October 21, 2005

In God’s Name? Evaluating the Links between Religious Extremism and Terrorism

Washington, D.C.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life interviewed Dr. Robert A. Pape on Oct. 21, 2005, following the roundtable on “In God’s Name? Evaluating the Links between Religious Extremism and Terrorism,” co-sponsored by the Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Dr. Pape is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism and author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005). He discussed his research on the factors responsible for the growing threat of suicide terrorism, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. His comments are posted below.

Robert A. Pape, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, and Director, Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism

Julia Kirby, Program Coordinator, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Rachel Mumford, Program Coordinator, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

According to your research, suicide terrorism is the most lethal form of terrorism, and it has become more prevalent in recent years. What, in your view, explains the increasing frequency of suicide terrorism?

The purpose of a suicide attack is not to die, but to kill – to kill a large number of people in a target society so that target society will put pressure on its government to change its policies. The reason suicide terrorism is so often chosen by terrorist groups is because they have come to believe that suicide attacks generate the most coercive leverage to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory that the terrorists prize. A suicide attack does this in two ways. First, by killing more people per attack – that is, a suicide attack is tactically more lethal than an ordinary terrorist attack. The average suicide terrorist attack kills 12 people per attack, whereas the average ordinary terrorist attack kills one person per attack. But there is a second reason, which is that suicide terrorism sends a signal, that if one individual or one group of individuals are willing to die to carry out an attack, there might be more, perhaps many more, to come. It is this second element that generates the fear, and we see this in the London attacks we just witnessed in July.

You might remember that for several days after the London attacks, which occurred on a Thursday, it was not clear they were suicide attacks. We knew 52 people in London had been killed, and that generated some terror. But on Monday, four days after the attack, the British authorities announced that it was a suicide attack, and that was when the fear palpably increased. This is because of the signal that a suicide terrorist attack sends, and that terror and fear generated by the attack is used in a deliberate, conscious way by suicide terrorist groups to try to manipulate the public to put pressure on their government to change their policies.

In Dying to Win and in other writings, including your 2003 piece “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” published in the American Political Science Review and “Blowing Up an Assumption,” published in The New York Times in May of this year, you seem to utilize the language “suicide attack” interchangeably with “suicide terrorism.” How do you define “terrorism,” and do you differentiate between a “suicide attack” against a defined military target and the more recent “terrorist” attacks against innocent civilians in London and in Bali?

I count every suicide terrorist attack around the world since 1980 according to a very straightforward counting rule: A suicide terrorist attack occurs whenever an individual kills herself or himself in order to kill others unless explicitly authorized by a state. So, from 1980 on, there are a few instances of suicide attacks that don’t count, such as North Korean commandos that have killed themselves in order to try to kill some South Korean leaders. The truth is, there are very few instances such as these, and they are in the margin. I do not limit counting a suicide attack by the type of target that is chosen, because very often in suicide terrorist campaigns, whether those campaigns were conducted by Hezbollah in Lebanon in the1980s, by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the 1990s, or by Al Qaeda today, suicide terrorist groups attack both military and civilian targets, and also political targets – sometimes they attack either government buildings or assassinate government leaders.

What I see is not that a suicide terrorist attack is limited to one form of target set. We wish it were true, because we’d like to find the formula whereby perhaps a suicide terrorist group would only attack military targets that would be less deadly against our civilians, but I am afraid the whole purpose of a suicide attack is to kill and not to die. What they are often doing is picking targets that operationally will kill the most people, whether it is a military barracks or a group of individuals on the street.

Yes, but what is your specific definition of terrorism? How does terrorism differ from violence perpetrated against military targets, particularly in wartime scenarios?

I define terrorism the way most scholars define it: a lethal attack done deliberately in order to cause fear in a target audience. I am not defining terrorism as necessarily coercive, which is when a target audience puts pressure on a target government, although in suicide terrorism it often is. I am also using a definition of terrorism that excludes attacks committed by state actors, only because this has become a conventional way to define terrorism. There is nothing unusual or specific about my definition of terrorism; it is actually the standard definition of terrorism that has become our ordinary understanding of it from the newspapers since the 1980s.

What is interesting about suicide terrorism is not how it is defined – it is defined as we would expect in the classic sense. What is interesting is that the individuals doing it, and the circumstances under which they are doing it, are not what we previously thought.

The conventional wisdom is that suicide terrorism is motivated by religious fanaticism – religious hatred combined with the promise of a martyr’s paradise in the hereafter. What does your own research suggest?

The conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. Suicide terrorism is not mainly the product of Islamic fundamentalism or any other evil ideology independent of circumstance. I have studied 462 suicide terrorists; over half are secular. The world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka – they’re a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers have committed more suicide terrorist attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Instead, what more than 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks since 1980 have in common is not religion, but a specific secular goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Chechnya to Kashmir to Sri Lanka to the West Bank, every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 has had as its main objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory that the terrorists prize.

But it remains true that Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah all together have committed the majority of such attacks, and virtually all the attacks committed against the US and its allies. Does this suggest any special link between Islamic radicalism and suicide terrorism?

