Robert Pape: Blaming Suicide Bombings on the “Occupation”


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Much of Pape’s talk centered on the “martyrdom” videos of four of the 9/11 hijackers and two from the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, as well as a video from American-born al-Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn—all of which entail railing about the evils of American and British imperialism. According to Pape, Gadahn did not discuss Islam as a religion; rather, his message was “a plea for his brethren under foreign occupation.” He concluded that “if you remove the foreign occupation, you remove the root of their deep-seated anger.”

Perhaps, but this approach is easier said than done. Moreover, to an Islamist, foreign occupation means something much different than it does to a Westerner. Should the Spanish relinquish their territory so that bin Laden and his ilk can stop pining over Andalusia? Should Israel simply vacate the West Bank tomorrow or, going further, unilaterally commit seppuku (after all, Palestine is considered an Islamic waqf, or trusteeship, endowed by God)?

Pape lacks an understanding of the genius of al-Qaeda—and other terrorist groups—as a propaganda organization. Although driven by radical Islamic theology, they know that Westerners care deeply about racism, colonialism, the environment, and other such causes, so they appeal to these left-wing talking points to gain the sympathy, or at least empathy, of their Western audiences. They find a willing dupe in Middle East studies academia, with Robert Pape himself serving as a pungent example.

Pape also failed to mention that many of the suicide bombings that have occurred in Iraq involved Sunni perpetrators acting against Shiite targets—the June 13, 2007, terrorist attack on the Great Mosque in Samarra, for example. Such attacks, which are ongoing, are obviously not directed at foreign occupiers, but, rather, are manifestations of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Shiites have been persecuted and even massacred throughout much of Islam’s history, and still are today in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Shiites have persecuted Sunnis in Persia. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, despised Shiites for theological reasons and wanted to murder them en masse. How does all this fit in Pape’s paradigm?

This is not to say that foreign occupation does not cause resentment or play a part in inspiring suicide bombing operations. However, Pape’s attempt to create a universal explanation based on such resentment is erroneous. Different people have different motivations. The motivation of al-Qaeda and its ilk is to kill as many infidels as possible for the sake of the ummah (Community of the Believers). This is the ultimate, unquestionable end-game that overrides any expedient complaints about foreign occupation. Moreover, there is a whole religious and sociological pathology involved in suicide bombings that has little or nothing to do with the West.

Pape’s thesis may apply in some cases, but by flippantly refuting anything that goes against his thesis, he is blindly refusing to consider other motivations.

Jared Sorhaindo is an MA candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University concentrating in Middle East Studies and international economics, and an intern for the Middle East Forum. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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  • kafir4life

    Isn't it weird that the "occupied" Christians don't become 'splody dopes like the moon god worshippers. The moon god that was invented by the madman mohamat, who in a fit of intestinal distress following sex with, then later a meal from a pig shat the contents of the terror guide, the most un-noble koran.
    I wonder what the difference is? Could it be islam?

  • Salubrius

    Raymond Ibrahim, in his "Al Qaeda Reader" shows that the foreign policy of other countries takes the blame for its terrorism in Al Qaeda's communications in English to the West. But when it speaks to Muslims in Arabic. it is clear that the terrorism is due to religious fervour — that no change in foreign policy by other countries would serve to cause Al Qaeda to cease its terrorism.

  • al-Kidya

    kafir4life, the moon god was around long before Mohammad came along.
    Mohammad simply found a way of cashing in on religion and so, adopted the already enshrined moon god from a huge selection of 360 other gods and goddesses and turned it into a montheistic deity. He and his pig wife Khadija new that many people paid regular Zakat to the Kaaba and thought they could profit from this by declaring Mohammad the new messenger of Allah.
    Hubal stayed to gurad over the one stine remaining in the Kaaba. That is why the cresecent stands over all mosques.

    • kafir4life

      That also explains the crescent on modern outhouses too! I always wondered about that. It's the connection made by the koran being the result of intestinal distress, so the outhouse obviously is revered in islam as indicitive of the conditions under which the terror guide (koran) was written. I guess context IS everything!

    • Isaac

      Lets us be honest there is no proof to your article because the Muslim have not made real tangible attempts for resolution for peaceful co existence in the Middle East. Many academicans at US college are pushing anti American rhetoric and making Israel the aggressor the evil doer. Yet all we see in the Arab countries of Middle East is fighting amongst themselves to see who will become the ruler of the land with no consideration for their own people. Can we really tell what is going in Egypt and Yemen from what the News Media puts out? I seriously doubt it. Taking advanctage of the poor making them do the dirty work meaning the terrorism and I say,prove me wrong.

