Over the past two decades, terrorist organizations have increasingly relied on suicide attacks to achieve political objectives. The specific goal sought in almost all suicide terrorist campaigns in modern history is the same: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory prized by the terrorists. This holds true for al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization of greatest concern to most Americans. Al-Qaeda’s efforts to mobilize people to kill Americans are driven principally by a simple strategic goal: to drive the United States and its Western allies from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries.
Terrorist groups that employ suicide as a tactic follow a strategic logic to compel democratic governments to change their policies, but the motivations of the individual attackers have evolved over the past few years. In the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and in the failed plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic uncovered in August 2006, the actual and prospective suicide terrorists were not personally suffering under foreign occupation, but they did sympathize with the plight of a kindred group. Deep anger at the use of foreign combat forces to suppress national self-determination by kindred groups is sufficient to inspire self-sacrifice even when personal motives for revenge are completely absent.
Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the U.S. government should conduct the war on terrorism. Over the next year, the United States and its allies in Iraq should completely turn over the responsibility for Iraq’s security to Iraq’s new government and should start systematically withdrawing troops. The Bush administration should similarly revisit the deployment of all U.S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf region. The West managed its interests there during the 1970s and 1980s without stationing any combat soldiers on the ground. This “offshore balancing” approach kept our forces close enough that they could respond in the event of an emergency that posed a direct threat to U.S. vital interests. In order to effectively fight al-Qaeda, the United States should complete the transition toward a similar “offshore balancing” strategy by the end of the Bush presidency.