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Probing the roots of terror

The attacks of 9/11 galvanized a phalanx of scholars to dissect terrorism from every angle. What they've learned so far may surprise you.

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To date, all suicide attacks have been aimed at democracies, including the US, Israel, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and others, he says. In general, he adds, they succeed in creating political pressure. Over the years, suicide attacks have evolved from isolated strikes to a conveyor-belt approach involving complex organizations and systems.

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"There's a very heavy element of strategic logic characterizing suicide terror campaigns," Pape says. "Every single country where suicide bombings have occurred has also been one in which an occupying country has placed military forces for a long occupation."

'What we need is actually better defense'

In most cases, groups behind the suicide attacks want a withdrawal of military forces. But Pape's research does not lead him to a simple prescription for US withdrawal from the Middle East.

"What we need is actually better defense, especially border defense," he says. "If I were advising Israel, I would tell them to withdraw quickly from the West Bank and then build a wall 20 feet high and 20 feet thick."

The US, he says, should embark on a policy of energy independence and consider even tighter immigration controls. His research is leading him to explore why some occupied nations do not strike back with suicide terror attacks, notably Bosnia during its NATO occupation.

"I would have to say that 9/11 did change my research program rather dramatically," he says. "I'd like to get back to that book I was working on," he says, then adds wistfully, "but I have a feeling it's going to be a while."

Face-to-face with terrorists around the world

Jessica Stern knows the face of terror. She has seen it in jail cells, in dingy back-street rooms in Pakistan, in Gaza, in Indonesia, in a trailer park in Texas.

In one of the first academic research projects since Sept. 11, Ms. Stern, a veteran terrorism researcher, decided on a novel approach. Unlike most of her colleagues, she opted to interview her subjects face to face to learn why they had committed atrocities.

In "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill," released in August, Stern lays out common threads linking the motivations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish terrorist organizations.

Her interviews have led her to members of Al Qaeda, the Jewish Underground, and the US-based cult - The Covenant, the Sword, and The Arm of the Lord - to name a few.

She hit upon this method after a 1998 interview in a Texas trailer park with Kerry Noble, a leader of the Covenant group after his release from prison. Its members had been convicted of murder, firebombing a church, and conspiring to assassinate government officials. They had stockpiled cyanide to poison water supplies.

What struck her most was Mr. Noble's account of spending hours in prayer and Bible study. Yet this man, who felt he had a personal relationship with God, and that God was good, now admitted he had behaved immorally then, though he thought otherwise at the time.

This thread - the incongruity of devout people rationalizing evil acts in the name of good - is one she's followed ever since.

After Sept. 11, her research shifted dramatically, she concedes. The murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan gave her pause, because he had been doing "exactly what I did" to gain access. Since then, she has not returned to Pakistan or Indonesia to interview any of the jihadis because, in all honesty, "I am afraid," she says.

Despite the added difficulty of such research, she's encouraged by what she sees as a flowering of academic study across disciplines. "It's a very good development because so many disciplines are required to understand this phenomenon."

Stern is convinced that, while the animating "why" of terrorism seems dark and difficult, there are answers that can lead to a solution some day.

"The religious terrorists we face are fighting us on every level - militarily, economically, psychologically, and spiritually," she writes. "We need to respond - not just with guns - but by seeking to create confusion, conflict, and competition among terrorists.

"In the end, however, what counts is what we fight for, not what we oppose. We need to avoid giving in to spiritual dread, and to hold fast to the best of our principles, by emphasizing tolerance, empathy, and courage."