In the Western world and way of thinking, the concept of a person blowing him or herself up in an effort to kill innocent people defies logic. This phenomenon goes against human nature, in which our basic instinct to survive is believed to be the strongest drive that humans possess.
So then what drives men and women to become suicide bombers? This is the question acclaimed and award-winning French filmmaker Pierre Rehov set out to answer in his latest documentary film, Suicide Killers, which deals with the psychopathology behind terrorist bombers.
After conducting interviews with the families of suicide bombers, would-be bombers, and victims who survived suicide attacks, Rehov arrived at a shocking and provocative thesis: Cultures in which sexual repression is strictly enforced inculcate in their young men a sexual motivation for suicidal terrorist murder.
In a candid interview, Rehov talks about the making of the film and describes what he discovered about the motivations of suicide killers:
Q: What motivated you to make Suicide Killers?
A: Suicide Killers is my seventh film about Middle East conflict. I was making a film about the victims of terror, when I ended up understanding that there was much more to it than just somebody blowing himself up, but for political and social reasons. A lot of the victims of terror attacks who had survived them were describing the smile of the terrorists the very second before he blew himself up. So I absolutely wanted to understand what leads someone, most of the time a very young man or very young woman to one day decide to blow themselves up to kill innocence and for which reasons, and beyond political and beyond propaganda, what is deeply behind and beyond this smile that the victims were describing? So this was the start for me to really want to produce this film.
Q: How long did the film take to make?
A: A couple of years. But making a documentary is not like making a fiction film. You don’t have a scenario. So you can go two months without shooting, and you do other things and then you receive a phone call and then you have this spectacular interview or shot of something you always dreamed of having. For instance, at the very beginning I was on hold for about three months before getting the authorization to film inside Israeli jails. Then the first time I filmed inside Israeli jails, I only had the chance to speak to four terrorists. Later on, because I was making more connections and the film was really coming together, I got more authorizations and I went back into the Israeli jails and this time I spent weeks there. So in the meantime, I was in between the two opportunities I had to be inside the Israeli jails. It was about a whole year during which I started cutting the film, not having enough material, going back to doing another film.
Q: Why did these potential suicide-killers let you interview them? What did they think you were doing?
A: Anybody can do that. They like to talk. You have to understand that you are talking about people who are in jail. Even though it’s not a miserable daily life, I have to say it’s really unbelievable in the way they treat those people there. But they like to have access to the outside world and they like to talk. They want to try to convince you, and that’s how I got access to them. Once you get the authorization from the Israeli administration, the most important thing is to try to convince the leaders inside the jails, the leaders for Hamas, the leaders for the Islamic Jihad, that you have good intentions and that you want to access these people for the right reasons. That was the hardest part of the job.
Q: Did you fear for your life while making this film?
A: Well actually, I was very much frightened when I was in Gaza. I got into a very bad situation there because my guide let me down at the last second. When you work inside Palestinian territories, you must always have a guide with you, someone who speaks fluent Arabic, and who has connections. And this one wanted more money than he said he would take at the beginning. So he let me down in the middle of a refugee camp, in the midst of a very violent outcome between the Hamas and the PLO and I almost got killed. That was not targeted against me. That was because of a situation. Some of the people thought that I was an Israeli spy, so I had to prove that I was actually French and a journalist to stay alive. It was a rough time. Besides that…nothing really important to report.
Q: Well that sounds pretty important!
A: Well it was enough for me, believe me, more than enough.
Q: Why do people give up their lives to kill innocent people?
A: It’s a very simple and very complicated thing at the same time. Number one, they are the result of a permanent brainwashing in a civilization which does not allow any real joy besides religion. So you have teenagers with a strong libido or a strong will to enjoy their lives finding themselves completely unable to have any kind of fun or pleasure on this planet.
The second part of the problem is that all of this is very well-organized by people who worship the afterlife much more than they worship the actual life. For them, existence on earth is very temporary and we are here just to prove that we can worship God and obey God. A Muslim is somebody who worships and is afraid of God. That is the exact translation of the word Muslim. So for those people who organize this society, any kind of thing taking them away from the religion is dangerous and is questioning the religion.
So you have those kids who have no pleasure, no fun, no hope, nothing on earth and they are told and taught that if they just blow themselves up killing impure people, the next second they will wake up in heaven surrounded by virgins for the males. For the females, they will end up in heaven and 70 people from their family will be forgiven for all their sins and in some cases they will become virgins given to martyrs. So it’s a very, very dangerous but interesting mythology to study and the end result is that they do it very happily.
