Is occupation the sole cause of suicide bombing? Does it matter?

Even if you don’t want to read this entire discussion, be sure to read the statement of the European Council for Fatwa and Research in 2003 which declares who among us infidels is a legitimate target of terrorism. The answer is, every single one of us.

A reader writes:

Are you aware of Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism? In it he claims that suicide terrorism derives from occupation of land believed by the terrorists to be their own. He says that religion is used, after the fact, to motivate the movement and the terrorists, but that those religious motives fail to sustain the movements after the occupation is ended. He has extensively analyzed Sri Lanken, Hindu, and some other movements in addition to many Middle Eastern movements. I find his arguments very persuasive. He is very non-ideological as far as I can tell, just an enthusiastic technician.

He recommends withdrawal and stationing troops off-shore in the Middle East in case of strategic threats.

If he is correct then Islam is not really the problem, the stationing of Western troops in the Middle East is. Well, Islam is a serious problem with respect to immigration and national identity; but not with respect to suicide terrorism.

I’d be interested in your thoughts after you have read the book. I imagine that your reaction, before reading the book, would be very negative.

LA to reader:

Obviously, a Western presence in a Muslim country is going to exacerbate jihadist manifestations including suicide terrorism. That’s why I’m against any involvement by us in the Muslim world and any efforts to reform it from within.

But when analysts detach from Islam phenomena that are obviously deeply tied to Islam, such as terrorism, we have a problem. This is what all the mainstream intellectuals do today. They say terrorism is due to some cultural or economic or political factor that is extrinsic to Islam, so if we just remove that extrinsic factor, the terrorism will stop. So if we assimilate the Muslims in Europe better, or if we stop “discriminating” against Muslims, or if we create a global Provider State to give Muslim countries food and schools and highways, or if we betray Israel to its mortal enemies, then terrorism will go away.

My point is that while we should not do unnecessary things that exacerbate jihadism, ultimately jihadism is an expression of Islam itself. As long as Islam exists, jihadism, along with the terrorism that Allah specifically orders in the Koran, will exist as well. Thus any writer who says that terrorism committed by Muslims is not connected with Islam is promoting a dangerous delusion.

Reader to LA:

Pape says the cause of suicide terrorism is exclusively occupation. He would deny that it is caused by Islam since he has examples from two or three other religions, all connected to occupation.

I think Pape would say that there has never been suicide terrorism committed by Muslims except in connection with military occupation of land that they consider their homeland. He would say that it is clearly turned on and off as a tool to control negotiations, and that it generally stops completely when the occupying army exits.

He does say that the effects of occupation are aggravated when the occupying Army is of a different religion than the occupied country. He posits that the difference in religions makes it easier to recruit suicide volunteers. He has one or two examples that do not involve Muslims.

He probably would be non-committal on the risk to Western societies of non-suicide terrorism, which he has not studied. And certainly non-committal on the threat to Western culture of immigration.

He would say that the Tamil Tigers did not have anything like jihad in their completely secular movement, but that they did have suicide terrorism at a greater rate and total that that of Muslims, before Iraq.

He would say that a great number of Muslim terrorists were secular, and that that shows that religion is a morale builder in the movement, not a motivator.

LA to reader:

And what does Pape call 9/11?

He’ll probably say it’s because the US is an ally of a country that is “occupying” Muslim land. But that extends the reach of this “rule” governing suicide terrrorism quite a bit further than just an occupying force, doesn’t it?

Reader to LA:

He would say that we were attacked because so many of our troops were in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. That’s why he wants us to relocate off shore. Certainly that is what bin Laden has said was his primary motivation.

And also, as you suggest, that we support Israel in occupying Gaza and the Golan and the West Bank. He might also would include the fact that we support the very existence of Israel.

Personally, I believe that the two state solution on the table would solve the Israeli problem as a motivation for suicide terrorism, I don’t know what Pape would say.

LA to reader:

I’m sorry, but if you actually believe that terrorism will stop if only a Palestinian state is created, it becomes hard to take this conversation seriously.

