by Nadav Shragai
While many Palestinians support terrorist attacks against Israel, mental health issues or personal distress are the main motivators prompting lone wolf attackers to act and seek a martyr's death, a study by Israel's Public Security Ministry has found.
Last Friday, Ahmed Mohammed Hamid from Umm al-Fahm joined the long list of "mentally unstable" Palestinian terrorists killed or arrested while committing or trying to commit attacks.
Hamid was a patient at the Sha'ar Menashe Mental Health Center in Haifa, and had been hospitalized in a psychiatric institution, his relatives revealed. On Friday, he left the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem via the Majlis (Council) Gate carrying a knife. He pounced on the first Israeli police officer on the way to the gate and tried to stab him. Other police officers standing nearby shot and killed him. Relatives said he was not devout and were surprised that he had visited Al-Aqsa mosque.
Like many other attackers suffering personal distress, some of whom were psychotic or were part of the troubled fringes of Palestinian society, Hamid will soon be getting a status upgrade. He will be moved from the "distressed" group, at the rejected end of the Palestinian spectrum, and given a place of honor in the pantheon of Palestinian ethno-religious martyrs. His wild, incitement-filled funeral in Umm al-Fahm on Tuesday was just the first sign that the process has begun.
Many others have already taken the same path. Fuad Tamimi, who, in the spring of 2016 opened fire on Israeli police officers stationed at the Flowers Gate and was killed by security forces, was a thief and a drug addict.
Jamil Tamimi, who murdered British tourist Hannah Bladon 15 months ago, had been convicted of molesting his daughter and had tried to cut his own throat with a razor.
Amani Sabatin, a mother of four from the village of Husan near Bethlehem, who had been fighting with her husband and was seriously troubled, was shot and killed after she tried to run down soldiers at Gush Etzion junction in March 2016.
That same month, Ahmed Youssef Amar from the village of Mas-ha tried to stab soldiers at the A-Zawaya checkpoint south of the Elkana settlement and was fatally shot. He left a suicide note in which he asked his parents' forgiveness and revealed that he was tens of thousands of shekels in debt to three people.
Mona Fadwa Abu Tir, a mother of five, tried to stab Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem and was fatally shot. According to the Shin Bet security agency, she suffered from long-term depression and apparently wanted to end her life.
Abdullah Takata from Beit Fajjar – who had been reported by the Israeli military as deranged – tried to commit suicide by running toward a group of soldiers with a knife. It worked. He was shot and killed.
Amar Ahmed Lutfi Khalil committed a number of terrorist shootings together with his fiancee. Khalil pulled out a gun to resist arrest, and was shot and killed. Their motivation was their families' refusal to accept their relationship, the Shin Bet said.
Wissam Tawabte, also from Beit Fajjar, was receiving regular treatment at a mental hospital in Bethlehem when she stabbed border policewoman Hadar Buchris to death at the Gush Etzion intersection in November 2015.
And for 13-year-old Roqaya Abu Eid from Anata, it was a fight with her sisters that sent her basically running to her death when she tried to stab a security guard at the Anatot checkpoint in northern Jerusalem in January 2016.
These are only a sample of the findings in an ongoing Public Security Ministry study and were presented at the International Homeland Security Forum convened by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan three months ago in Jerusalem. The figures show the growing prevalence of terrorist attacks committed by Palestinians driven by personal distress.
The key number is surprising: 67% of attackers had a history of mental health problems.
The study was led by Professor Ariel Merari, a psychologist who served as scientific director of research on Palestinian suicide terrorists in the National Security Council from 2002 to 2009, and Professor Boaz Ganor, the founding president of the International Academic Counter-Terrorism Community and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. They and their team of Public Security Ministry officials, researchers, psychologists and sociologists worked to investigate and analyze the growing problem of lone wolf terrorists.
They addressed the wave of terrorist attacks that took place between October 2015 and December 2017, and their database includes 700 terrorists who participated in some 560 attacks, alone or with others, but without belonging to or assistance from any terrorist group.
They asked 45 imprisoned lone wolf terrorists to fill out questionnaires and take part in face-to-face interviews. The findings indicate that about two-thirds of the attackers suffered from mental health issues, psychosis, or suicidal tendencies. More than half of those with suicidal tendencies, 54%, said their preferred method of suicide was to die while carrying out an attack.
The Public Security Ministry is stressing that a combination of factors motivated the attackers:
psychological, ideological and personal, with the "triggers" that prompted them to act being "geopolitical events, traumatic events, and sometimes, just an urge to imitate other terrorists."
All these factors were "strengthened by calculated incitement," the study found.
"The ideological (and nationalist and religious) motive was found to affect the decision to murder Jews in 60% of the youths in the sample, 28% of the men, and 11% of the women. Family problems were especially prevalent among the female attackers, but not restricted to them."
Merari, who has decades' worth of articles and studies devoted to the psychology of terrorism to his credit, told Israel Hayom that among Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, there is a great deal of support for terrorist attacks against Israel.
