Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It

fuseCutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It
By Robert A. Pape & James K. Feldman
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 349 pp.

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ph.D. Candidate at the Catholic University of America

In this follow-up to Robert Pape’s Dying to Win,[1] Pape and Feldman reaffirm Pape’s “occupation theory” explanation for suicide attacks: that the root cause of “suicide terrorism,” as Pape and Feldman dub it, is foreign occupation by democratic powers. (Pape and Feldman believe that it is critical that the occupier be a democratic power, which can be more easily coerced by a suicide campaign than a non-democratic power.) They argue that occupation triggers nationalist resentment, which in turn can spur members of threatened communities to resort to suicide campaigns. But the authors also go beyond Pape’s original thesis by arguing that foreign occupation is in fact the best explanation even for the motivations of transnational suicide attackers, those who attack outside their country of origin. Religion is largely irrelevant to suicide missions, in their view: even when it matters, “it functions mainly as a recruiting tool in the context of national resistance” (p. 20).

The relationship between occupation and suicide missions is a subject worthy of serious attention, and the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has assembled an impressive database of suicide attacks. Unfortunately, Cutting the Fuse is characterized by strawman argumentation, contradictions, poorly defined critical concepts, and cherry-picked evidence. It may well be the worst academic book on terrorism published in 2010.

A False Dichotomy
The problems begin with the basic framework upon which the book is premised. In positioning themselves as refuting a conventional wisdom that has stymied our ability to understand the root causes of the terrorist threat, Pape and Feldman create a clear strawman opponent. They claim that “many” have assumed that the root cause of terrorism is “a religiously motivated hatred of American and Western values among a tiny fringe of Muslims scattered across the globe, and not related to any foreign or military policies by the United States or its allies (p. 1; emphasis added). They continue by claiming that this prevalent conception holds that terrorists simply want “to achieve religious martyrdom independently of any political goal” (p. 1).

Significantly, in framing the position that they are arguing against, Pape and Feldman fail to cite a single author who advocates it—despite their claim that “many” hold the view. The creation of this strawman on the very first page of their book forms a critical part of its overall failure. The idea that jihadism is purely religious and completely unrelated to any of the U.S.’s “foreign or military policies,” as Pape and Feldman frame their opponents’ claim, is obviously false; it represents a tortured monocausal view of the origins of terror. Lest there be any doubt that they’re arguing against a strawman, on a couple of occasions they state that the principal cause of radicalization cannot be “Islamo-fascism” (pp. 14, 56)—a dead giveaway, since not a single serious academic commentator uses that term to explain radicalization. But in establishing this strawman as their foil, Pape and Feldman uncritically accept one aspect of it: the idea that a single “root cause” of all suicide attacks can discerned, and that once it is found all other explanations must be understood as marginal.

This leads to one bizarre passage after another in which the authors examine various alleged causes of suicide attacks, and argue that they cannot constitute the dominant explanation for the phenomenon’s rise. From that starting point, they conclude a) that because these phenomena cannot be the primary explanation, they are therefore relatively unimportant, and b) that if these other phenomena are not the dominant cause of suicide terrorism, occupation theory must be. It is as though the idea of robust multicausality never crossed the authors’ minds.

Self-Contradictory Causal Explanations
Clear errors are evident in Pape and Feldman’s aforementioned refutations of other alleged causes of suicide attacks—because in many cases their refutations also undercut their own explanation of the phenomenon. The most glaring error is their explanation that Islamic extremism cannot account for the rise of transnational suicide attacks because such extremist ideology “is a global phenomenon, one that has been in existence in a variety of forms, not just for many decades, but almost since the inception of Islam itself” (p. 53). Thus, they contend that religious extremism “cannot account for the rise of transnational suicide terrorism over the past 30 years.” In other words, since Islamic extremism has existed for such a long period, it does not sufficiently explain a phenomenon that has only arisen in the past three decades.

The historical illiteracy of this passage is remarkable for an obvious reason: Foreign occupation has also been in existence for many centuries, and pre-dates the advent of Islam. Take, for example, one country—Afghanistan—whose suicide campaign is examined in Pape and Feldman’s book. It was first occupied twenty-six centuries ago, by Cyrus the Great. Thereafter it has been occupied by Alexander the Great, the Greek empire, the Kushan empire, the nomadic “White Huns,” the Persians, the Arabs, the Ghaznavid empire, the Ghorids, the Khwarezm, the Mongol army, the Safavid and Afsharid empires, the British, the Russians, and finally the United States. Now, it is true that Pape and Feldman focus their theory on democratic occupying powers: But the British, who fought three wars with the Afghans, were democratic by any definition of the concept, and faced no suicide campaigns in that country. Indeed, the era of colonialism was frequently a story of democratic powers directly occupying foreign lands, and the British were almost certainly the largest occupying force that the world has seen, as can be seen from the saying that “the sun never sets on the British empire.” Yet we did not see suicide campaigns against the British in any of the far-flung territories it controlled. There were no suicide campaigns against the Dutch in Indonesia or Suriname; there were no such campaigns against the French in Algeria, Benin, Cambodia, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Laos, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, or its other holdings; there were no suicide attacks against the Portuguese in Angola, Macau, Mozambique, or Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau); and the U.S. did not face a suicide campaign when it colonized the Philippines. Occupation by democratic powers was unquestionably more extensive during the period of colonialism than it has been in the past thirty years. The argument Pape and Feldman use to refute the religious explanation also undercuts their own theory.

