Former Neo-Nazi and KKK member turned extremism researcher – a ‘convert’ in every sense of…
AU World interview of ICSVE Director Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.
By Matthew Hall
December 23, 2015
IN 2003, eight young Palestinian footballers killed 34 people and injured dozens more in a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks over the course of eight weeks. ANNE SPECKHARD travelled to Palestine in a bid to understand how Hamas secretly radicalised these young men, turning them into the “Jihad Mosque XI”.
IT’S March 2005, and I’m back in Palestine.
My translator and I pass through the airport without problems and go immediately towards Jerusalem, then to Ramallah, where we catch a taxi to Hebron to interview the family of a suicide bomber, or “martyrs” as they’re called here.
Forty-two kilometres from Ramallah, Hebron is not a long trip by car, although it’s made much longer by the five Israeli checkpoints that we hit along the way.
By this time, I had already embarked on psychological autopsies of suicide bombers — most notably Chechen suicide bombers — to try to figure out what made them turn to terrorism. At what point did they step onto the terrorist trajectory? What attracted them to a terrorist group? Could we have prevented their radicalisation into terrorist violence and could we back them off?
I kind of fell into this research. I was living with my husband in Belgium at the time (he’s now a retired US Ambassador) and I was teaching at Vesalius College, a Liberal Arts college in the heart of Brussels, when NATO asked if I would start a study on religion and terrorism.
And so I found myself here, on the outskirts of Hebron.
Rather than heading into the old, stone historic city centre, we veer off the highway onto a thoroughfare that leads into the rural village of Al-Khalil. The village appears dusty, depressed and empty; the few shops sport faded signs and dilapidated storefronts.
We travel further into the countryside, finally arriving at a two-storey stone home on a dirt road.
A friend has arranged for us to talk with a family whose son was a suicide bomber for Hamas — the Palestinian political organisation and resistance movement formed in 1987.
Shortly after its inception, the Hamas charter announced its purpose of liberating Palestine from Israeli occupation and establishing an Islamic state in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
For that purpose, Hamas runs a military wing, the Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigades, responsible for many attacks — including large-scale suicide bombings — against Israeli civilian and military targets and suspected Palestinian collaborators.
Our interview is with Ziad al-Fahudi, the father of Fadi Ziad Al-Fahudi, a young man who joined nine other members of his fifteen-man Jihad Mosque soccer team, in executing suicide attacks inside Israel proper and upon Israeli settlements in the Hebron area.
Fadi’s father is expecting us and waits at his door as we arrive. He’s a slim man, nicely dressed in western clothes with grey hair. His eyes are bright as he greets us warmly, saying “welcome” before ushering us into his “diwan” (formal sitting room).
His five or six younger, school-age children gather around him as we are seated on brown velvet couches. We are offered tea and coffee but there is no wife present. The house and the children are clean and tidy and everything is tastefully decorated, leaving little doubt of a woman’s touch. She is either following Islamic traditions and not showing herself to male strangers, or she is out of the house.
One of the boys is proudly holding up the family’s baby girl, no more than 18 months old, for me to see. Our translator points out she is sporting a green Hamas headband that proclaims in Arabic lettering: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. I am reminded of the Arab children whose parents dress them in fake suicide vests when taking them to participate in demonstrations.
The family’s baby girl. I am not sure if her being dressed in the Hamas headband is an allusion to her as a small “martyr” or if she is just wearing the “team” colours.Source:Supplied
Fadi’s first step toward becoming a suicide bomber appears to have been when he joined the Jihad Mosque soccer team. In 1998, the team leader, Muhsin Kawasmeh, a young, devout member of the Jihad mosque, founded the team and recruited fifteen other boys and young men from the neighbourhood.
There was only one requirement for membership — that all members pray five times a day and fast on Mondays and Thursdays. The boys would gather once or twice a week after morning prayers under Muhsin’s leadership and practice soccer.
“What do you think pushed Fadi to do it?” I ask.
“Humiliations … any Muslim is our brother, what happens to one, happens to all of us. It was based on these things — patriotism, and he was religious.”