"Public opinion polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, headed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, have indicated that during the Second Intifada, public support for terrorist attacks within the Green Line was as high as 70%, and support for terrorist attacks against Israel beyond the Green Line was nearly 90%," Merari said.
"Shikaki's polls during the period of lone wolf terrorism that started in October 2015 indicated about a 50% rate of support for those attacks, which is also very high. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of supporters of terrorism, although the attacks were actually carried out by a few hundred individuals.
"Our research focused on the question, why them? Or why do so few out of a population of hundreds of thousands who hate Israel actually commit terrorist attacks? What causes one particular Palestinian and not 1,000 others to get up one morning and decide that this is the day he'll stab or run over a Jew? What characterizes that attacker? These are the basic questions of our study."
Q: What did you learn from interviewing the terrorists?
"Among other things, we found that 67% of the attackers we looked at had indicators of psychopathology, including suicidal tendencies, and in some cases serious personality disorders that were close to psychosis. In a number of cases, there was a background of psychosis both before the attack and while it was being committed. That's a very high rate of mental disorders."
Q: Is that unique to terrorism in Israel?
"No. The quality studies conducted in Europe and the U.S. into the backgrounds of lone wolf terrorists – although they didn't interview any attackers – found that over a third had mental health issues, and in a significant number of cases, criminal backgrounds."
Merari said the sample revealed that family troubles were much more likely to motivate women to commit a terrorist attack than to motivate men. Security officials recount stories of women who took to terrorism because they were being forced to marry against their will, or because their husbands were divorcing them and trying to take their children, and even one case of a female attacker who approached a security guard at a West Bank checkpoint and asked him to shoot her.
"I don't want to hurt you," she reportedly told him, "but please kill me." The astonished guard stepped back and did not fire. But when she approached him in a threatening manner with a knife in hand, he fired and wounded her.
Q: Jews with troubles like these don't go out and stab Arabs. They get treatment or jump off a roof. Why is that sometimes different with the Palestinians?
"There are two reasons. One is very simple: Muslims, like Jews or Catholics, are not allowed to commit suicide. A Muslim who commits suicide is destined to eternal hell. Dying while carrying out a terrorist attack, on the other hand, is not only not forbidden, it is recommended by many. For someone who wants to die, this is a religiously legitimate way," Merari said.
"Second, there is no doubt synergy with the public and social atmosphere. This is where the hard-core incitement comes in, and we need to add the copycat element and the 'contagion' of many of the attackers. One imitates another. When a woman with difficult family problems wants to die, for totally personal reasons, the first thing that occurs to her is, 'I'll go kill an Israeli soldier, and then I'll have social legitimacy. Society will see me positively.' The daily reporting of these incidents in the Palestinian media and the legitimacy they are given there guides a potential suicide terrorist to choose this manner of death."
Q: So the suicide terrorist gets social and religious approval, and not only is not seen as a transgressor, but becomes a martyr?
Q: Did the terrorists you interviewed cooperate freely?
"Yes. We had almost no refusals. The Prisons Service was immensely helpful. Every prisoner who gave an interview as part of the sample underwent a psychological interview of several hours, much longer than is usual."
Q: What parameters did you check?
"Every prisoner we interviewed was asked to discuss his or her personal and social background in detail, as well as their families and mental health history. Every conversation went into details, so there is a solid basis for our conclusion that about two-thirds of the terrorists in the most recent wave of terrorism had a history of mental health problems."
Dr. Michal Morag, head of the criminal profiling program in the Criminology Department at Ariel University, believes the would-be suicide attackers who survive see too great a benefit from their actions.
"Studies conducted on terrorists who survived [the attacks they perpetrated] show that they say they are totally different than they were before the attack. A large number of them found life partners as a result of their acts; some saw their financial situation improve because of what they did; and they also increased their sense of belonging to their families and in general. When they are interviewed, they say, 'We Palestinians.' They didn't feel part of that 'we' until after their attacks," Morag said.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has also addressed the issue, with a COGAT paper essentially confirming the findings of the Public Security Ministry and Merari and Ganor's study.
"From October 2015 until today, more and more terrorists have chosen to commit suicide by carrying out attacks because of various [personal] problems," the document states.
Sometimes that decision comes because of "fights and serious violence in the family, or with a spouse or fiance/fiancee."
But in other instances, the suicidal attack is a response to "social criticism for an immoral act, such as adultery or sullied family honor, or even failing matriculation exams, or a serious mental health state stemming from depression, desperation, and other mental illnesses," the paper says.
"In the absence of an effective solution to these problems, either from the family or the authorities, the young man or woman becomes trapped, and death is the only escape. Because suicide is not normative behavior, the young people opt for a death that will be seen as a martyrs' death. The assumption is that carrying out an attack will allow the young person to escape a bitter fate and even win the glory of a martyr. All their evil deeds and aberrant behavior will be forgiven. Their deaths could even benefit their families financially, whether in the form of payments from the Palestinian Authority or by them no longer being a burden on their families."
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter