News Release

How to end suicide bombings: The problem is not Islam, but lengthy military occupations

Book Announcement

University of Chicago

To put an end to suicide bombings, the United States needs a new strategy that would reposition troops and work with local allies to boost their fighting capacity, contends Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and one of the nation's leading experts on suicide terrorism.

Despite a popular belief that suicide terrorism is the result of religious fanaticism, such bombings are really a calculated response to occupations by outsiders, according to research in a new book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. The book examines exhaustive data on suicide attacks since 1980 in the Middle East, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and around the world.

The data show that the best way to reduce suicide bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq is not to condemn Islamic extremism, but to end foreign occupations as quickly as possible, Pape claims.

Pape's co-author is James Feldman, a former professor of decision analysis and economics at the Air Force Institute of Technology and the School of Advanced Airpower Studies. The book is published by the University of Chicago Press.

Their work shows that the suicide terrorism threat to America is growing, despite military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Pakistan's attempts to fight its own militants.

"Each month there are more suicide terrorists trying to kill Americans and their military allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim countries than in all the years before 2001 combined," Pape said. In addition to nations where the United States is involved in military conflicts, the United States also has stationed troops on the Arabian Peninsula, a situation that al Qaeda claims is the reason for its hostility to the U.S.

The central problem is that leaders in the United States have constructed a narrative that identified the threat as coming from Islamic extremists who hate the United States. That explanation led to the invasions, occupations and eventual efforts to establish democratic regimes, something that requires a heavy military presence, the authors explained.

"But we now have strong evidence that the narrative — that suicide terrorism is prompted by Islamic fundamentalism — is not true," Pape said. Despite some military success, suicide terrorism has continued, Pape said.

The book's extensive research points out that after the United States occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, suicide attacks worldwide rose dramatically — from 300 between 1980 and 2003 to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009. More than 90 percent of the attacks were anti-American. Indirect occupations, in which the United States helps lead an occupation without committing troops, such as in Pakistan, have the same impact as direct occupations and explain the rise of suicide terrorism there, Pape said. The research also showed that civilian casualties during occupations increase suicide terrorism by giving terrorist leaders rallying points to turn local residents against the invading force.

Pape oversees the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, the world's largest academic research project on suicide terrorism, and Feldman is the project's principal advisor. The CPOST team recently completed a study of more than 2,000 suicide attacks. The team also studied tapes left by suicide bombers and collected other key information, such as their religious backgrounds, methods and number of casualties resulting from the attacks.

The research found that in each of the countries where suicide terrorism flourished, it was used to combat an occupying force. While occupation may sometimes be necessary to achieve immediate foreign policy goals, it does so at the risk of stimulating a suicide terrorist campaign against the occupier's homeland. This is the dilemma an occupier faces, Feldman noted, since when the threat of occupation was removed, suicide terrorism largely stopped. After Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, for instance, Lebanese suicide terrorist attacks against Israel ended, Pape pointed out. Since Israel withdrew militarily from Gaza and portions of the West Bank, suicide attacks have been down 90 percent.

In order to end suicide terrorism, or to "cut the fuse," the United States needs to "reduce the reliance on foreign occupation as a principal strategy for ensuring national interests," they concluded.

"I'm not saying that we should cut and run, but rather that we have to use our military power differently," Pape said. Offshore and in-country balancing would contain the threat to American rather than fuel it, he said.

Offshore balancing would involve stationing American forces on ships in the Persian Gulf and and islands in the Indian Ocean, and establishing military bases with non-Western forces on the Arabian Peninsula to support rapid deployment of ground forces, if needed in a future crisis.

In-country balancing involves working more closely with local forces, such was the case in Anbar Province in Iraq, where Americans empowered local Sunni leaders to be responsible for their own defense and accordingly curtailed insurgency.

"Intelligent debate and decision making require putting all the facts before us. For over a decade our enemies have been dying to win. By ending the perception that the United States and its allies are occupiers, we can cut the fuse to the suicide terrorism threat," Pape said.


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