Fadi, Mushin, and over time, 11 of the Jihad Mosque soccer team, joined the militant wing of Hamas under the recruitment of Abdullah Kawasmeh, a quiet but intense Hamas militant who grew up in the neighbourhood.
Fadi learned to handle light arms and explosives under the tutelage of Abdullah Kawasmeh who, preying upon the psychological vulnerability of these young boys, welcomed their anger and willingly equipped them to take on suicide missions to kill settlers in the West Bank and Israelis inside the green line.
“He was a very good Muslim and always worshipped in our house and in the mosque, and he often stayed awake all night reading the Koran and making prayers. This was very important to him until the day of his martyrdom.”
Throughout the second intifada (the second Palestinian uprising against Israel — a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence from 2000-2005), Fadi’s team kept playing and winning just like other boys the world over who enjoy a good game of soccer. But they couldn’t take full pleasure in the normal joys of teenage boys enjoying a sport together.
As they played on, they witnessed their team’s members shot dead while throwing rocks and in other skirmishes with the Israelis; rounded up, arrested, imprisoned; and finally one by one they became angry and demoralised enough to volunteer for and carry out suicide missions that a local Hamas operative was only too happy to equip them for.
In September 2002, teammate Mohammed Yagmur became the first volunteer for a suicide mission directed by Abdullah Kawasmeh against a Jewish settlement near Hebron. He became the third member of the team to die — the first to go in a suicide
Ziad knew the deep emotional impact to his son of losing his teammates to Israeli violence and then to suicide missions. But he didn’t realise his son had been caught up in the group contagion of suicide.
In the case of the Jihad Mosque soccer team, once one member decided to strike back for the deaths of their teammates and all the other injustices involved in the occupation, the others followed, one by one.
Wearing a Hamas headband, Fadi holds an M4 assault rifle in front of the Ezzedeen Al Qassam Brigades banner that pictures the Al Aqsa mosque in the background.Source:Supplied
It’s likely that Abdullah Kawasmeh also played upon their already strong religious sentiments and told them that to “martyr” themselves was to attain the highest honour as a Muslim.
“Did you know something was wrong?” I ask.
“Yes, it was an inner feeling.” Fadi’s father answers. “I could not tell the specifics, or exactly what it was.”
On March 8, 2011 teammates Fadi, Mushin, Hazem and their close neighbourhood friend, Sufian Hares, went together to carry out an attack organised by Hamas operative Abdullah Kawasmeh. Splitting into pairs to carry out nearly simultaneous suicide attacks upon two different settlements near Hebron, the boys carried weapons and wore suicide vests to explode after breaching the settlement’s perimeters.
They comprised the third to fifth suicide attackers from the Jihad Mosque team. The Israeli security service had a hard time detecting the tight knit group because they communicated in person, an advantage that kept their terror cell functional until nearly the entire team had taken on suicide missions.
It wouldn’t be until after the eighth player blew himself up in Jerusalem that Israeli intelligence officers began to understand that the players of the Jihad Mosque soccer team were more than just fierce opponents on the football field.
“On the day before [it happened] I had the night shift. It was Friday. I came home early and saw Fadi. ‘Good morning’, he said, and hugged me. I felt deep inside me, ‘My son, something is wrong!’ He is sick or something. He is not normal.
“‘Are you sick?’ I asked him, ‘You have a problem?’ He answered, ‘No.’
By that time, Fadi had gravitated from his father’s mosque to the extremist mosque for which he played soccer, and each went to their separate mosques for prayers. Later that day, Fadi asked to return to his mosque for afternoon prayer.
“‘Go, but don’t be late so we can eat together’, I told him.
“‘Inshallah, when I come back’, he answered.”
Inshallah, which literally translates to “Allah willing”, is a typical Muslim answer regarding the outcome of future events, conveying the belief that it is arrogant to announce one’s future when it is Allah, according to Islam, who ordains what will occur.
“But he did not come back before the evening prayer,” Fadi’s father states, a crease settling between his eyebrows.
