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

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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.

More convincing is the disease metaphor he uses to trace causality: “Foreign occupation is the trigger for suicide terrorism, much like smoking is the trigger for lung cancer.”

Source: University of Chicago Magazine

Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons.

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