Would terrorist bombing in Indonesia stop if the Palestinians had a state? What about Jordan? What about Saudi Arabia? Indonesia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are not occupied Muslim countries, they are Muslim-ruled countries.

Another exception to Pape’s rule would be the suicide attacks against ordinary Iraqis. Now Pape will probably say that anyone “cooperating” with the Americans is participating in the occupation, but when stores, schools, streets, are being attacked, then anyone in the country is a potential target. This is well beyond attacking occupiers.

Another exception is Jordan. Al Qaeda just carried out a big suicide attack on three hotels in Aman, Jordan. Is Pape going to say that Jordan is “really” under occupation because … well, because it has diplomatic relations with Israel, or something of that nature? Once again, you see how wide the net starts to spread, to the point where it becomes hard to see how enough could ever be done to stop the terrorism.

Reader to LA:

… Suicide attacks, says Pape, are intended to drive out the occupier. They are simply a weapon used in desperate situations. The victim of the attack is anyone whose death will lead to the occupier leaving. In Iraq, if they cause chaos then they probably hope that we will throw up our hands and leave. (It occurs to me that the Communists had a similar ethic, you have to break a few eggs to generate a revolution.) There may be other, Baathist motives. And there may be motivations due to religion. Pape would say that these other motivations are secondary support and that the movement would founder were there not occupiers, especially occupiers of a different religion.

In Jordan the Iraqi suicide bombers (note, not al Qaeda and, I think I remember from new reports, rather secular) probably hope that Jordan will throw up its hands and stop helping us.

LA to reader:

I’m sorry, but with all due respect, it doesn’t seem to me that you are arguing in good faith. You state the theory that Muslim suicide bombing is only in response to a foreign occupier of a Muslim land. Then, when I point out the exception of Jordan, you just talk around it. Somehow Jordan becomes a constructive occupier of Israel because Jordan “helps” the U.S., and the U.S. is a friend of Israel. Now, to pursue your logic further, does France, or Sweden, or Brazil have some sort of relations with Jordan? Well, then they become targets for suicide bombing too, since they have relations with a country that has relations with a country that has relations with a country that is “occupying” Muslim land. Ultimately the whole world becomes a legitimate target for suicide bombing, which, by the way, is really the case, if we understand what Muslim really believe about who is a legitimate target of martyrdom operations.

In this connection, here is a report that appeared in the Arabic language newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 19, 2003, and was posted at MEMRI. MEMRI’S introduction reads in part:

During the first week of July 2003, the European Council for Fatwa and Research convened in Stockholm for its 11th session. The council, which was established in 1997 in the U.K., is comprised primarily of Islamic scholars from the Arab world and is headed by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, one of the most influential clerics in Sunni Islam and amongst Islamist groups and organizations. The council convenes every few months in a European city to conduct discussions and issue Fatwas on questions concerning Muslim communities in the West. Following differences of opinion on the matter of suicide bombings during the previous session (convened in Dublin in January 2003), the council decided to research the matter and bring it up for discussion at the July session.

And below is an excerpt from those excerpts. The subject of the Council’s discussion up to this point has been the legitimacy of martyrdom operations against Israelis. The Council says that because Israel is not like other countries, but is an “invader state,” therefore all Israelis, men, women, and children, are part of the invading army and are legitimate targets of suicide murder. So, it is not just the “occupied territories” that are occupied, it is the whole of Israel. Which, by the logic we’ve already discussed, would mean that even after Israel gave up the West Bank, any country that had friendly relations with Israel would also be constructively an occupier and deserve to have all its people killed. This makes a hash out of your claim that a two-state solution is the answer. But then the report goes beyond Israel altogether:

It has been determined by Islamic law that the blood and property of people of Dar Al-Harb is not protected. [Emphasis added.] Because they fight against and are hostile towards the Muslims, they annulled the protection of his blood and his property… in modern war, all of society, with all its classes and ethnic groups, is mobilized to participate in the war, to aid its continuation, and to provide it with the material and human fuel required for it to assure the victory of the state fighting its enemies. Every citizen in society must take upon himself a role in the effort to provide for the battle. The entire domestic front, including professionals, laborers, and industrialists, stands behind the fighting army, even if it does not bear arms.

[Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 19, 2003. Middle East Media Research Institute. July 24, 2003 No.542 ]

I’ve never seen a statement that goes this far, saying that terrorist attacks, including, presumably, martyrdom operations (since martyrdom operations are the subject of the discussion), against ALL people in the Dar al-Harb are justified. In the case of Israel, the specific history of that country was adduced in support of the conclusion that all Israelis are legitimate targets of suicide bombing. But in the passage I’ve just quoted, conerning people of the Dar al-Harb as such, no cause or pretext is needed—such as “occupation” (which in Israel’s case means just existing), opposing or oppressing Muslims, being in active war against Muslims, or anything of that nature—to justify attacks on them. This does not mean that all harbis in the world (that’s us) are about to be attacked. It means that Islam justifies attacks on any and all harbis when occasion calls for it.

It is not just some lone extremist saying this, but a high level conference of leading Muslim clerics from Europe and the Arab lands; Qawadari resides in Qatar but travels frequently in Europe. And Europe has just let these ideologues of murder carry on this kind of conference year after year!

So, we have this statement from top Muslim clerics led by the eminent Qawadari licensing the murder—which presumably includes suicide murder—of all non-Muslims in the whole world, and we have actual Muslim suicide terrorists attacking the United States (which was not occupying a Muslim country on 9/11/01, except in the infinitely elastic sense favored by Osama bin Laden), as well as against Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, since, when Muslims are not killing non-Muslims, they turn on their fellow Muslims whom they see as heretics or allies of the Dar al-Harb and thus equally deserving of death. There is, in short, both the theory and the practice of a terrorist war that far transcends striking at “occupiers.”


Pape distinguishes what actually makes the suicide terrorist movement go and what its leaders say about it. His data analyses suggest that when the occupation ceases the ideologues continue to press their cases but the support of the people wanes and the suicide campaigns end despite the urgings of those leaders who are more ideologically motivated and are aiming for larger goals such as sharia. He argues that people will not volunteer to commit suicide for (or against) sharia, whereas they will die to expel an occupier. Nationalism in action?


In my view, the difference between what their doctrine calls for and what they actually do is a valid point. I myself made a similar point at the beginning of this exchange, when I said that occupation would certainly exacerbate suicide bombing. But the fact remains that Islam calls for eternal war against all non-Muslims, calls for Muslims to “strike terror in the heart” of the infidels, calls on them to strike off the heads of all infidels, to kill the infidels wherever you find them. It tells Muslims that death in war against infidels takes one directly to heaven. As long as this authoritative doctrine of Islam, this sacralized call for the murder of non-Muslims exists, any dispute that may arise between Muslims and non-Muslims is going to be a pretext for terrorist attacks—and, if not suicide attacks, then non-suicide attacks.

After all (and this is a question that has been in the back of my mind through this whole conversation), is suicide bombing the only form of terrorism? Let’s say that all suicide bombing ended. Would that end Muslim terrorism per se? According to Pape, if no Muslim lands anywhere were occupied (which, I repeat, is my preference, that’s why I call for isolating and containing the Muslim world and having as little to do with it as possible), would all Muslim terrorism come to an end, or only all Muslim suicide terrorism?


I think that the Palestinian occupation is a fairly minor occupation, as compared to Iraq now, and as compared to the US troops formerly in Saudi Arabia in terms of motivating suicide terrorists. Of course it is still the major cause of anti-Israeli terrorism, but a secondary cause, mostly motivational for Al Qaeda. As you no doubt are aware there have been many Palestinian secular and even a few Christian suicide terrorists. So occupation, not Islam was likely their motivation. I think Pape would view it as one element to be solved.

Whether justified or not, I think US troops in Saudi Arabia were viewed as an occupation because the troops are right there to move in if the Saudi Government did something the US did not like. So it “looked like” an occupation.

The Bali suicide bombings had nothing to do with Palestine, I expect. That was clearly to get at the Australians to get them to leave Iraq.