No, for two reasons. First, the data show that Islamic fundamentalism is not associated with about half of all suicide attacks. Second, because the data show that suicide terrorism, even among Islamic fundamentalist groups, does not occur very often outside the circumstance of the presence of foreign combat forces on the territory that the terrorists prize. The military presence of foreign combat forces accounts for about 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks – even among Muslim groups, even among Islamic fundamentalist groups. It also accounts for the timing of the attacks, such as in the case of Lebanon, for example, in the 1980s. Israel invaded Lebanon in June of 1982 with 78,000 combat troops and 1,000 tanks, and one month later Hezbollah was born – it had not existed before that. A few months after that, Hezbollah began experimenting with suicide terrorist attacks and the fourth attack, a year later, was the famous Marine barracks attack that caused the Americans to withdraw their forces from Lebanon, the French to withdraw their forces from Lebanon, and then Israel eventually withdrew its forces from Lebanon. What you see is that after the foreign combat forces left, the suicide terrorist attacks stopped; they did not follow the Americans to New York, the French to Paris, or the Israelis to Tel Aviv.

It is easy to see how an essentially “secular” and “strategic logic,” to use your key terms, motivated the Tamil Tigers to use suicide attacks against the Sri Lankan government: They sought to drive the Sri Lankan military out of northeastern Sri Lanka, which they regard as their homeland. The same logic seemed to operate with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. But it is harder to see how this logic underlies Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Can you explain how a secular and strategic logic explains that case?

The presence of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula is Osama Bin Laden’s best mobilization appeal. It is what recruits suicide terrorists more effectively for Al Qaeda than anything else. I’m not claiming there aren’t multiple causes of suicide terrorism, but suicide terrorism is a lot like lung cancer – yes, there are multiple causes of lung cancer, but there’s one cause, smoking, which is head and shoulders above the others.That does not mean if you do not smoke you can never get lung cancer, and it does not mean that everybody who smokes gets lung cancer. It does mean that there’s one cause that is head and shoulders above the others.The same can be said for suicide terrorism and Al Qaeda.The presence of our foreign combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula and in other Muslim countries is associated with two-thirds of the Al Qaeda suicide attackers, two-thirds of the 71 Al Qaeda suicide attackers who have actually killed themselves to carry out attacks for Osama Bin Laden from when those attacks began in 1995 to early 2004. One-third of those attackers come from other countries and they are more transnational in nature. But even among those that are more transnational in nature, the presence of American and Western combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula is a powerful motivating factor.

The London bombers are a good example in this regard, because they are obviously part of the one-third that are more transnational in nature. But let me raise four points about the London attacks in particular. First, the Al Qaeda group that claimed responsibility for the London attacks just two hours after they occurred said the London attacks were to punish Britain for British military operations in Iraq. Second, Hussein Osman, the would-be July 21st bomber, whom we have in captivity in Rome, said in his interrogation, and this is a verbatim quote, “The attacks were not about religion, we watched films of military operations in Iraq.” Third, in the martyr video that Al Qaeda released three-and-a-half weeks ago, Mohammed Khan, one of the actual July 7th London bombers, using almost the same words as Osman, said (in a Liverpool accent) that the London attacks were to punish Britain for combat forces on Muslim land. And then, finally, the British Home Office itself conducted a four-volume survey of British Muslim attitudes in 2004. There are 1.6 million Muslims in Britain. The British government found that between 8 percent and 13 percent of British Muslims believed more suicide terrorist attacks against the United States and the West were warranted. They further found that the no.1 reason for that was Iraq. So, altogether, the center of gravity of what is driving the threat against us is the sustained presence of American and Western combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula; and what is increasing the risk of the next 9/11, more than anything else, is simply the sustained presence of those forces.

If religion is not the “root cause” of suicide terrorism, what role, if any, do religious factors play in fostering it?

Not every presence of foreign combat troops since 1980 has led to suicide terrorism. It appears to be a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. One of the additional factors that plays a major role once there is foreign combat presence is whether those foreign combat troops are of a predominantly different religion than the local society. This is true not only for the cases that most people are familiar with, such as Israel and Lebanon, with Jews and Muslims, or the U.S. and Al Qaeda, with Christians and Muslims, but even in wholly secular cases, such as in Sri Lanka with the Sinhalese, who are Buddhists, versus the Tamils, who are Hindus. The reason this religious difference matters, and makes and inflames the presence of the foreign combat forces is because it enables the terrorist leaders to demonize the foreign occupation as being driven by specifically religious goals. It enables the religious goals of the foreign combat forces to play a key role. This is what Osama Bin Laden does in speech after speech. He paints the American military forces on the Arabian Peninsula as part of a crusade, a new modern crusade, in which he describes our military forces as being motivated by the goal of a military adventure to transform Muslim societies according to a Christian agenda – whether that’s to convert Christians, weaken Islam, or help Israel expand so that Christians and Jews can ensure control over Jerusalem, whether Muslims like it or not. That is how he is able to essentially terrify both religious and secular individuals: by saying we are out to transform their society in ways, he claims, they would not approve of.

If religion does not explain a terrorist organization’s choice to use suicide attacks, is it possible that religion explains why some organizations – including Al Qaeda – consider certain territories their homeland in the first place?

Religion is often a component of nationalism, and that is true not only for Muslims. For instance, there are many American Jews who believe that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. They view themselves as completely secular, and yet they have no problem also believing that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. Why? Because in many national histories religion plays a key role, especially religion associated with territory – that is an extremely common feature. It is not that religion and nationalism are at odds with each other, though they can be; it is often the case that religion is a subcomponent of nationalism.