What Sets Off Suicide Bombers?

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AP Photo / Adil al-Khazali

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.”

Perhaps that’s 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.”

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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