RAMALLAH, West Bank—The first time the "Engineers of Death" tried to attack an Israeli army checkpoint, they accidentally set off their roadside bomb while laying the trap. Undaunted, they devised a new plan, to kill an Israeli police officer. This time, the car bomb's detonator failed.
The failures so depressed one would-be militant that he gave one of the leaders a box of chocolates and quit.
But the cell kept trying, and by the time the group was tracked down in August 2002, it had become one of Hamas' deadliest terror cells, killing at least 35 people in major attacks that included the bombings of the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at Hebrew University and the Cafe Moment near the prime minister's home. Before being captured, members of the group laid plans to kill the son of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to fire rockets at Jewish settlements.
Now, in an effort to cement the group's place in the Palestinian pantheon, one of the imprisoned cell leaders has written a history of the group's actions, revealing previously unknown details about some of the region's best-known attacks.
Bluntly titled "The Engineers of Death," the 80-page booklet by Hamas militant Mohammed Irman offers a remarkable window into the evolution of Hamas strategy as the group tried to demoralize Israel, derail regional peace talks and establish itself as the dominant Palestinian political movement.
Hamas eventually would win elections in January 2006, but Irman's monograph is more of a how-to manual than a political tome.
The glossy red booklet with gruesome images of suicide bombings on the cover is being sold for two dollars by street-corner booksellers in Ramallah, alongside books on traditional herbal medicine and Islam. The book is available only in Arabic; McClatchy Newspapers translated it in full in preparing this article.
It's difficult to know how sales are going; the publisher has released 15,000 copies, according to Irman's older brother, Aziz, and 35,000 more are planned. Unknown as well is how Irman smuggled his writings out of the Israeli prison where he's serving 35 life sentences.
A researcher at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies who's interviewed dozens of jailed Palestinian militants said Irman, 32, stands out as one of the most unrepentant.
"Most of them were people you could talk to and reason with," said Yoram Schweitzer. "But, with him, no."
The appearance of Irman's booklet comes at a time when both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem paralyzed by internal problems, sparking concerns that the low-level conflict might again explode into a broader confrontation.
There's little doubt that "The Engineers of Death" is Irman's attempt to inspire and guide those who want to undermine any efforts their leaders might try to make peace with Israel.
Irman details the proper handling of explosives, warns against using cell phones as detonators, discusses the best size and shape for roadside bombs, and urges the next generation of militants to think up new ways to carry on their cause. How their actions are perceived is central, Irman writes.
"We did not kill for killing's sake, but we used it as a means to reach our goal," Irman writes. "The media department of our military wing has an important role because more than half of the war these days is a media war."
The group's first action, in February 2002, was an abject failure.
After weeks of monitoring an Israeli checkpoint near Ramallah, the group prepared a roadside bomb packed with 1,500 ball bearings. But as one of the cell members was planting the bomb, he accidentally pushed the detonator and thwarted the attack. Irman cut the bumbler from future operations.
"In military work there is a saying that the first mistake is the last mistake," Irman wrote. "There are no excuses."
A month later, the group tried again. This time its attempt to kill a Jerusalem police officer with a car bomb was derailed by a malfunctioning detonator.
Irman initially was reluctant to use suicide bombers but that changed in early March after an Israeli tank fired on a car carrying the wife and three young children of a Hamas social welfare official in Ramallah, killing all four.
Irman called the attack "an awful scene that startled anyone who saw it."
Five days later, Irman nervously sat next to the cell's first suicide bomber as they rode toward Jerusalem to stage their attack. They said good-bye, and he asked the "martyr" to remember them when he got to heaven.
Within hours, the suicide bomber had killed 11 Israelis at the Cafe Moment. The attack triggered a major Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank.
Irman then sought to derail talks in Beirut where Arab leaders were developing a proposal to make peace with Israel. Hamas, Irman wrote, wanted to send a message that "resistance is the only choice we have and you—`the Arabs'—have to support us by word and deed; otherwise keep quiet."
But the attack was canceled when a suicide bomber from another cell hit a Passover dinner at a coastal Israeli hotel in Netanya, killing 30 and triggering a massive Israeli military response known as Operation Defensive Shield.
The cancellation angered the would-be suicide bomber, who was anxious to strike Israel. Irman reassured him that his day would come. Soon, it did.
Two months later, the impatient suicide bomber killed 16 people in a powerful explosion at a pool hall near Tel Aviv, which again derailed nascent peace talks.
Then-Prime Minister Sharon rushed home from a meeting with President Bush in Washington and accused then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of condoning such attacks.
Buoyed by its militant achievements, the group began thinking up new ways to attack Israel. It blew up a fuel tanker in the country's largest fuel depot. It twice hit Israel's central railroad in an effort to derail two passenger trains.
Hamas devised a plan to assassinate one of Sharon's sons and tried to smuggle rudimentary Qassam rockets into Israel. The rockets would have been fired at Jewish settlements in the West Bank in a bid to confuse the military.
The most shocking strike came on July 31, when the group smuggled a bomb onto the Hebrew University campus and set it off in the middle of the Frank Sinatra cafeteria. The blast, set off by a cell phone, killed nine people, including five Americans.
The attack increased anxiety in Israel.
What wasn't publicly known until now was that the group had tried to bomb the cafeteria three days earlier. With instructions not to blow up the cafeteria if there were Arabs inside, a cell member who was working at Hebrew University as a part-time painter sneaked the bomb into the student center. But, in an echo of the first attacks, the cell phone failed to set off the bomb.
Undeterred, the painter returned to the cafeteria, grabbed the bag and brought the bomb back to be repaired. Three days later, the plan was in motion again—and this time the bomb went off.
The group's undoing began a week later when two of its cell members were stopped and questioned before they staged a second attack on a fuel tanker.
Israeli intelligence began to monitor the group and arrested the members in mid-August.
Irman's older brother, Aziz, said he hopes that Mohammed will be freed as part of an evolving prisoner exchange to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured last summer by Hamas-led militants in the Gaza Strip.
As for the book, Aziz Irman said he disagrees mostly with the title.
"It gives the impression that they're bin Laden or the Mafia or terrorists," said Aziz, a supporter of the more moderate Fatah political movement. "I would have called it: `The Way to Freedom.'"
Excerpts of the book can be found at www.mcclatchydc.com
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Najib translated "The Engineers of Death" in preparation for this story.)