“While his mother and I were speaking, the exclusive news of an action in the settlement Kiryat came on. After that in 10 or 15 minutes they gave news of an operation in another settlement [Negohote].”
Ziad rubs his forehead. “His mother felt it. ‘Fadi is in this operation’, she told me. ‘It’s not true,’ I told her. ‘My heart feels this operation,’ she said, crying.”
Ziad and his wife watched the news for 40 minutes, and then he called his father. “He lived near this settlement. As we spoke I heard the sound of an explosion on the phone. This was Fadi exploding himself, but I didn’t know it.
A framed photo of Fadi with his father, Ziad al-Fahudi, hangs in the family home.Source:Supplied
“Then people we didn’t know telephoned and said, ‘Fadi went as a martyr in this operation — Allah finished his life’.”
“Do you know how he carried out his mission, what happened?” I ask.
“He started shooting until he ran out of ammunition and then bombed himself,” Ziad says.
“The Israelis say he killed five.”
According to the Ezzedeen Al Qassam Brigades — Information Office website, Fadi’s “martyrdom” was described thus: “Having grown up near the settlement of Kiryat Arba, Fadi was selected to carry out an infiltration operation against that target. In the evening of 8 March 2003, Fadi and Hazem (Al-Qawasmi) geared up and moved to their target. They succeeded in passing through the security perimeter of the settlement and fought an hour-long battle with the guards inside the settlement. Hazem was killed during the battle; and Fadi moved on to where settlers were gathered inside the settlement. He broke into their gathering and detonated his explosives belt.”
At the time of their “martyrdom”, the Jihad Mosque team was in support, wearing blue-and-white soccer shirts emblazoned with a hand wielding an axe, ringed by an inscription which read: “Prepare for the enemy and to fight the occupation.”
Upon receiving the news of Fadi’s death, Ziad says he and his family prayed. “We thanked Allah that he is a martyr.”
The father of Hazem al-Qawasmeh, one of three other boys from the Jihad Mosque soccer team who had also suicided themselves that night, came to Fadi’s obituary, looking for answers. The next morning, Ziad and Hazem’s father went looking for their sons’ bodies together.
“I found the corpse of three people,” he says. “Fadi was not one of them. They told me the fourth corpse was completely torn up because he was wearing an explosive belt.
“Around 2pm they reported that they received his body in the hospital of Hebron. His cousins and uncles did not recognise the corpse and said, ‘This is someone else’.
“I went myself and of course I recognised him. No one can miss his son.”
Fadi and his friend and fellow operative, Hazem al-Qawasmeh, holding M16 assault rifles.Source:Supplied
Fadi’s father looks down to his hands and we remain silent.
“We took him and prayed over his body in the mosque. He and all his friends were buried together in the same tomb.”
Ziad looks around the diwan and our eyes follow his. It’s a very homely room with overstuffed furniture, thick oriental carpet, and embroidered cloths on the end tables.
“If you had known he was going to do this, would you have stopped him?” I ask.
“As a fact, if I knew my son was going to do this, I would stop him,” Ziad answers without hesitation. “Every father would.”
“Do you know who gave your son the suicide belt?” I ask.
“Yes and I have total respect for him. He came and confessed to me, ‘I am the one who recruited your son’.”
Israeli soldiers shot Abdullah Kawasmeh dead in June of 2003 as he left evening prayers at his mosque near Hebron, four months after Fadi’s suicide operation.
We finish our interview with Ziad, thank him profusely for sharing with us and say goodbye to him and his children.
When I look back at what I was doing back then it concerns me to see that the Israelis have continued to expand their settlements into Palestinian territory and many of the same grievances that were fuelling terrorism that existed then, continue today.
If we want to solve the terrorist problems of today we need to bring political solutions to the conflict torn areas, especially where Muslims reside, and we also need to understand what puts an individual on the terrorist trajectory and what we can do to diminish their vulnerabilities to resonating with the call to terrorism.
When it comes to the Islamic State, I’ve found insider stories of IS defectors to be one way to discredit groups like IS, but that’s a different story for another day …
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Follow her on Twitter @AnneSpeckhard.