[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect clarifications to certain statistics. Changes are marked in bold print.]
Few issues have dominated the last decade of American politics as the issue of terrorism. And for as hotly debated as it is, the issue is not well understood by the general public.
The issue of terrorism rose to national attention in the 1980s, most notably after the Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983 and the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. It was in the news a few times in the 1990s after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But it was not until Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorism came to consume the public’s consciousness.
The motivation of the terrorists was much discussed in the aftermath of the attacks. The conventional wisdom, then as now, is that 9/11 and many other attacks in the Middle East were a product of Islamic fundamentalism. The theory is that radical Muslims are willing to spread their religion by whatever means necessary, including mass murder. Fighting and dying on behalf of Islam makes one a martyr who is rewarded with everlasting life. This explains why the terrorists commit suicide.
Although that has been the dominant narrative post-9/11 (even among smart people who usually care about evidence), it is not the only explanation proffered for suicide terrorism. A few years ago, a political scientist from the University of Chicago named Robert Pape began collecting data on suicide attacks to see what role Islam played in motivating terrorists. Pape catalogued every case of suicide terrorism in the world from 1980-2003, something which had never been done before. Pape discovered that half of the 315 suicide attacks were not committed by Islamic fundamentalists.
The world leader in suicide terrorism during this time was the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group in Sri Lanka (off the coast of India) fighting to establish an independent state on the north side of the island. The Tigers are ethnically Hindu but identify as a secular Marxist organization, not interested in the afterlife.
About one-third of all Muslim suicide attacks were committed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK) in Turkey, north of Iraq. Like the Tamil Tigers, the PKK is a secular Marxist group, which is fighting to create an independent Kurdistan in the eastern part of the country.
As Pape learned more about suicide terrorism, he noticed a common theme running throughout the attacks. He found that in over 95 percent of attacks, the goal of terrorism was to achieve a specific political objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists prize. In other words, the concerns of suicide terrorists are terrestrial, not celestial.
The failure to understand this point has cost the United States dearly. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Pape sent letters to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz warning of a massive terrorist campaign after the invasion. Wolfowitz and many terrorism experts at the Pentagon believed Iraqi terrorism was unlikely because Saddam Hussein was not an Islamic fundamentalist, which they thought was the cause of terrorism. Unfortunately, Pape was right and Wolfowitz was wrong.
Pape has noted that control over territory is at the center of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan as well. The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but from the beginning of the invasion until 2004 its forces were concentrated in the capital city of Kabul. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. added troops to the northern and western parts of the country, home of the Northern Alliance, which helped overthrow the Taliban. During this time, suicide terrorism was relatively rare, with one or two attacks per year. However, suicide terrorism shot up in 2006 when the U.S. moved troops to the southern and eastern parts of the country, home of an ethnic group called the Pashtuns. Since 2006, there have been 100 or more suicide attacks every year in Afghanistan, and 90 percent of them are committed by Pashtuns.
A possible counterexample to Pape’s theory is the decline in suicide terrorism in Iraq following the 2007 surge of 20,000 additional troops. If Pape is correct that terrorists are motivated by foreign occupation, shouldn’t suicide terrorism have gone up? Pape examined the data and found that while the U.S. was adding troops, its allies were withdrawing them at an even faster rate, the net effect being an overall decline in the number of foreign soldiers in Iraq. Pape found a more plausible explanation for the decline in violence, which was that the U.S. paid 100,000 Sunnis $300 each per month to stop fighting, and it worked. Once this group, known as the “Sons of Iraq,” felt secure and comfortable with their way of life, they looked for more constructive uses of their time than blowing themselves up.