Beersheba, Israel — A bomb strapped to his abdomen, Rafat Moqadi walked into a Tel Aviv restaurant and saw a woman dining with her two little girls. "Seeing that, I decided not to carry out the operation. I couldn't do it," he said.
Yet, Moqadi said he longed for what he believes awaits a suicide bomber in the hereafter - God's reward and a special place in heaven for martyrs. "He has a life in paradise," he told The Associated Press on Thursday. "He doesn't die."
A rare jailhouse interview with the would-be suicide bomber revealed a common thread running through the rising worldwide phenomenon: Most attackers are driven not by poverty or ignorance, but by a lethal mix of nationalism, zealotry and humiliation.
As the pace of attacks increases in the Middle East and beyond, a surprising profile is emerging of those willing to take their own lives: many are young, middle class and educated.
Nearly four-fifths of all suicide attacks over the past 35 years have occurred since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in the U.S., according to the RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management. And 80 percent of those have been carried out by radical Islamic groups, said the center's director, Bruce Hoffman.
But religion is only part of the picture. Moqadi said that wasn't his motivation.
"The main reason was to resist the (Israeli) occupation, to create a balance of power with the Israeli army," he said.
"At the moment they put the (explosives) belt on me there were a few seconds of doubt," he said. "But after that I felt strength. I felt stronger than the whole state of Israel. It was a good feeling."
Moqadi, who is serving a 14-year sentence in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, said he graduated high school and worked with his brothers laying tile before joining the Hamas militant group in 2002. The soft-spoken 26-year-old with neatly cropped hair said he did so in response to massive gunbattles between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Jenin.
Now, Moqadi spends most of his time in jail learning to speak, read and write Hebrew, the language of the Jewish state. Islam, he said, teaches that it's important to "know your enemy."
Moqadi is not alone in having doubts before pressing the button, said Ariel Merari, an Israeli psychologist who has interviewed numerous would-be bombers.
"A person who volunteers usually hesitates. He has second thoughts," Merari said.
Often what makes the person carry out the mission is commitment to a group, making it difficult to back out without losing face, experts say. Many of today's suicide bombers, especially in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, come from societies where many people condone the action, making it easier to execute.
For Palestinian attackers, the last ritual is usually the making of a videotape in which the bomber proclaims commitment to national liberation. In Sri Lanka, when suicide bombings were prevalent, it was often a final dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Since the early 1980s, three countries have accounted for the vast majority of suicide bombings: Iraq, Israel and Sri Lanka. Iraq has become the global leader in suicide attacks, with an average of two a day during the past six months, attracting jihadists the world over, said Merari, who studies the issue at Tel Aviv University.
Hoffman attributes the sharp upturn in suicide bombings to their success in achieving the attackers' goal. His studies reveal that suicide strikes around the world kill four times as many people as other kinds of terrorism.
Some bombers do seek revenge, such as Hanadi Jaradat, 27, who blew up herself and 19 others at a restaurant in northern Israel in 2003 after seeing her brother die at the hands of Israeli troops. But most thwarted bombers say their motivation was nationalist, not personal.
A letter appearing this week in the journal Nature noted that many of today's Islamic radicals - especially those operating in the West like in London or Madrid - have no clear political goals but instead act "to oppose a perceived global evil." The letter, by researchers Scott Atran and Jessica Stern, said many potential suicide bombers in the West feel marginalized from society and "bond as they surf jihadi Web sites to find direction and purpose."