  • al-kidya

    Pardon my spelling. Keyboard problems and lack of coffee.

  • moshav

    pape is simply another apologist for islamic violence. Until the Israelis built their security barrier suicide bombers were appearing on almost a daily basis to murder as many defenseless people as possible. hamas in gaza continues to train misguided muslims in the art of blowing themselves up and are recruiting children as young as eight to slaughter Israelis who want nothing more than to be left alone to take care of their families. pape's argument is obscene.

    • Sponge

      You are exactly right. Hasn't Daniel Pipes already proven that Palestinian violence is driven by religious fanaticism rather than out of any so-called desperation? I believe his research has shown that the vast majority of suicide bombers came from wealthy or well-to-do families/backgrounds and were driven to murder on purely ideological grounds.

  • Rocky89

    Pape is making the fallacy called "the single cause fallacy" or "affirming the consequent":
    The fact that non-religious people use suicide as a method for non-religious reasons (presumably – more on that later), doesn't mean that when religious people engage in suicide attacks they don't do it from from religious reasons.
    It's like a woman who has a black eye, and since you know her husband beats her you regularly, you reach the conclusion that he beat her again, but then someone points to an unmarried woman who has a black eye – and tells you "you see the other woman has a shiner and she's single, therefore the first woman's husband didn't beat her".

    To Be cont.

    • Rocky89

      Now, for the so called non-religious Marxists – Many Leftists actually believe in the after life, just not the Judeo-Christian kind – (see Jim Jones), many of them regard themselves as a cell in a larger organism called "The Collective", and therefore they don't really "die" as long as the collective marches on. Leftism is a secular religions, with it's notions of redemption, end of days and eternal life. The fact that they are not more conventional notions (like of the other religions) doesn't mean it ain't.

  • Sponge

    Palestinians and terrorist-supporters love to claim that the "occupation" is the source of Palestinian so-called greivances. Prior to 1967 there was no such thing as the "occupation," but it never prevented the Arabs from committing terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians.

    The assumption has always been that peace will follow after Israel ends its so-called “occupation” or that Israel simply needs to “trade land for peace.” However, the Gaza experience has offered a "stark case study" of the disingenuousness of this position. The Palestinians refused to cooperate with Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. After Israel had withdrawn from every inch of Gaza (not a single Israeli soldier or civilian remained) the Palestinians responded with a barrage of rocket fire. Over 700 Kassam rockets in 2005 alone.

  • welldoneson

    Seeing the ad for "Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero" reminds
    me of the messge the Mosque on the Rock sends.
    That site was a Jewish Temple. Islam came through and
    it's now one of Islam's "holy sites". Imagine the fuss if
    the Israelis were to dismantle the Mosque and rebuild what
    rightly belongs there. Now imagine the mess the U. S. would
    be in if the Mosque at Ground Zero is built. It would be there
    to stay and would be there solely because of 9/11.
    Yes it would. It should NEVER be built.

  • jewdog

    Suicide bombings rapidly increased in Israel after the Oslo agrrement when the Israelis withdrew and handed control to the PLO. So much for the occupation as a cause.

  • CAROLE63

    There is no occupation as Israel belongs to the jews/Israelis.
    In Islam lying is endemic in the cult.
    The quran teaches it`s fine to lie to further the cause of Islam and it`s goal is to take over the world and claim every country for Islam!
    Therefore, they say Israel is theirs, never mind the vast arab lands surrounding Israel (600 times the size of tiny Israel ) they still want tiny Israel, even though archaelogically it is proven (when they`re not destroying the evidence) jews have had a presence there for hundreds of years and God told them to call the land Israel and the name Jerusalem speaks for itself! And yet the world believes the lie, that the land is under occupation by the jews! How pathetic, they should read biblical and archaeological history of that land and not believe the biased mainstream media reports!

  • ziontruth

    Run-of-the-mill Marxism: Strong is wrong, plight makes right.

