On Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines as they slept. This dark chapter of American history was one of the country’s first experiences with suicide attack since the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II. The attack, combined with the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that April and a sustained terrorism campaign waged by the group that came to be known as Hezbollah, was a major reason President Reagan ordered American forces to leave Lebanon in 1984.
The barracks bombing is perhaps the most well known attack in Lebanon during that period, but it was far from an isolated incident. Hezbollah’s campaign of suicide terrorism, mainly against American, French and Israeli military forces along with Western political targets, killed about 900 people. And the attacks would serve as a major inspiration for future terrorist groups that adopted similar tactics, most notably Hamas, Al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers.
At the time, the prevailing narrative was that these attacks in Lebanon were the result of Shiite Muslim fundamentalism. It has become a common refrain over the last several decades that religion, and Islam in particular, is the primary cause of suicide bombings. This is an easy, convenient and clear argument that fits with the United States’ approach to the war on terror over the last decade.
There is just one problem with this argument: It’s wrong.
Research I and my colleagues conducted at the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, in which we analyzed each of the more than 2,200 suicide attacks that have taken place throughout the world since 1980, shows that though other factors matter, the primary driver of suicide terrorism is foreign occupation.
In Lebanon, for example, of the 32 successful suicide attackers from 1982 through 1989 whose ideology was identifiable, 22 were communists and socialists with no commitment to religious extremism; five were Christian. Religion served as an auxiliary recruiting tool, but the root cause of the attacks was foreign occupation, and the attacks were designed to coerce the occupying forces — Israel, France and the United States — to withdraw.
The United States has not learned the lessons from Lebanon and is failing to realize that prolonged troop deployments abroad are leading to an increase in suicide attacks and violence against troops and civilians.
What we should be doing is asking whether our military presence in Afghanistan and continued campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan are making us safer. Unfortunately, our research suggests just the opposite.
A more effective approach would be to revert to a policy of working with local governments and institutions and selectively using air power and special forces to accomplish important military objectives. This is an intermediate approach that is neither “cutting and running” nor “staying and dying.” It is a way to achieve political objectives without subjecting U.S. forces to unnecessary harm and without further inflaming local passions that in turn lead to a rise of hatred and violence against an occupying power.
Many worry that shifting to such a policy would embolden the terrorists. However, Hezbollah suicide attackers did not follow the Americans to New York, or the French to Paris or even the Israelis to Tel Aviv after those nations left Lebanon. Since the last Israeli ground forces left in May 2000, there has not been a single Hezbollah suicide attack, not even in the summer of 2006, during the three-week air war between Israel and Hezbollah. To be sure, ordinary terrorism has continued, but causing far fewer deaths than suicide attacks.
The U.S. has important strategic interests in Afghanistan and the region and in the Middle East, and it should use all instruments of national power to achieve them. But to continue on the current path is to ignore the causal link between foreign occupation and terrorism, which will make it less likely that we will be able to eradicate this threat in the years ahead.
Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and an expert on terrorism and international security, is the author of the just-released “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.”