How to Stop Global Suicide Terrorism

News | November 15, 2010

Robert Pape, author of "Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It" shares his thesis as part of EastWest Institute's Speaker Series



Event Report

Robert Pape is firmly convinced that if the United States relies much less on boots on the ground in hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan and more on the strategy he calls “offshore balancing,” the number of suicide bombings will decrease dramatically. The University of Chicago professor and co-author of the new Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop it, spoke at the EastWest Institute on November 11.

Pape, who recently consulted with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, said that he was struck by the lack of research about suicide terrorism after September 11, prompting him to try to fill that void.

“Suicide terrorism is the lung cancer of terrorism,” Pape explains. “It’s the biggest threat we face.”

Likening his efforts to that of a research pathologist, Pape worked with the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism to compile a searchable database of the 2,200 suicide attacks that occurred between 1980 and 2008. According to Pape, each attack is corroborated by at least two independent sources and the database includes over 10,000 relevant documents.

“The data is good,” Pape said. And it needs to be, as his argument is entirely founded on statistical analysis.

To begin with, Pape argues that many of the tactics used in the War on Terror have actually encouraged more suicide terrorism. The evidence? From 1980 to 2003, there were a little under 350 suicide terrorists attacks, 15% of which were anti-American, while from 2004-2009, the world saw 1,833 suicide attacks, 92% of which were directed against America. 87 % of these were in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Also, the attackers were mainly from the Arabian peninsula, where U.S. troops have been stationed since 1990.

“Foreign occupation is the trigger for religious and secular suicide terrorism, just like smoking is the trigger for lung cancer,” Pape declares.

Pape insists that it’s misleading to see Islamic fundamentalism as the trigger for suicide terrorism—or as primarily a martyr’s bid for a virgin-filled heaven. However abhorrent, suicide terrorism is a tactic based on a clear internal logic aimed at  coercing democracies into withdrawing troops from prized territories, he adds. The evidence? When the troops go home, the attacks decrease.

For instance, Hezbollah, which launched suicide bombings during the Israeli occupation in the early 1980s, has not waged a suicide attack since 2000. If the attacks were motivated simply by fundamentalism, Pape points out, we’d have seen a lot more Hezbollah martyrs in the last decade. Plus, some of the Hezbollah attackers were Christian.

So what can Pape’s analysis tell us about U. S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In Iraq, suicide attacks declined after 2007. Pape attributes the drop to the fact that the U.S. government paid local Sunni tribes in Anbar Province “not to kill us.” The strategy worked, he says, because the community felt empowered to secure its own future. Pointing out that suicide bombing decreased by 85% in the same period that 100,000 U.S. troops went home, Pape concludes, “By withdrawing our troops, we produced stability.”

For Pape, the data clearly indicates that the United States needs a new way to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East.

His answer is “off-shore balancing,” a strategy that does not call for an unqualified U.S. withdrawal, but rather for a concentration of military power offshore, aircraft carriers and naval presence, combined with rapidly-deployable ground troops but without the establishment of permanent bases.

Pape’s strategy also calls for the U.S. to train and equip local troops for self-protection, as in Anbar. Pape thinks this strategy would be particularly successful in southern Afghanistan, which saw a rise in Pashtun suicide terrorism after the U.S. sent troops into the Pashtun region.

Following Pape’s presentation, there was a lively discussion. Some participants found Pape’s analysis too simplistic, pointing out that suicide terrorism could increase or decrease due to other factors. One participant argued that the decrease in suicide bombing in Israel since the 2005 Gaza withdrawal could be the result of better Israeli defense, rather than troop reductions. He also pointed out that Pape’s data does not take into account foiled attacks by suicide bombers.

Even Pape questioned the political likelihood of the United States returning to its Middle Eastern strategy of the 1970’s and 1980s, when it sought to influence the region through offshore military, political and economic power.

But Pape stands by the data and his basic conclusion about the root cause of suicide terrorism. In its simplest formulation, his message is: “They’re coming over here because we’re going over there.”