Of course there is plenty of non-suicide violence directed against Christians in Indonesia by Muslims. If Muslims ever get more powerful weapons they may use them against Christians for less desperate causes than occupation, maybe to impose sharia. Pape does not claim to solve all problems.

LA to reader:

For the sake of discussion, I will accept that there have been a few Christian suicide terrorists. Compared to 1,400 years of jihad martyrdom killings that is not significant. Yet you suggest that the existence of these two supposedly equivalent phenomena—Christian suicide terrorists and Muslim suicide terrorists—cancels out the Islamic aspect of Islamic suicide terrorism and turns it into generic suicide terrorism.

Likewise your reference to Palestinian secular terrorists. You cannot separate “secular” from “religious” Palestinian terrorists like that. Whether a given terrorist is considered religious or not, these Palestinians are functioning within a Muslim context, carrying out classic martyrdom operations against the infidel. The entire élan and form of what they are doing derives from Islam.

On Saudi Arabia, you admit it wasn’t really an occupation because our troops were there at the invitation of the Muslim government, but then you justify the terrorists’ “response” to it because they “perceived” it as an occupation. So, to be safe, we can’t just avoid actual occupations, we have to avoid anything that the jihadists may perceive as an occupation. Our safety depends on their crazed perceptions. I hope you you starting to see the problem with your theory, which supposes some kind of rational limits to terrorism. Especially when it is remembered that according to Islam, the entire non-Muslim world is territory that rightfully belongs to Islam but is illegitimately occupied by non-Muslims who are perversely resisting Allah and his Prophet.

And then, after all this, you admit the following:

Of course there is plenty of non-suicide violence directed against Christians in Indonesia by Muslims. If Muslims ever get more powerful weapons they may use them against Christians for less desperate causes than occupation, maybe to impose sharia. Pape does not claim to solve all problems.

So, even if Pape were right, and even if all “occupations” were somehow ended in the whole world, it wouldn’t end terrorism, it wouldn’t end jihad, it would only end suicide bombing. Jihad and terrorism would continue So what good is it? Pape’s thesis falls apart.

LA wrote earlier:

After all, is suicide bombing the only form of terrorism? Let’s say that all suicide bombing ended. Would that end Muslim terrorism per se? If no Muslim lands anywhere were occupied (which, I repeat is my preference, that’s why I call for isolating and containing the Muslim world and having as little to do with it as possible), would all Muslim terrorism come to an end, or only all Muslim suicide terrorism?

The reader replies:

Pape would only say that suicide terrorism would cease. Because only the motivation of national survival, of occupation, is a sufficient motivation. Yes, I think Pape would agree that other terrorism would continue.

I don’t think this is a silly or trivial focus because suicide terrorism is so very effective for a weak organization.

I appreciate your emphasis on leaving Muslim states alone. I had not realized that before we began this correspondence.

LA to reader:

For years I’ve been pushing the idea that we should contain and isolate the Muslim world, and only interfere directly when a regime is threatening to us, and destroy that regime and then leave.

This containment and isolation of Islam requires the steady departure of Muslims from the West to the Muslim lands, plus the end of efforts on our part of reform or democratize the Islamic world. It’s the exact opposite of what we’re now doing, which is to welcome and expand the Muslim population in the West while we try to reform and democratize the Muslim countries. It seems dauntingly difficult, but doable once the Dar al-Harb recognizes the nature of the threat . The powers of the Dar al-Harb would in effect have to encircle the Muslim world, keeping Muslims within it, depriving them of any power to affect the non-Muslim world. If the Muslims have no power and no opportunity to carry out jihad, then they’ll have no choice but accept their powerless condition, as they have done at times in the past.

Such containment would be an endless task. I see no other rational approach to making ourselves permanently safe from Islam, given the unchangeable fact that Islam, as long as it exists, will continue to be our deadly adversary.

[Further thoughts on this topic are posted here.]

[Note, January 7, 2006: I would say that the Sunni or Al Qaeda suicide mass murder of over 60 Shi’ite pilgrims in Karbala on January 5, discussed here, pretty much disproves Robert Pape’s theory.]
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 11, 2005 02:00 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):