Occupation, not Islam, ‘drives suicide
By MARILYN H. KARFELD, Senior Staff Reporter
In the wake of Sept. 11, Robert Pape, a professor in international security
affairs at The University of Chicago, speculated on TV news shows on the causes
of suicide terrorism.
“Like everyone else, I jumped to the conclusion that it was radical Islam,” he
says. “I even bought a Koran to see what’s wrong with Islam.”
After searching for data on suicide terrorism and finding that the government
did not begin to track such attacks until 2000, Pape began to collect his own
information. He compiled data on 462 suicide bombings from 1980 to 2004 and
later updated his findings to 2006. His book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic
of Suicide Terrorism was published in 2005.
Contrary to his initial impression, Pape discovered that half of the 462 suicide
attacks were by people who were secular or even anti-religious. The world
leaders in suicide bombings were members of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, a
Marxist and Hindu group.
Over 30% of Muslim suicide bombers were not Islamic fundamentalists, Pape
learned. For instance, some belonged to an anti-religious extremist Marxist
group in Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK.
“Over 95% of all suicide attacks are not religious,” Pape says. Rather, they are
driven by the political goal of compelling foreign combat forces, with their
tanks and fighter aircraft, to leave territory “the terrorists consider their
homeland or they prize greatly.”
Only 5% are random, isolated attacks, the products of any ideology, religion
included, Pape adds.
“Every suicide campaign since 1980 has been carried out by groups seeking
self-determination for territory,” he says.
Pape spoke to the CJN before addressing the annual banquet and fundraiser of the
Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The
following day, he spoke to the counter-terrorism task force of the Cleveland
field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In the Jewish state, Pape says, 75% of suicide bombings are in Israel proper,
directed against targets such as bus stops and pizzerias. Suicide terrorists
avoid what he calls “hard” targets, such as railroad stations and even shopping
malls, which are too well defended.
At settler outposts in the West Bank, Pape says terrorists will attack and run
away so they can do it again and again before getting shot. “Inside Israel
proper, they know it’s highly likely the best way to achieve killing is through
If suicide bombers were motivated solely to become martyrs and go to heaven,
they would stand in front of Israeli tanks. “No,” he insists. “The motivation is
to kill the largest number of people. It’s not about how to die.”
Suicide bombers are typically walk-in volunteers from blue-collar and
middle-class backgrounds with no experi- ence in killing. Of the 462 he studied,
232 were Arabs. They are not being brainwashed in madrassas, he says. “They are
already perfectly willing to die.” They are then taught the mechanics of how to
commit suicide bombings.
Only 10% are poor. “These are not individuals who have nothing to lose,” Pape
says. “They would have led productive lives.”
They are also highly educated, with 54% having some college education, compared
with 12% in the surrounding society.
The common denominator “driving suicide attacks” in the Jewish state is anger at
the Israeli occupation, says Pape. “Deep anger is the critical circumstance.
When you mix it with personal motives of revenge and social prestige, you
trigger the suicide terrorist.”
When Israel withdrew from Gaza and allowed Hamas to win a parliamentary
election, the “second intifada came to a halt,” he maintains.
In his 2003 article in American Political Science Review that profiled suicide
bombers, Pape advised Israel on how to stop the second intifada.
“Israel should unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and areas of the West Bank and
build a security fence,” he suggested. “Israel did about 70% of what I said. I
would have moved the fence to the Green Line. Suicide attacks since summer 2004
are down 90%.”
Hamas is still an Islamic fundamentalist organization, he points out. If
religion motivated suicide attacks in Israel, they would be continuing.
The Defense Department has been funding Pape’s studies, and he has spoken in
Washington to the CIA, Department of Homeland Security, the National Security
Agency, the FBI and members of Congress. Before the 3rd Infantry Division was
sent to Iraq as part of President Bush’s surge of 21,500 combat troops, Pape
addressed about 150 of its officers.
The recent surge of American troops in Iraq will make a bad situation worse,
Pape says. “If we remove our troops, there will be a substantial decline in the
number of suicide terrorist attacks.”
Lebanon exemplifies his conclusions, Pape claims. Hezbollah was born in July
1982, created by the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
When Israel finally withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah did not
follow Israeli soldiers to Tel Aviv, Pape notes. “The suicide attacks stopped
completely. To this day, there’s not been another suicide attack by Hezbollah.”
If Israel would completely withdraw from the West Bank, Pape predicts that Hamas
would end its suicide attacks.
He acknowledges that Hamas keeps saying they want to run Jews out of Israel
proper. But Pape says they aren’t doing this through suicide bombings. While
it’s possible that Hamas would some day adopt this strategy, he says governments
do not build policies on things that are purely hypothetical.
As for Iraq, the U.S. has an interest in a stable Persian Gulf region and
maintaining access to oil. We “don’t cut and run,” Pape says. “But our policy
can’t be to stay and die.”
The U.S. needs a third way that begins with our core interest, access to oil,
which is integral to our economy, Pape says. “Offshore balancing” is what he
recommends. “Military forces are poised (outside of Iraq), ready to intervene if
necessary. We wouldn’t go to war to spread democracy at the barrel of a gun.”
Pape insists he is all for humanitarian intervention but not at serious risk to
American lives. “Our current policy is increasing the risk of another 9/11. It’s
creating so much hatred.”
Unlike Vietnam, where America simply pulled out its troops with minimal
repercussions, immediate withdrawal is not possible in Iraq, he believes. In
Vietnam, the U.S. had no real interests. But leaving Iraq abruptly would damage
U.S. interest in Persian Gulf oil and hurt the world’s economy.
Instead, Pape suggests a phased withdrawal beginning this year and taking place
over the next three or four years. It took Al Qaeda six years after its first
terrorist attacks in 1995 to come to the U.S. for 9/11, he notes.
“This, unfortunately, is the reality of Iraq.” Occupying Iraq has been “just
foolish. It’s a tragedy that leaves us in the worst of all possible worlds. It’s
time to change policies.”
MARILYN H. KARFELD can be contacted at