  • saddramaqueen

    What a lot of propagandic poo!
    So the big money that is paid to the families of the exploding 'martyrs' is not relevant?
    What about the proscribed reward for the 'martyr', that of Paradise and the attentions of 72 virgins? From the miserable lives of the powerless, this would seem win-win. However, an exploded body is unlikely to be able to enjoy anything like sex on earth so their 'attentions' may not be all that the 'martyr' hoped for.
    Eugenics, culling the population of their own weak, plus the drama strutted in the media.
    Cheap weapon of war on dar-el-Harb.
    So the intelligentsia proffer explanations? Trying to make sense of such evil without addressing the political ambitions of the islamic caliphate is avoiding the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM! islam means submission, and that is what it is all about.
    The whole world is to surrender and become islamic or pay a jizya to be allowed to live, if we are useful and agree to be subservient.
    Israel is a blessing to the whole world. Jesus was Jewish and God's blessing to the world. Christianity arose from this and the world has prospered.
    Islamic people from 20% of population have maybe 6 Nobel prizes?
    Jewish people from 0.02% of population have over 128 Nobel prizes.
    Persecution, holocausts and hatred has not stopped these people blessing the world!
    Israel was restored to the Jewish people legally after WW2 and tiny Israel fought for and won it again in battle against huge Arab numbers in 'the 6 day war'! It is theirs, historically, legally, by conquest and by the way they make the desert flower…ecologically.
    The world will only recognize this when those clever Jews have devised an alternative to Arab oil. Then those miserable Mohammedans can enjoy their desert in peace while the rest of the world can thank our marvellous God for deliverance.

    • Ron

      You Have got it wrong…. They are not 72 Virgins… They are 72 Perpetual Virgins.
      Imagine having sex with a perpetual virgin.. OUCH! Poor Virgins.

  • 2maxpower

    Pape is a useful idiot of the terrorists. an apologist. …. a fool.

    he disregards a culture of educating their young that this is a career move. those that promote suicide murder are always using dupes to carry them out so how can he argue that it is a condition that has any natural root.

    how does he square the circle with the 9/11 suicide bombers ? they were well off Saudi's and not under occupation. besides the occupiers are the "palistinians" so why are the Jews not blowing themselves up?

  • Gamaliel Isaac

    The Irony of this argument is that occupation is necessary for there to be peace. The only way to stop these religious madmen jihadis is to occupy the land they coopt for indoctrination and military use and defanaticize the population the way the U.S. did to Germany and Japan after World War 2.

  • Wiley

    Pape's findings are foundless and are backed by a political agenda.

    I recommend reading 'Sucide Terror: Understanding and Confronting the Threat' in order to get an accurate analysis.
    http://www.amazon.com/Suicide-Terror-Understandin

  • USMCSniper

    The Palestinians strap munitions on their own women and children and send them out on homicide-suicide missions to murder other innocent women and children in markets, restuarants, on school buses, and in their homes. The Palestinians in their own words and by their actions are committed to the genocide of the Jewish people therefore, have foreited their rights to even exist at all.

  • fredfarkel

    So, first there has been no suicide bombings in Isreal since the withdrawal from Gaza? So, Mr. Page, haven't you noticed the influx of missles going into Isreal porperty? I guess that doesn't count. As Bugs Bunny would say, "What a Muh-roon!"…

  • waterwillows

    Religious fervor is a wonderfully, useful tool for our enemies to swagger with. Kind of like throwing sand in the opponents eyes in order to blind him.
    The raw, ruthless aggression for ultimate power is the only fervor beating in the heart of Islam. Religion is just the side-show to keep the kaffars occupied elsewhere and the women in their low status as sex slaves.

    You may have noticed that muslims now claim that the Europeans are at present
    'occupying' THEIR lands in Europe? It is an Islamic trait. In every country they immigrate to, including the ME, the land automatically becomes THEIRS.
    So it is not just Israel that has to put up with demands that the people get out of their own country. It is and will be all of us.

  • KT

    I typically avoid posting comments on this site and would had prefered to email this to the writer directly, but no email is provided. But I am afraid he has fallen in a simple fallacy. Responding to the power-point rather then the full thesis. I will assume that Prof.Pape made a mistake and forgot to put a crucial part of his theory in the presentation and that the author did read the book but chose to leave it out or quite humanely forgot it.

    In Dying to Win, where Pape’s theory of sucide terrorism is presented, a crucial intervening variable between occupation and sucide campaings is the political regime of the occupier. Sustained suicide campaings will only be launched againt occupiers that are dmeocratic according to Prof. Pape since only democracies can be expcted to be sensitive to attacks on their civilian populations. Dictatorial occupiers due to the fact that they are already brutalising their civilians, and can insulate themsevels from civil society pressures via reppresion are generally imprevious to the moral effects of suicide attacks. As such Pape doesn’t expect sustanied suicide attacks against authoritrain occupiers.

