What We’ve Learned About Suicide Terrorism since 9/11

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 11, 2006.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 brought us face to face with the horror of suicide terrorism. In the years since, pundits have painted al Qaeda as a fearless enemy motivated by insatiable religious hatred. Amid prognostications of doom, we lost sight of the truth: that suicide terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and that beneath the religious rhetoric with which it is perpetrated, it occurs largely in the service of secular aims. Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism.

Al Qaeda is a paradoxical entity: a group with territorial concerns but no territory of its own. It came about in response to the presence of thousands of American troops on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990, and recruited terrorists for suicide missions with the primary aim of forcing them out. Though it speaks of Americans as infidels, al Qaeda is less concerned with converting us to Islam than removing us from Arab and Muslim lands, and it was in this cause that it attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11.

Above all, Al Qaeda seeks to coerce democratic governments into changing their foreign policies. Since 2001, it has achieved a significant degree of success in dividing the West, by concentrating on vulnerable U.S. allies like France, Germany and Turkey, attacking tourists and foreign workers from north Africa to Indonesia.

There is no better way to understand the enemy than to listen to how it recruits new suicide bombers to kill us. In July, Al Qaeda released its most recent recruitment video, encouraging Muslims to carry out new attacks similar to the July 7 bombings in London last year. The video is stunning in its absence of religious declamation.

The first speaker is Shehzad Tanweer, one of the actual 7/7 bombers, who explains that he intended to punish "the non-Muslims of Britain" because "your government has openly supported the genocide of over 15,000 innocent Muslims in Fallujah," the site of a major Western military operation in Iraq in 2004.

The second speaker is Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command, who reiterates that "Shehzad's motivation was the repression which the British are perpetrating in Iraq" and other Muslim countries.

Finally, the main event: Adam Gadahn, a 28-year old American citizen, born of Jewish and Christian parents, who converted to Islam as a teenager and has lived with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1998. Gadahn is the new voice -- and new weapon -- of Al Qaeda. In his long recruitment appeal, he never mentions 72 virgins or the benefits Islamic martyrs receive in Heaven. Instead, he speaks to an earthly motive: revenge for Western military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I know [Western combat forces] killed and maimed civilians in their strikes because I've seen it with my own eyes ... I've carried the victims in my arms: women, children, toddlers, babies in their mother's wombs," Gadahn says. "When we bomb their cities and civilians like they bomb ours, or destroy their infrastructure and means of transportation like they destroy ours ... they should blame no one but themselves. Because they are the ones who started this dirty war and they are the ones who will end it ... by pulling out of our region and keeping their hands out of our affairs."

To make sense of Al Qaeda's campaign against the United States and its allies, I compiled data on the 71 terrorists who took their own lives carrying out attacks sponsored by Osama bin Laden's network between 1995 and 2004. These men are drawn from two groups: those who feel harmed and humiliated by foreign military occupation, and those who identify with the plight of a kindred ethnic group under foreign occupation.

Although British authorities thwarted last month's airliner attack plot, the arrest and detention of two dozen individuals in the U.K. reveals that Al Qaeda continues to draw strength from disaffected European Muslims, whose anger over Western combat operations in Muslim lands motivates them to take up arms. If it could no longer draw recruits from the Muslim countries where there is an American and Western combat presence, however, the remaining transnational network would pose a far smaller threat.

From 2002 to the end of 2005, Al Qaeda carried out over 17 suicide and other terrorist bombings, killing nearly 700 people – more attacks and victims than in all the years before 9/11 combined. Most Americans would like to believe that Western counter-terrorism efforts have weakened al Qaeda, but by the measure that counts – the ability of the group to kill us – it is stronger today than it was before 9/11.

We must understand that suicide terrorism results more from foreign occupation than Islamic fundamentalism, and conduct the war accordingly.

Robert A. Pape

Robert A. Pape is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of the forthcoming Cato Institute paper "Suicide Terrorism and Democracy: What We've Learned since 9/11."