Debate addresses motives of suicide terrorism

Students, faculty and community members packed into Filene Auditorium Friday evening for a vocal discussion on Islamic fundamentalism, suicide terrorism and the future of U.S. foreign policy. Former Dartmouth professor Robert Pape and Israeli counter-terrorism agent Ram Sidi participated in the discussion, entitled, “Dying By Design: What Motivates Suicide Terrorists?”

Pape, currently a professor at the University of Chicago, said that there is a dangerous misconception that suicide terrorism is inextricably tied to religious fundamentalism.

“Suicide terrorism has been rising around the world but there’s great confusion about why,” Pape said. “Many have assumed that Islamic fundamentalism is the obvious, central cause. This presumption is misleading.”

According to Pape’s statistics on bombings, the world leader in suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who invented the infamous suicide vest. This Marxist and Hindu organization has conducted more suicide attacks than both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Pape said that the majority of suicide attacks do share a similar purpose but one which is unabashedly secular in motivation. There would be scores of bombers from Islamic theocracies if the suicide terrorists were motivated solely by religious incentives.

“Notice also where they [suicide bombers] are not coming from. Iran, an Islamic fundamentalist country: Zero. Bangladesh: Zero. Pakistan, the largest Islamic fundamentalist country on the planet: Two,” Pape said. “If Islamic fundamentalism was the root of this, we should see suicide bombers jumping out of Iran and Pakistan.”

Instead, terrorists strike in an effort to convince military forces to leave land they consider theirs and thereby “establish self-determination over territory they prize.”

Elaborating on this point, Pape said he blamed the presence of American combat troops in the Middle East for much of the hostility towards the nation.

While he said that nothing can justify the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Pape described the stationing of combat troops in the Middle East as the “pivotal factor” that serves as Osama bin Laden’s “best mobilization appeal.”

Pape said he sees hope for a change in America’s Middle East policy and recommended a gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a dramatic reduction of an American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula.

In his address, which directly followed Pape’s lecture, Sidi immediately made a distinction between the basis of the academic’s knowledge and his own.

“My knowledge doesn’t come from making books or being a diplomat, but mainly from the field,” Sidi said. “My job was to look for these terrorists and stop them.”

While Pape has followed the trends of these bombings around the world, Sidi, a member of Israel’s counter-terrorism forces, has focused his attention on the Palestinian terrorist organizations that use suicide bombers as weapons.

Sidi began by revealing gruesome slides of the victims of two separate suicide attacks, perpetrated by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, respectively.

“The reason I do it is not to shock you, but to show you where I come from and where I gain my knowledge, and to show you what a successful suicide bombing looks like and what a deadly, horrific attack it is on innocent civilians,” he said.

Based on his experience with Palestinian terrorist groups, Sidi said that the terrorism was unlikely to cease without a crackdown on the organizations themselves, even if Pape’s recommendations of troop withdrawal were heeded by the Bush Administration.

In contrast with Pape, Sidi said that while some terrorist organizations, like Fatah, are indeed secular, religious motivation cannot be entirely separated from the concept of suicide bombing, at least in the case of Palestine.

He noted that negotiation with these terrorists is often futile as they often view suicide as self-sacrifice in the name of Allah.

“My last message is, and this is the most important one, those radical Islamic groups do not represent the Muslims whatsoever,” Sidi said. “The vast majority of Muslims are peacekeepers and do not share this view. They [terrorists] make a very big noise, but they are small in number.”

The event was sponsored by the Dickey Center’s War and Peace Studies Program and moderated by Dartmouth [professor of government] William Wohlforth.

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