b 1966 Gaza, d 1996 Gaza
Yahya Ayyash did only the most primitive kind of construction and design, but it earned him the nickname of "The Engineer" and the adulation of thousands. He was a genuinely dangerous man, and he came to a suitably grisly end.
Ayyash built bombs. He worked with the Palestinian group Hamas, which had a plentiful supply of suicidal delivery boys. In 1994 and 1995 he is thought to have participated in 11 attacks on Israel. The estimated number of people killed by his handiwork, not counting the deliverers, ranges from fifty to seventy-five, with hundreds more wounded.
He was born in 1966 in the Gaza Strip, a barren and desperately poor patch of sand between Israel and Egypt on the Mediterranean coast. He studied chemical engineering at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank in the mid-80s. His college roommate said he was a devout scholar of the Koran. He was married in 1992 and had two sons.
In April '94, he started his bombing campaign with an attack on a bus station in northern Israel. It killed nine people. All through 1995 he was hunted by Israeli intelligence. He is said to have had plastic surgery. His mother was arrested in October '95 when she went to work in Israel, but later released. His parents were constantly interrogated as to his whereabouts.
They caught up to him on January 6, 1996 in the Gaza Strip. His cellular phone had stopped working, and he was given another one by the uncle of a friend. It blew up while he was talking on it, taking most of his head with it. The uncle disappeared.
His funeral was attended by a hundred thousand people, and that was the Israeli count. Hamas vowed to avenge the death of this martyr. Arafat also decried the assassination, although there was some suspicion that the Israelis were helped by Palestinians unsympathetic to Hamas. For a Palestinian viewpoint on his death, see Al-Akhbar News and draw your own conclusions. Israelis expressed relief, satisfaction, and even joy.
Now, every so often the various engineering societies will complain about how engineers are treated in the media. They worry that engineers are portrayed as maladjusted loners with no friends except fellow geeks and absolutely no luck with women. This doesn't draw boys into the profession, and really, really doesn't draw girls. They want better role models.
They certainly don't want Yahya Ayyash. Yet there's a worse fate than being thought a geek, and that's to be thought a cog. These days engineers are considered disposable cogs to boot. They're employees, and in modern America that means that they're fodder. They work long hours in dismal cubicles and then get laid off by management fads.
Yet The Engineer was no cog. He lived a life of danger and excitement, and made a difference to his people. All right, it was an evil difference, and the world is better off without him. Yet drama needs larger-than-life villains as well as larger-than-life heros. In a great profession, one can do great evil as well as great good. Ayyash did terrible things and came to a terrible end, but there's a glamour to him that Bill Gates will never have.
(c) John Redford, Feb-96Back to "Doomed Engineers"