Q: During your film it was mentioned that these terror organizations only take volunteers. How do volunteers find these terror organizations?
A: It’s not difficult. Everybody knows everybody. It’s a small country. In the Palestinian territory you can find a Hamas leader on the corner of every street. If you just tell your cousin, or your friend, or the friend of your friend, or the cousin of your friend that you want to become a martyr, the next day somebody is going to visit you and ask you about your real motivations. It’s the easiest thing to do in the world.
Q: If this is so well known, why aren’t these organizations being pursued and prosecuted by the authorities?
A: We are talking of a problem that is at the level of an entire society. Even Israel has been trying to stop it for a long time without real success. Of course, the Palestinian police wouldn’t do anything because most Palestinians are supporters of terrorists and terror attacks, so they wouldn’t do anything against it. The only ones who would be involved and interested in doing something would be Israel, and at this point for instance, Israel is no longer in Gaza at all. In the West Bank, Israel is out of the main cities. It is very rare that they come inside those cities, only for very specific incursions, temporary incursions. They cannot leave police there full time. They do not have enough people to do that.
Q: Where do these organizations get the bomb materials and financial backing to support their operations?
A: Well, they get money from many different sources. Saudi Arabia is a source, and Iran is a big source for financing terror. In the past Iraq and Saddam Hussein were giving a lot of money for it. But even the PLO itself, the Palestinian Authority, was getting billions of dollars from Europe and India and America and even Israel. They were getting money to supposedly build the country, but instead they were spending most of the money for propaganda and for financing terror organizations.
Q: In the beginning of the film, one of the would-be suicide killers says he hopes his children follow the same road of martyrdom. Do they tell their children what they are doing ahead of time and encourage them to do it as well?
A: I’m not sure if they tell them, “Well, this is Daddy, and Daddy’s going to become a suicide bomber, and I want you to follow the same path.” I think it’s done in a much different way. First of all, the children kind of know that the parents belong to an organization, but they don’t know exactly at which level.
Secondly, whoever belongs to this organization teaches their children that they have to die for the cause. So if one day, one guy blows himself up, becomes what they call a martyr, then he’s going to be a martyr for his children and they may follow the path of the father. Actually, we discovered that among those families, if you have one kid who does it, you most of the time have other children that are ready to do it or are also involved in terror attacks or attacks against Israel in many ways. It’s a family thing. It definitely is. But you know, it’s not like if you had a few families here and there that support this and the rest of the population is very much against it. Most of the Palestinians, I don’t have exact numbers, but at this point about 60% of the population is in favor of suicide attacks.
Q: Is the promise of 72 virgins waiting in paradise the most compelling reason for these men to become suicide killers? Is this more important to them than pleasing Allah or having the feeling of ultimate power the moment before they die?
A: There is a lot of confusion in their minds. They are so afraid of life and they are also so afraid of dying that they found this mythology to counter their anxiety. But the level of anxiety toward life is very, very high and there is confusion between death and sexual pleasure, which is a common thing when you have been through a lot of sexual repression in your life. It’s always the same phenomenon. You try to kill impurity and by doing that you try to kill what’s inside yourself, your own impurity. And it’s always a result of a very highly repressive religion, and among all religions, Islam is the most repressive of all.
Q: What about the married men who become suicide killers? They are not as sexually repressed as the younger male virgins. Are their reasons still sexual in nature?
A: Well, I never said that the reason was only sexual, I said that the reason was also sexual. It’s not as simple as “Well, I’m a virgin and if I kill myself I will be surrounded by 72 virgins.” The human mind, even if it’s the mind of a suicide killer, is very complicated. We are dealing mostly in terms of purity and impurity. In the Muslim world, everything which is not Islam is impure. So for a married man, who eventually would have fantasies about dating other women, in his own fantasy world, those women are impure unless he is in heaven. Yes, he has a normal life with his wife, who eventually he respects and loves, but as part of his ego, he believes that it’s going to be okay and his wife is going to be very happy to know her husband is a martyr and surrounded by virgins in the other world. If a man has only one wife, he can still fantasize about having another 72 waiting for him on the other side.
