What Sets Off Suicide Bombers?

Foreign occupation—not religious extremism—motivates explosive martyrdom

| March-April 2011

  • What-Sets-Off-Suicide-Bombers

    AP Photo / Adil al-Khazali

  • What-Sets-Off-Suicide-Bombers

Political scientists Robert Pape and James Feldman studied 30 years of suicide attacks worldwide and reached the eye-opening conclusion that foreign occupation, not religious extremism, is the main driver behind suicide bombings. According to University of Chicago Magazine (Nov.-Dec. 2010), here’s how Pape summed up the duo’s findings at a recent conference:  

“What over 95 percent of all suicide attacks since the 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.”  

Feldman and Pape—who directs the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism—crunched data from more than 2,000 incidents and probed the bombers’ motivations by researching personal details 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 Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (University of Chicago Press, 2010). 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.”  

In some cases, the correlation is striking: For instance, there were 30 suicide terror attacks in occupied Lebanon between 1982 and 1986, but none since Israel’s military withdrawal in 2000.  

Putting a finer point on it, Pape writes in the book’s introduction: “Simply put, military occupation accounts for nearly all suicide terrorism around the world since 1980.”  

4/6/2011 2:52:23 PM

I expect more from UTNE reader. I was looking for inspiration on the Middle East and found this non-sense instead. There will be no suicide bombing in democratic countries (including women!!!--not what you have in the Middle East) and many in fascist countries. Fascists with a belief in an afterlike. You should have compared modern suicide bombing with Kamakaze suicide during WWII. There is a common denominator: a hateful dictatorial educational system--and they/Japanese were the occupiers and a lack of childhood love. Why did Gandhi and MLKing appear in the face of terrible conditions, including OCCUPATION. They were truly loved by their parents. This article's conclusions are utterly ignorant. Anther cause of agression generally is male-domination. I congratulate the change which occured in Tunisia---the Islamic-majority country with 23 percent women in its parliament. Male fascism of Yemen and Libia is what will bring us to suicide bombing. There is much more to be said about who commits suicide but the article's conclusions are all terciary or secondary points.

Bob Bennett
3/25/2011 4:30:08 PM

O.K.; this article does shed a minuscuile amount of light on the subject, but like most bureaucratically sanctioned reports, it misses various main issues. Overpopulation is one of the main issues. Those denied access, for whatever reason( and many exist), to a relatively decent life are more to wiling to die in, and perhaps take out a few (symbolically or not) people in order that others they value (children, relatives, etc,)may have the opportunity to live a better life. Another main issue is that the mid-east is exposed to various western TV shows which show a distored and erronious view of American (and Western ) life. Even most Americans believe TV to reflect reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not everyone who works in government (including police, lawyers, judges, politicans, bureaucrats, etc.) is out to find the truth no matter what; many of these TV glorified individuals could not give a damn about anyone or anything except their own personal short term gain. That plus TV's glorification (which reaches the Mideast) of various behaviors which are reprehensible to most of those in the Mideast - not to mention the midwest of the U.S.; are also among the factors which can cause suicide bombers to commite the ultime act.

3/25/2011 9:47:11 AM

This was a bad article the first time it was posted and it is still poor scholarship and journalism. The conclusion is wrong. I am really interested in the topic I wish someone would try doing some real investigation and research that is not politically motivated. Sad.

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