrifice herself on the altar of Palestinian freedom. When the bomb exploded in January last year, it killed Idris and an 81-year-old man. Around 100 others were injured. On Idris's behalf, a group called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade claimed responsibility for the atrocity.
Sept. 11 had an electrifying effect on the Palestinian intifada, but there were plenty of other rallying points for those inclined. And Idris was very much inclined. Before she died last year, she worked in field hospitals with the Palestinian Red Crescent in Ramallah. The horrors stayed with her. She herself had twice been hit by Israeli plastic bullets.
There were other reasons why 28-year-old Idris might have wanted to take revenge on Israel. Politically active, her family were driven out of Ramallah by the Israelis. They fled to one of the squalid refugee camps on the West Bank. Idris's three brothers became members of Fatah, the Palestinian faction associated with President Yasser Arafat. One, Khalil, was imprisoned by the Israelis for a decade. Idris's father died when she was a child. There had been other cause for sadness, too. After marriage, Idris had a late miscarriage. The doctors said she could have no more children. Her husband's response was to divorce her and marry again.
Her sister-in-law, Wissam Idris, said Wafa was often angry and used to sit by herself in her room for hours. None of these reasons alone is enough to explain why she blew herself up. But for whatever reason, Idris gave herself to Allah and the Palestinian cause. The bomb in her rucksack was made with a highly volatile explosive packed into pipes. Triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, is made by mixing acetone with phosphate, and leaving it out in trays to dry. It is then ground to powder. In a grotesque parody of the domestic female stereotype, it is usually ground in a food mixer, before being fed into metal tubes.
The Arab press glorified Idris. One Egyptian newspaper compared her to the Mona Lisa, registering her "dreamy eyes and the mysterious smile on her lips." Others cited Joan of Arc, or the Virgin Mary. In the months immediately after Idris's death, more and more female suicide bombers appeared on the West Bank. One, a 21-year-old English-literature student named Darin Aisheh, detonated explosives in her car at a military checkpoint in February, wounding three policemen. Andaleeb Takafka, 20, killed herself and six others, and injured 104 people in April, using explosive tied to her waist. Ayat Akhras, 18, blew herself up outside a Jerusalem bus stop a month earlier.
The M.O. changes
The trend represents a change in the profile of suicide bombers, says Michael Tierney, a journalist who has studied female terrorists in the Al-Aqsa teen brigade. "Previously, the suicide bomber fitted a stereotype: male, unmarried, immature, under-educated, aged between 17 and 23, and fanatically religious. Today, the martyr has evolved: he has become a she."