Suicide Terrorism: It’s Not About Virgins, It’s About Occupation

| 12/16/2010 3:21:04 PM


Foreign occupation, not religious extremism, is the main driver behind suicide bombings, two political scientists argue. The University of Chicago Magazine reports that Robert Pape and James Feldman studied 30 years of suicide attacks worldwide to reach the eye-opening conclusion detailed in their new book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Here’s how Pape summed up their findings at a recent conference:

“What over 95 percent of all suicide attacks since 1980s have had in common is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider their homeland or prize greatly.”

Pape, the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, crunched data from more than 2,000 incidents, and he probed the bombers’ motivations by researching personal details of their lives, including their religious affiliations, their socioeconomic status, and recordings they left behind.

“Suicide terrorists are the ultimate smart bomb,” Pape writes in the introduction to Cutting the Fuse. The September 11, 2001, attacks showed how a small number of perpetrators could kill a large number of people, but looking at the larger picture of suicide attacks in places from Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Iraq, the magazine reports, “seldom have the attackers been seeking religious martyrdom.”

Putting a finer point on it, Pape writes in the book’s introduction:

The stationing of foreign combat forces (ground and tactical air force units) on territory that terrorists prize accounts for 87 percent of the over 1,800 suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 2004. The occupation of Pakistan’s western tribal regions by local combat forces allied to American military forces stationed across the border in Afghanistan accounts for another 12 percent. Further, the timing of the deployment of combat forces threatening territory the terrorists prize accounts for the onset of all eight major suicide terrorist campaigns between 1980 and 2009, which together comprise 96 percent of the 2,188 attacks during that period. Simply put, military occupation accounts for nearly all suicide terrorism around the world since 1980.

Perhaps this is too simply put: With this cut-and-dried phrasing, Pape could be accused of entirely discounting the roles of personal responsibility and religious belief in strapping explosives to one’s body and violently ending numerous lives. In a sense, it’s as reductive as suggesting that bombers are motivated chiefly by the prospect of hot afterlife sex with a bevy of virgins.

12/29/2010 9:12:43 AM

So what is the point of this story? The conclusion I reach is if all occupations were ended then suicide bombings would become obsolete? If that is indeed what it is getting at okay. However that is not it, it distinguishes that motive from the religious. I have never met a smart political scientist. Never. In most cases the occupations are of Holy Land so it is hard to separate the religious and political motives of the suicide bomber. The agenda of the people behind the bomber is a separate issue. Alas I think the real theme of this article is if the US would pack it bags and end all of its occupation the world would be a more peaceful place. Wrong again. So if Indians started suicide bombings tomorrow shall we pack up our army and head back to Europe? I mean at least the Indians have a legitmate claim unlike say the Palestinians. It surprises me and scares me how many americans have sided with genocidal maniacs.

Thom Peterson
12/20/2010 6:16:46 PM

Hmm, Rachael_1, did you actually read the article? (Pape is not including kamakazi pilots from WWII in his research since he is only going back to 1980s.) What I see in this article that is new is the assertion that today's suicide bomber is protesting foreign military occupation, NOT making a religious statement, not scoring hero points nor counting virgins in heaven. I agree that the killing of innocent people is inexcusable. Since WWII the huge majority of victims of war have been noncombatants. When innocents die at the hands of our armies we call that "collateral damage." Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires. If America does not want to be the next in line for this epitaph we ought to be studying our enemies and always trying to find a negotiated end to hostilities. Richard Holbrook died last week--a terrible loss for the world. In his career he had to deal with evil men like Slobadan Milosovic and self-serving despots like Frano Tuchman, but he did it. He talked, cajoled, reasoned, and threatened force, and he forged a peace agreement. Who will do that now in Pakistan and Afghanistan? And how?

12/20/2010 8:13:22 AM

This article treats this like it is something new. Isn't this what Japan did with airplanes? The person who is blowing himself up is doing it with a vision of heroism and a religious belief in what it will bring him in heaven. The person behind the whole plan is doing it for power and control. No matter what the reason, the killing of innocent people in this manner is inexcusable.

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