Robert Pape, having researched “all 462 suicide bombings around the globe”, argues thus:
“There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.
“Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective. Most often, it is a response to foreign occupation.”
His team’s work has clearly been meticulous, and there is much of value in this report [PDF] and doubtless his book, but some of his interpretation is debatable.
The point that a fanatical religious ideology in and of itself isn’t the driver of suicide attacks is fair enough (although the extremist Wahhabism that draws on the ideas of Sayyid Qutb blurs any clear distinction between theology and worldly politics). And it is also worth remembering that Islam per se does not mandate suicide attacks on unbelievers – although the modern spin put on the notion of martyrdom has been grimly effective. But there are always many facets to an explanation of complex sets of actions.
Pape rightly notes that suicide attacks are mostly not just individual acts, but are coordinated by leaders of terrorist groups, who engage in recruitment, training, target selection, and supplying equipment and finance. The individuals who actually strap the bombs to their bodies may well have no history of violence or even political radicalism, and they may well be primarily enraged by a perception of unjust occupation (although we should note that many regard the mere existence of Israel, within any borders, as a military occupation). But the directed anger of young recruits is only part of the story.
The organisers of the groups are, as Pape accepts, more all-encompassing in their motives. They will certainly cite the more manifest popular political grievances (such as occupations) as means of garnering support, but their agendas go far wider, and are informed by a politico-religious ideology that seeks uncompromising theocracy in – at least – Muslim countries.
There is also the fact that certain ends lend themselves more readily to brutal means. A simple liberation struggle that had no further aims would be expected to have more scruples about targeting innocent civilians on the opposing side than would a campaign to dominate and conquer. And when such a campaign is premised on an ideology in which the death of one’s own people is to be celebrated, and in which anyone ‘neutral’ may be treated as an enemy, then suicide attacks on civilians are all the more logical.
Another factor is religion in the shaping of group identity. Without this, it is quite unintelligible that, for instance, British citizens should set off bombs in London, citing grievances about British actions abroad. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is defined by religion rather than nationality or territoriality in itself. Pape, to his credit, appreciates that “a religious difference between the occupier and the occupied… enables terrorist leaders to demonize the occupier in especially vicious ways”. But this limited acknowledgement of the role of religion doesn’t suffice to cover the globalisation of the jihadi outlook.
He is right that political grievances, notably occupations, are highly instrumental in radicalising people to violence. But as well as this: (1) a violent – perhaps suicidally violent – means of resistance can be legitimated by certain belief systems more than others; (2) those who organise the radicalised into terrorism are likely to be guided by more comprehensive ideologies of conflict; and (3) religion can serve as a prism through which identity – of oneself and hence of one’s enemy – can transcend geography or secular politics. To look for one "root cause" of such a phenomenon - whether religion or hatred or resistance - is to miss a lot of complexity.