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Study Examines Suicide Bombers' Motives

The rash of suicide bombings in Iraq and the suicide attacks in London earlier this month have focused attention on the motivation for such attacks and how to prevent them. A new study examines hundreds of suicide attacks and why individuals kill themselves to murder others.

University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape has collected evidence and developed a database on more than 300 suicide attacks that have occurred around the world since 1980.

Mr. Pape is the director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, and has just published a book called Dying to Win, the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

During a recent appearance on the VOA public affairs program, Press Conference USA, Mr. Pape says his research indicates that, every major suicide campaign has what he calls a secular and political goal, to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from areas the bombers view as their territory.

"Iraq is a prime example of the strategic logic of suicide terrorism. Before the American invasion in March 2003, Iraq never experienced a suicide terrorist attack in its history. Since the invasion of 2003, suicide terrorism has been growing rapidly. Suicide terrorism has doubled in Iraq every year that 140,000 American combat forces have been stationed in the country, and we are on pace now to set a new record for the year."

Mr. Pape says suicide terrorism is not primarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism, although he says religion is used as a recruiting and fundraising tool.

He says the world's leading suicide terrorist group is the Tamil Tigers, a secular Hindu group in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Pape says the Tamil Tigers have committed more suicide attacks than the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

He says the objective of compelling countries to withdraw military forces from territory the terrorists perceive as occupied has been the central goal of suicide campaigns in Lebanon, Israel, Sri Lanka and among separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the disputed region of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan.

"Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to the presence of foreign military troops, that is mainly a response to the threat of foreign occupation, not Islamic fundamentalism," he said. "This is a terribly important finding, because it means that the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies is only likely to increase suicide terrorists coming at us."

Mr. Pape says his study of hundreds of suicide bombers who actually killed themselves to kill others indicates that most are educated and do not fit the common profile of a person who engages in self-destructive behavior. "What you see is very few fit the standard stereotype of a depressed, lonely individual on the margins of society seeking to escape some wretched existence. That is, very few are suicidal in the ordinary sense of that term. Instead, most are socially integrated, productive members of their community," he said.

Mr. Pape says, to defeat suicide terrorism, the United States should return to what he calls offshore balancing in the Persian Gulf area.

He says during the 1970's and 1980's, the United States successfully managed its interests in the region by not permanently stationing troops in Muslim countries, but maintaining the ability to rapidly deploy military forces to hot spots when necessary.

Mr. Pape says the United States should develop the same strategy to defeat suicide terrorism in Iraq. "Over the next year, we should transfer responsibility for Iraq's army to the Iraqi government, and then we should begin a systematic withdrawal of ground forces, not in a hasty way, but, so (that), over the next two or three years, we transition to a situation, where the Iraqi government is in charge of its army, and the United States has excellent relations with that new government," he said.

Mr. Pape has presented his findings to members of the U.S. Congress, and hopes his research will help policymakers, as they continue efforts to boost the nation's defenses against suicide terrorism. There has been no immediate response from Congressional leaders to Mr. Pape's findings.