Earlier this week, Mike Kelly wrote about his journey from 9/11 to Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road. His newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
I needed to meet the man who built the bomb that blew up the bus on Jaffa Road – the bomb that killed Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker in 1996.
On a Sunday morning, a decade after that devastating explosion, I walked through the gates of an Israeli prison in the Negev Desert. A prison official shook my hand, then led me to a room. Minutes later, amid the shuffle of feet and the chunky clank of leg irons, a door opened and I looked into the eyes of Hassan Salameh.
He is serving 46 consecutive life terms for the murders of 46 unarmed and innocent people aboard three commuter buses that were attacked by suicide bombers who carried explosive-filled satchels that he had designed. Salameh looked at me and smiled faintly.
A prison official motioned to me that I could begin.
Salameh had no idea who I was. Israeli prison officials do not tell an inmate anything about a visitor. They merely tell an inmate that a visitor has arrived and would like to talk. After meeting the visitor, the inmate can then choose to talk or return to his cell.
I figured I could ask at least one question before Salameh decided whether to speak to me.
I decided to try for two.
“Do you know the name of Sara Duker,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said in English.
He did not get up to leave. Nor did he seem to object to my presence or my question.
So I asked my second question:
“Why did you kill her?”
So began what I can only describe as a transformative experience – not transformative in a positive sense, though. It was really the beginning of a journey into the heart of darkness, an experience that led me to write my book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice.
On that day at the prison, Salameh was unrepentant, not showing even a trace of regret. I was not surprised and had been warned that he might exhibit no remorse. But being warned is one thing; the actual experience of seeing Salameh’s behavior first-hand was something else entirely.
He stared at me with blank, cold eyes. But what stunned me the most, I think, was his sense of joy in what he had done. Yes, he acknowledged that he had killed unarmed people. But he insisted that his murders were “God’s will.” And from that, he not only seemed satisfied but happy.
I wrote a newspaper column about my confrontation with Salameh and moved on to other assignments. But the experience haunted me. Salameh’s words echoed those of the al-Qaeda killers of 9/11 and far too many Islamic jihadists who were trying to justify their murders of innocent people by claiming it was God’s will.
Several years later, over lunch with a trusted book editor, I mentioned my desire to write about terrorism. Then I described my interview with Salameh and his twisted theology. My lunch companion paused, then looked at me. “You have to write about this more,” he said. “This is where you can start to really probe the horrors of terrorism.”
It was then that my book was born.
For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.
- Essays: Israel
- My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit
- The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism by Ami Pedahzur
A journalist for more than three decades, Mike Kelly is the author of two books and many prize-winning newspaper projects and columns for the Bergen Record in northern New Jersey. His assignments have taken him to Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq. He covered the 9/11 attacks, the cleanup of Ground Zero, and the 9/11 Commission hearings in Washington, DC, and has devoted much of his time to covering terrorism.