    As you pointed out ,there were no sucide attacks against Syrian occupying troops in Lebanon which completely is expected by Pape’s theory as Syria is not a democracy. This is the same rason why you did not have a sustained sucide campaing against Russia in Chechnye and why the PKK resorted to sucide attacks during periods of military rule in Turkey. It is also why the Tamils used suicide bombings against the Indian army (India being a democracy) when present, and not against the Sri-Lankan goverment army (Sri Lanka not being one).

    As for selective occpuiations I am sorry but he is quite clear about the criteria of what is an aoccupation: The hold of terriotory of a state or other legal polity by the official military forces of another state. It is in the book which I am sure you read but may had forgotten. You may disagree that this is an adequate definition but by this definition Syria counts as an occupier, Hezzbollah, the IRA, or Al-Queda do not count as occupiers.

    As for the Al-Queda point, Pape points out that while Al-Queda has been preaching anti-american lies for years it only launched a sustained suicide bombings campaing agianst the US when US troopes were deployed in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s for the First Irag war. You may contest that this is not an occupation (and by our view and that of the Saudi royal goverment it is not), but his theory is seemingly validated that Al-Queda did not launch a sustained sucide campaing against the US before the 1990s when the know-how existed. You need to be able to explain the fact that Al-Queda attacked after the 1990s and not before, when the organisation existed and the know-how existed in order to undermine his arguement.

    There are many problems with Pape’s theory and research desing (admirably pointed out here S. Ashworth, J. Clinton, A. Meirowitz, and K. Ramsey, “Design, Inference, and the :
    Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 2008, pp. 269-274

    with a weak repsonse here
    R. Pape, “Methods and Findings in the Study of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political
    Science Review, 2008, pp. 275-277

    (They should be availble to the writer through his university library)

    The problems you point out are not problems of the hteory as presented in Dying to Win, but as presented in a probably bad presentation of Dying to Win. I would strongly reccomend you rearead the book (and the criticisms pointed out) and revise the article to actually address real problems of the full theory and evidence.

    Finally while Pape is indeed against the war in Iraq his thesis is not about whether an occupation is justified or not, but what may be the consquences of it. If the US believes an occupation is justified it should do it, but it should be aware of the consequences in the form of suicide campaings. If his theory and research desing are right (which S. Ashworth, J. Clinton, A. Meirowitz, and K. Ramsey questionm but whose points are very diffrent and more lgitimate then the writers objections)

    With Respect KT

  • mgoldberg

    Muslims and Islam have no need…NONE…. for their homicidal acts. To play semantics with suicide bombers ignores the fact that mohammed's 'defensive' wars, as are all muslim efforts today based upon his rules. Meaning, that if non muslims tried to stop muslims from taking over, then muslims were fighting a 'defensive' war, since they consider the attempts to stop them as 'offensive;. Think of Mumbai where a pregnant wife of a rabbi at a synogogue was slaughtered as was her husband so mulitated, as well as 170 others in the streets, think of Bali, think of Beslan where 300 children were massacred.
    And of course the muslims tell the world that they are oppressed. They blow up each others mosques and markets and scream with joy. This is from Mohammed, and his Quran and their history and their meaning.

    It is time we woke up and realized what we face worldwide and stop allowing the intelligentia to besmirch our lives, our existence and collude with this false victimization bit that islam has practiced since 622AD.

  • Josh S

    In Pape's book, he makes it quite clear that religious differences between societies are one of the top two variables in determining whether or not an occupation will fuel suicide terrorism, the existence of suicide terrorism being another, and the granting of concessions being a third. Not to trivialize the point, but there are definitely different classes of occupation and the differences can account for the variety of responses to different occupations.

  • Guest

    With respect to all opinions, Jared I wished to read a more objective article. Taking a deeper look into the mentioned crisis, you can see it is much more complicated than we in the west receive and perceive it. A brave person like Rachel Corrie who left our bubble that we are living in and went to live there, could see things in people's eyes. I encourage you to have a look at her diaries. Rachel Corrie and her parents are some people who made me think of things differently. Having the privilege to be sound and safe in our houses in the west doesn't excuse us from seeing the big picture or just to be willingly trapped with some biased media. There is much more that is going on.

  • RealTalk

    israel are the terrorists