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.
(Page 2 of 2)
Consider the London suicide attacks in July 2005. Even if we restrict the pool of potential extremists to the 1.6 million Muslims living in Britain then, the spectrum of radicalization approach would expect more "homegrown" suicide attackers by orders of magnitude. After all, tens of thousands of British Muslims had met fundamentalist leaders in mosques, lost their jobs, or faced social difficulties that they might view as related to their ethnic or religious backgrounds. But just four men launched the attack.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Further, after a year-long investigation, MI5 found little evidence that any of the four London bombers were economically or socially alienated in significant ways. Mohammad Khan, the leader, was a mentor at a primary school with an exemplary employment record. Shezhad Tanweer drove his own red Mercedes to work in one of his father's several businesses and was a trophy-winning cricket player. Another was known for going to night clubs and talking about girls and cars. None had a history of outbursts or violence, or other signs of significant opposition to British life.
What they did share was deep anger at Western occupation of kindred Muslim populations. Mr. Kahn and Mr. Tanweer left martyr videos to explain their motives.
"Your ... governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world," Khan said. "Until we feel security, you will be our targets."
Recent so-called homegrown terrorists in the United States also reveal little social alienation, but deep anger at foreign occupation. Faisal Shahzad, who was sentenced to life in prison for planning the failed May 1 Times Square car bomb, cited US military activity in his family's native Pakistan and the presence of US troops in various Muslim countries as reasons for his desire to kill American civilians.
While religion contributes in many cases to increased feelings of loyalty toward a kindred community that may be oceans away from an individual's country of citizenship, the primary cause of these horrible phenomena is foreign occupation.
US approach is counterproductive
The US approach in countering this threat has done more harm than good. By simultaneously occupying two Muslim countries and cracking down on Muslim Americans, the US has angered elements of an entire population and made it more likely that they would feel more loyalty to their kindred communities abroad.
Further, aggressive surveillance missed the one behavior trait that the American and British transnational terrorists had in common: self-initiated efforts to communicate with representatives of Al Qaeda and other known terrorist groups to receive approval for their actions.
Counterterrorism operations should focus on what makes these rare events dangerous – that is, the point at which politically active groups seek detailed information and actual materials for lethal action, commonly from international terrorist organizations or their local representatives.
Law enforcement attempts to track large numbers of young Muslim men would incorrectly profile and target an entire community. Such manpower takes resources away from the most productive counterterrorism measure: the search for specific preparations for violent acts.
Robert A. Pape is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-author of "Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It."