NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 20, 2005

The presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading, and it may spur American policies that are likely to worsen the situation, says Robert A. Pape (University of Chicago).

Over the past two years, Pape compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003. A total of 315 episodes occurred, excluding attacks authorized by a national government. The lead instigator of suicide attacks, committing 76 of the 315 incidents was not an Islamic group, but rather the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group.

Pape explains that what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory the terrorists consider their homeland. Religion, often used as a tool by terrorist organizations, aids in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

From Pape's analysis, three general patterns support his conclusions:

  • Nearly all suicide terrorist attacks -- 310 of the 315 -- took place as part of organized political or military campaigns.
  • Democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists; America, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decades.
  • Suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective; the sponsors of every campaign -- 18 organizations in all -- seek to establish or maintain political self-determination.

True to form, says Pape, there had never been a documented suicide attack in Iraq until after the American invasion in 2003. Understanding suicide terrorism as mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism holds important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism.

Source: Robert A. Pape, "Blowing Up an Assumption," New York Times, May 18, 2005.

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