Actually, the one we got on film in Gaza who was married with kids, was almost saying that. He was saying the afterlife is going to be so beautiful. What we have here is nothing compared to paradise. We don’t suffer, we have all the pleasure in the world, we can have all the women we want. It’s always in terms of authorized pleasure.
Q: Do you believe suicide killings will remain largely in the Middle East or will we see more of them in America and other countries?
A: A perfect example is what happened in London. The Muslims who did that weren’t in Palestinian territories, they were in Europe. And since 2001, since September 11, all together around the world there have been about 7,000 attacks coming from Muslim countries, whether it’s India, Indonesia, Algeria, Morocco, everywhere….
Q: There really hasn’t been a major issue in the U.S. with suicide bombings being initiated by Americans. Is this because of the cultural differences?
A: I don’t really know. I simply hope that you’re not going to see Muslims from inside America following this path. But I saw a film from a friend of mine Steve Emerson, called “Jihad in America,” which was made way before September 11. You could see that the American mosques, not only teach Islam, but also teach that Muslims have to defeat the infidels. We are talking of a war being prepared inside the mosques of America. We are not talking about something coming from the outside. Whether the worshippers will believe and follow this path or not is a different question. But whether or not there is a real will of doing something against the American democracy, as far as I am concerned, I am 100% sure that this is the case.
Q: It seems like there are major suicide attacks on a daily basis. Why is the number of suicide bombings increasing?
A: There is another attack every day. Al Qaeda has been attacking Algeria recently and also Morocco. American interests have been attacked all around the world, whether in Syria or in Somalia or in Egypt. It’s a war. It’s not something that is happening by accident here and there. We have a will from the other side to prevail. This civilization, I’m not talking about Muslims all together, I’m not talking of one billion, 250 million Muslims, obviously not, but if we have ten percent of this population, ten percent only of this population, who are extremists (I think these are very close to the real numbers) that adds up to being 125 million Muslims ready to attack the world and try to have Islam prevailing and with nothing but Jihad in their minds. It’s only ten percent of the Muslim world.
Q: Do you think it is possible to end suicide bombings?
A: No, absolutely not. At this point, there is no way. We were too weak at the beginning. When it all started, it was just in Israel and it’s been going on in Israel for decades. The rest of the world would not take care of it. The rest of the world would always find excuses, would always say maybe if Israel does this and Israel does that, this is going to be okay. But no matter what Israel would do, it didn’t change anything. Whether they were trying to find peace, whether they were trying to restore territories, it didn’t change anything. In the meantime it was increasing, grueling, and finally the world woke up on September 11.
But after that, what happened? Madrid, London, and it’s going on and on. No. What can you do against a religion which is so powerful around the planet? The only thing is to try to survive on a daily basis. In the future it will be too hard to for people to take and then everyone will understand that we are facing a war. But until then, since very few people acknowledge the problem, we are just letting it happen. And we are very responsible for that.
Q: So you don’t think it’s possible for these cultures to become less sexually repressive?
A: No. It’s part of the religion itself. I think it’s going to take a couple of centuries before Islam will have its enlightenment. In the Middle Ages, Christianity was going through the same problem, and I would say it lasted until the 18th century. Even the 19th century was not so liberated. So what we are facing now is a very young religion going through a crisis, and it looks like all religions have gone through the same crisis in the past.
Q: Do you think many suicide killers change their minds at the last minute?
A: It’s very rare. Once they are up to doing it, they just go for it and they do it. Once you have decided to do that, then you cannot face your own people if you at the last minute decide not to do it. You cannot go back. There is no return.
Q: What do you think happens to them if they do change their minds?
A: Well, usually nothing happens to them because when they change their minds, the only thing they do is to get arrested by the Israeli police because it is much better to become a hero in jail having tried to become a suicide bomber then to go back to the Palestinian territories and say “Hey listen, I changed my mind at the last minute. I didn’t want to kill those people.” There is not one example of a Palestinian who wanted to become a suicide bomber, changed his mind, and came back to his village. That doesn’t exist.
Q: What was the single most important thing you learned while making this film?
A: There is no limit in human hatred towards other civilizations. No limit. I knew that people could kill for hatred. I didn’t know that they were capable of killing themselves for hatred.
Q: What is your next project?
A: My last answer is…I don’t want to talk about it. A top-secret project! I am sorry, but for security reasons, I cannot talk about my films before I actually start making them.
Q: Well I wish you the best with whatever your top-secret project is!
A: I promise I will tell you in time.
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