The Professor vs. the Pentagon (September 2006)

According to a recent article on intelligence analysts in the U.S Department of Defense have concluded that “most Muslim suicide bombers are in fact students of the Quran who are motivated by its violent commands – making them, as strange as it sounds to the West, “rational actors” on the Islamic stage.”[i]  This conclusion stands in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom among media elites, academics, Islamic apologists, and most disturbingly, the vast majority of elected Democrats.  In the article their view is presented by Professor Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago, who is quoted as saying “Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Professor Pape also wrote an op-ed piece in the September 22, 2003 edition of the New York Times in which he postulated that 1) the global phenomenon of (suicide) terror attacks are not religiously motivated; 2) that the current U.S. policy of vigorous military action and the spread of democracy is counter-productive and may cause more attacks against U.S. interests; and 3) that strengthening domestic security measures is the best approach to counter the phenomenon.

He based his hypothesis, in part, on his compilation of statistical data related to the total number of suicide attacks perpetrated globally between the years 1980 and 2001.  His findings indicate that, during this time period the “leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri-Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but are adamantly opposed to religion.”  This group, he claims “have committed 75 of the 188 incidents.”[ii]

He cites three main lines of argument in support of his thesis: 1)The fact that “nearly all suicide terror attacks occur as part of organized campaigns, not as isolated or random incidents;” 2) That “liberal democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists;”  and 3) that “suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective.”[iii]

He concludes his essay by stating that the United States should – to lessen the frequency and mitigate the effects of suicide terror attacks – tighten its border security, reduce its energy dependence, and “abandon its vision of empire and allow the United Nations to take over the political and economic institutions in Iraq.”[iv]

Professor Pape’s theory is flawed in several respects:  He bases his theory that suicide terror attacks are motivated by strategic and political goals rather than religion on strictly statistical grounds and not empirical ones.  Using his research, it is clear that a majority (60%) of suicide attacks perpetrated during the sample period were committed by Islamic fundamentalists, not secular Marxist’s.  He curiously based his theory of suicide terror on a minority of the incidents in the sample (Sri Lanka).  Pape then draws the erroneous conclusion that the “presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is wrongheaded, and it may be encouraging domestic and foreign policies that are likely to worsen America’s situation.”[v] He proceeds to formulate his recommendations for U.S. security based on the actions of an entity (the Tamil Tigers) that had never attacked American interests, while seemingly ignoring the fact that nearly every terror attack on the U.S. was committed by Islamic radicals.

This is akin to the U.S. basing its post December 7, 1941 foreign policy on the actions of the Soviet Union rather than those of imperial Japan and fascist Germany.  All were clearly belligerent powers, but the Soviets then, like the Tamil Tigers today, were not our immediate concern and had never attacked the U.S.  In contrast, radical Islamic terrorists, like the WWII era Japanese and German’s, have attacked the U.S., her interests, and allies scores of times since 1980.  It is simply irresponsible to predicate national security strategy on the wrong enemy.

In his analysis, Pape ignores the fact that as Samuel Huntington has said “Islam has bloody borders.”[vi]  The primary motivating factor that encourages Islamic terrorism is Islam itself.  Their goal is not merely “the expulsion of American troops from the Persian Gulf,”[vii] as Pape asserts, but as Daniel Pipes has written:

“As London’s Daily Telegraph puts it ‘problems in Iraq and Afghanistan each added a new pebble to the mountain of grievances that militant fanatics have erected.’ Yet neither is decisive to giving up one’s life for the sake of killing others.  In nearly all cases, the Jihadi terrorists have a patently self-evident ambition: to establish a world dominated by Muslims, Islam, and Islamic law, the Shari’a.  Or, again to cite the Daily Telegraph, their ‘real project is the extension of the Islamic territory across the globe, and the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate founded on shari’a law.’”[viii]

As Mia Bloom of the University of Cincinnati has stated “Pape’s model correctly identifies the motivations of nationalist-inspired suicide terrorists; however it does not fully explain why religious groups (with goals beyond territorial demands) might use it.”[ix]

His emphasis on the vulnerability of liberal democracies is also problematic.  In the words of Mia Bloom: “In instances when illiberal authoritarian regimes have gone head to head against opposition groups (before their strategies had advanced to include suicide terror,) the groups are eliminated.”[x]  And as Bloom points out, the examples Pape cites in support of this contention (Sri Lanka, Russian Chechnya, and the West Bank) were hardly liberal democracies.

Pape asserts that the West should take a purely reactive posture by erecting walls and increasing immigration controls and by pulling American forces out of Iraq, where he asserts, much like the recently leaked excerpt from the National Intelligence Estimate, their presence drives the recruitment of terrorists intent on killing Americans.    However prior to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by coalition forces, U.S. civilians and interests were already the frequent targets of Islamic terror attacks in spite of decades of U.S. policy stressing this type of passive, law-enforcement emphasis to anti-terror strategy; since then, the attacks on the U.S. have been against not defenseless civilians but against military targets with the capacity to defend themselves.

Pape prescribes that “the best approach for states under fire is probably to focus on their own domestic security while doing what they can to see that the least militant forces on the terrorists’ side build a viable state of their own.”[xi]  This recommendation directly contradicts his derisive criticism of the U.S.’s “visions of empire.”  The U.S. is not amassing a global empire by temporarily occupying two former state sponsors of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan and incubating representative democracies in their place; we are, in fact seeing to it that “the least militant forces…build a viable state of their own.”

Robert Pape’s analysis of suicide terrorism is flawed because he stops short of fully explaining the roots of its Islamic manifestation – the primary form of the phenomenon the West now faces.  His recommendations to combat the threat are based largely on the non-Islamic variety of suicide terror – a minority overall and not aimed at the West.  Nevertheless, his emphasis on domestic security measures are reasonable and sound and there is no reason immigration/border controls (and increased energy independence) cannot be part of an overall counter-terror strategy which includes attacking nations and that support terrorism against the West; the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

The good news is that those most responsible for our protection – the U.S. military, not cloistered academics, seem to have a more realistic grasp of our enemies’ true motivations.


[i], “Suicide bombers follow Quran, concludes Pentagon briefing”, 27 Sept.         2006.

[ii] Pape, Robert A. 2003.  “Dying to Kill Us,” New York Times, 22 Sept. , 1

[iii] Ibid., 2

[iv] Ibid., 3

                [v] Ibid., 1

[vi] Wikipedia Encyclopedia, s.v. “Huntington, Samuel P.”,

[vii]  Pape, 2

[viii] Pipes, Daniel.  “What Do the Terrorists Want?  [A Caliphate.]”  26 July, 2005.       

[ix]  Bloom, Mia.  Dying to Kill: The Global Phenomenon of Suicide Terror.  Columbia University      Press, 2004 chapter 4, page 9.

                [x] Bloom, 10

[xi] Pape, 3

About michaelstjoseph

Michael St. Joseph is the pen-name of a Catholic conservative citizen of the greatest country in the history of civilization. He has a law enforcement background and lives with his family in the New York area. He can be reached at
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