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Opinion

What really drives suicide terrorists?

Failing to understand the real motive of suicide terrorists – anger over Western occupation of their land – means missing major attacks because we're looking for the wrong targets.

By Robert Pape / December 9, 2010



Chicago

From the 9/11 hijackers to the double agent whose suicide attack in Afghanistan killed seven CIA employees last December, many people want to know what drives some Muslims – many of whom are middle class and well educated – to kill themselves in attacks on Americans and others in the West.

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After examining 2,200 suicide attacks around the world since 1980 – the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted – I've concluded that the answer is both simple and disturbing. What drives them is deep anger at the presence of Western combat forces in the Persian Gulf region and other predominately Muslim lands.

Popular accounts of these suicide terrorists give the impression that most of them are globe-trotting extremists radicalized by militant networks to strike outside their homeland for religious or other transnational causes. These accounts are false.

Five key members of Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP)

What the evidence shows

In the 2,200 suicide attacks since 1980, over 90 percent of the attackers carried out strikes in their home countries, often just miles from their homes, to resist foreign occupation of land they prize.

Hence, Lebanese carried out the suicide attacks against Israel's occupation of Lebanon; Turkish Kurds carried out the suicide attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party against the Turkish military presence in their home areas; and Iraqis, Saudis, Syrians, Kuwaitis, and Jordanians carried out the suicide attacks against America's military occupation of Iraq and the US threat to countries adjacent to Iraq.

Afghanistan is a prime example. We can identify 93 suicide attackers who have killed themselves to strike targets, mostly US and Western troops, in Afghanistan in recent years.

More than 90 percent are Afghan nationals and another 5 percent are from border regions of the country, while only 5 percent are from areas of the world beyond the immediate zone of conflict.

In other words, suicide terrorism in Afghanistan is not part of some global jihad looking for a place to land, but regional opposition to foreign military presence.

We're missing the real threat

Transnational suicide terrorists do exist. But, they are exceptions to the rule. Understanding that transnational suicide attackers are "black swans" has important implications for explaining their existence. For years, many have sought to explain how an individual becomes a transnational terrorist by seeking to track points along a spectrum of radicalization.

The basic idea is that there is a large pool of potential extremists who become progressively radicalized either through elite manipulation (religious leaders in mosques) or through social and economic alienation. Hence, policymakers embrace the idea of eavesdropping on many thousands of Muslims in the United States and Europe. This has done little to find terrorists, but a lot to scare many loyal citizens.

The fundamental problem with the "spectrum of radicalization" approach is that it is looking for many "white swans" that do not exist, while missing the rare black swans that might.

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