Causes of Suicide Terrorism
Here’s an absolutely fascinating interview with Robert Pape, a University of Chicago professor who has studied every suicide terrorist attack since 1980.
RP: This wealth of information creates a new picture about what is motivating suicide terrorism. Islamic fundamentalism is not as closely associated with suicide terrorism as many people think. The world leader in suicide terrorism is a group that you may not be familiar with: the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
….TAC: So if Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily a key variable behind these groups, what is?
RP: The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign—over 95 percent of all the incidents—has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.
….TAC: If you were to break down causal factors, how much weight would you put on a cultural rejection of the West and how much weight on the presence of American troops on Muslim territory?
RP: The evidence shows that the presence of American troops is clearly the pivotal factor driving suicide terrorism.
If Islamic fundamentalism were the pivotal factor, then we should see some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world, like Iran, which has 70 million people—three times the population of Iraq and three times the population of Saudi Arabia—with some of the most active groups in suicide terrorism against the United States. However, there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Iran, and we have no evidence that there are any suicide terrorists in Iraq from Iran.
….TAC: Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders also talked about the “Crusaders-Zionist alliance,” and I wonder if that, even if we weren’t in Iraq, would not foster suicide terrorism. Even if the policy had helped bring about a Palestinian state, I don’t think that would appease the more hardcore opponents of Israel.
RP: I not only study the patterns of where suicide terrorism has occurred but also where it hasn’t occurred. Not every foreign occupation has produced suicide terrorism. Why do some and not others? Here is where religion matters, but not quite in the way most people think. In virtually every instance where an occupation has produced a suicide-terrorist campaign, there has been a religious difference between the occupier and the occupied community.
….TAC: Has the next generation of anti-American suicide terrorists already been created? Is it too late to wind this down, even assuming your analysis is correct and we could de-occupy Iraq?
RP: Many people worry that once a large number of suicide terrorists have acted that it is impossible to wind it down. The history of the last 20 years, however, shows the opposite. Once the occupying forces withdraw from the homeland territory of the terrorists, they often stop—and often on a dime.
Pope recently published a book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Here’s a review.
UPDATED TO ADD: Salon reviewed the book.
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