Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, gave a lecture titled "Cutting the Fuse: Moving Beyond the War on Terror" on October 28, 2010, at Georgetown University. The room in which it was held was packed to full capacity, which gives an idea of his celebrity.
Pape has garnered much attention and influence in recent years for his thesis that the vast majority of suicide bombings—"well over 95 percent of them," as he put it— are motivated by foreign military occupation. The goal is tactical: to kick out the occupying power. Pape expanded on this thesis, noting that he approaches the study of suicide bombings as an oncologist approaches the study of lung cancer and, as such, has concluded that foreign occupation triggers suicide bombings in the same way smoking triggers lung cancer. Therefore, he proposed, ending foreign occupation should eliminate the majority of suicide bombings. The remaining examples would just be "flukes," such as victims of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their life.
Pape explained that while strong religious beliefs can serve as the immediate trigger for a suicide bombing, religious fervor is often a byproduct of helplessness, which, again, allegedly stems from occupation. He summed it up:
From Lebanon to the West Bank, from Iraq to Afghanistan…the main goal has been to gain self determination from a foreign occupier.
In support of his thesis, Pape noted that the world's leading suicide bombers between 1980 and 2003 were the Tamil Tigers, a secular Marxist group in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, he argued, Hezbollah has not committed a single suicide bombing since Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000. Yet Pape's premise is fallacious, as it presumes that Syrian troops, which were stationed in Lebanon until the Cedar Revolution of 2005—five years after Israel's withdrawal—were not occupation forces. Given the massive demonstrations against the Syrians and their constant interference in Lebanese affairs—including a possible role in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which sparked the revolution—Pape proffers a selective definition of "occupation."
Pape's thesis also ignores massive Iranian support for Hezbollah and the terrorist organization's possible role in Hariri's assassination. Earlier this month, this ostensibly benign army undertook a simulated takeover of Lebanon should the international tribunal investigating Hariri's assassination find Hezbollah culpable. Pape thereby employs a double-standard: Israeli troops are foreign occupiers, while Arab troops occupying Arab countries are ignored.
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.