Suicide bombings as military strategy
Expert: Attacks motivated by logic, not religion
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those.
Women, as well as men, are suicide bombers, including Chechnya's "black widows."
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(CNN) -- Robert Pape wants to change the way you think about suicide bombings and explain why they are on rise.
For years, suicide bombings in the Middle East have caused death, destruction and chaos. In turn, they have generated news headlines and analyses that often frame the attacks, like those perpetrated by Palestinians or Iraqi insurgents, as weapons in a holy war.
But Pape, author of the provocative new book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," contends those reports fuel significant misperceptions about the bombers, their motivations and specifically the role religion plays in their actions.
"There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions," he says.
Before September 11, Pape's main academic focus was the impact of air power in military conflicts. After the attacks, he shifted his attention to suicide terrorism.
Finding out what motivated these bombers and their groups proved challenging, as he discovered little in the way of comprehensive data. So Pape began building a database and then mined it for details.
After studying 315 suicide attacks from 1981-2004, the University of Chicago political science professor concludes that suicide bombers' actions stem from logical military strategies, not their religion -- and especially not Islam.
While American news-watchers may hear more about Israel and Iraq, Pape calls the Tamil Tigers the leading purveyors of suicide attacks over the last two decades -- until now. An adamantly secular group with Hindu roots, the Tamil Tigers are engaged in a struggle for independence and power with the Sri Lankan government.
So what is the suicide bomber's main rationale? It is that the attacks work, Pape found.
"What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland."
Which means, in the case of al Qaeda and like-minded groups, getting the United States out of the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq.
How it started
Suicide terrorism -- which Pape defines as attackers killing others and themselves at the same time -- began in Lebanon after the Israelis invaded in the early 1980s. (He does not include Japanese kamikaze pilots from World War II because they operated on behalf of a government.)
Hezbollah, a new group at that time, began recruiting bombers, and almost immediately had spectacular success with devastating attacks on American and French targets.
Two-hundred forty-one American servicemen died in the truck bomb attack on a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, leading to an American withdrawal from Lebanon a few months later.
The Tamil Tigers picked up on Hezbollah's strategy, even training alongside them in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The Tamil Tigers perfected the suicide belt, notes Pape, using it to kill former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Other groups -- including Hamas, the PKK (a Kurdish group in Turkey), Chechen rebels and, of course, al Qaeda -- followed suit, incorporating suicide terrorism in their military strategies.
According to Pape's charts, about half the suicide terrorist campaigns from 1980-2003 achieved some degree of success; the Israelis, for example, withdrew from Lebanon following bombings by Hezbollah.
And with success came a rise in suicide terrorism, even as overall terrorist incidents were declining. It became a key tactic, alongside more conventional attacks, for these groups.
The religion question
September 11, 2001, along with years of suicide attacks in Israel, prompted many to link Islam with suicide bombing -- an assertion that Pape rejects.
Having studied who the attackers were, he points out that Hezbollah's campaigns against U.S. and Israeli forces in Lebanon involved as many suicide bombers who were secular as religious. The same is true for the recent wave of attacks in Israel by Hamas and other groups.
Religion may be the prime motivation for some individual suicide bombers, Pape admits, and some groups may be religiously based, including al Qaeda. But he says that suicide terrorism is used because it works, not because it fits any particular religious ideal.
What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.
-- Robert Pape
"Suicide terrorist groups are [not] religious cults isolated from the rest of their society," Pape writes in his book. "Rather, suicide terrorist organizations often command broad social support within the national communities from which they recruit, because they are seen as pursuing legitimate nationalist goals, especially liberation from foreign occupation."
Where religion does come into play, he argues, is when the group using suicide bombing points to these foreign occupiers and demonizes them for threatening their local religion. So the United States becomes "Crusaders and Jews" threatening the Arabian Peninsula, according to al Qaeda.
While not everyone in the counterterrorism community has embraced Pape's ideas -- particularly about the lack of a link between Islam and suicide bombing -- his book has gained legitimacy and credibility.
Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was "very impressed and very interested" after reading Pape's book and being briefed by him, according to a Lugar aide.
Suicide bombers in Iraq
What has Pape most worried at the moment is Iraq. That nation will soon overtake Sri Lanka as the site of the highest number of suicide terrorist attacks.
In hindsight -- and he emphasizes hindsight -- he says going into Iraq was bound to create the condition for more suicide bombers, citing a strong national insurgency coupled with the presence of U.S. troops who are seen as occupiers.
And that has allowed for local Iraqi support of suicide bombers, even if many of them seem to come from other countries.
But he contends that the consequences of the Iraq conflict, as it affects suicide terrorism, don't end there.
He points to the history of al Qaeda, which started with suicide attacks against Americans and their allies in other places, then launched the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil.
"The longer the suicide campaign in Iraq goes on, the more at risk we are it will come to our shores," says Pape.
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