NPR logo The Cause Of Suicide Bombings? Military Occupation, Says Researcher


The Cause Of Suicide Bombings? Military Occupation, Says Researcher

University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape has a novel idea: If you want to stop suicide bombings, withdraw American troops. Pape says his data shows the biggest cause of suicide attacks is military occupation. From Politico:

Pape and his team of researchers draw on data produced by a six-year study of suicide terrorist attacks around the world that was partially funded by the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. They have compiled the terrorism statistics in a publicly available database comprising some 10,000 records on some 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks, dating back to the first suicide terrorism attack of modern times — the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 U.S. Marines.

"We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns, ... and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign," Pape said in an interview last week on his findings.

A fire engine rushes to the scene after a suicide bomber rammed an ambulance packed with explosives into security barriers outside the offices of the international Red Cross in Baghdad, Monday, Oct. 27, 2003. KHALED MOHAMMED/AP hide caption

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Pape proposes what he calls "offshore balancing" withdrawing troops and relying on distant strikes and political and economic engagement. Not surprisingly, the Navy thinks this is a great idea.

But not everyone is such a proponent. Kori Schake, writing in Foreign Policy, certainly isn't. (Her piece appears on NPR in some sort of partner agreement that I had no idea existed until I searched for some more thoughts on Pape. Cool. I like FP.) Anyway, Schake thinks that Pape's research is interesting, but his policy prescriptions not so much.

To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.

The second important context Pape glosses over is that suicide attacks do not occur wherever in the world U.S. troops are deployed. Troops stationed in Germany, Japan, or South Korea are not at risk of suicide attacks from the people of those countries. This is not just about U.S. troops, but also about the societies we are operating in. It is about a radical and violent interpretation of Islam that we are using military force to contest.

Anyone who quotes Willy Sutton gets props in my book, but Pape's thesis is intriguing. Any thoughts from you all?