So too do Pape and Feldman, in describing how occupation triggers suicide attacks based on nationalist sentiment, provide an explanation that applies equally well to religious extremism. “National identities rest on the idea of a primary division of the world between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” they write, “a boundary that tends to harden under the circumstances of a foreign military occupation” (p. 49). But this division of the world into “us” and “them” is equally true of a pronounced religious identity. In Islam, the concept of kafir (unbeliever) signals this division. (There are, to be clear, similar “us” and “them” divisions within Christian and Judaic thought.) But consonant with the unequivocally forced conclusions that characterize Pape and Feldman’s book, they believe without justification that nationalism is the “taproot explanation” (p. 11) for how foreign military occupation might drive suicide attacks.

Definitional Absurdity
In addition to this sloppy self-contradictory causal argumentation—in which Pape and Feldman offer refutations of other theories that also disprove their own, and support their own theory in ways that apply also to competing explanations—the definitions they employ for key concepts are nonsensical. Indeed, it is obvious that they attempt to fashion a self-serving definition of “occupation,” which is the central concept in the book—but they are so inept in their effort that they unwittingly illustrate the shortcomings of their own theory.

Pape and Feldman define occupation as “the exertion of political control over territory by an outside group” (pp. 20-21). That outside power’s political control “must depend on employing coercive assets,” such as military troops, that “are controlled from outside the occupied territory.” Though that may seem like a standard definition, Pape and Feldman continue that the troops actually stationed in the occupied territory need not be particularly large “so long as enough are available, if necessary, to suppress an effort at independence.” Thus, the test for whether a territory is occupied is “the decisiveness of political control: if the local government requires the power of foreign ‘stabilizing’ troops or police in order to maintain order—or if large segments of the local community believes this is the case—then, from the perspective of the resistance, these foreign troops are occupying forces.” There should be no question that this definition has been made so elastic as to allow multiple political situations that wouldn’t normally be considered occupation to count as such for the purposes of the book. Specifically, it allows them to frame al Qaeda as a nationalist resistance movement whose primary grievance was American occupation of Saudi Arabia. This definition also allows them to frame the U.S. as having occupied both Kuwait and Uzbekistan, and thus shape their data in such a way that occupation appears to be the overwhelmingly dominant motivation of suicide attackers.

Pape and Feldman expand this already broad definition by arguing that even “military or economic pressure on a local government that is sufficient to compel the local government to alter key foreign policies” constitutes occupation. Indeed, a country is indirectly occupied solely if it “gives a higher priority to the goals of the indirect occupier than its national interest alone would warrant” (pp. 21-22). This leads to absolutely bizarre suggestions about what may constitute occupation. At one point, Pape and Feldman suggest that U.S. foreign aid may constitute occupation (p. 48); elsewhere they argue that Pakistan is occupying its own tribal regions (p. 10).

But leaving aside these oddities, the breadth of their definition actually undercuts their own theory. Pape and Feldman are fond of arguing that theories focusing on religious extremism as a major explanation for suicide attacks are over-predictive as to the number of suicide attackers there should be. For example, they argue that under the NYPD’s “spectrum of radicalization” approach,[2] one would “expect orders of magnitude more ‘homegrown’ suicide attackers than actually occurred, since tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, would, at some point in their lives, have been exposed to Islamic fundamentalist leaders” (p. 57). They similarly brush aside Marc Sageman’s radicalization model as overpredictive (p. 58). But so too is occupation theory.

Let’s begin with one clearly self-contradictory example. In discussing patterns of suicide bombings in Iraq, Pape and Feldman observe that “the largest pools come from Iraq or Saudi Arabia, the next from Kuwait” (p. 30). That is, in their view, the overwhelming majority of suicide attackers hail from either Iraq “or the immediately adjacent border areas, most of which have been mentioned prominently as possible targets of military control after Iraq.” This is an outright false claim: Pape and Feldman cite no sources suggesting that the U.S. might invade Saudi Arabia or Kuwait after Iraq, nor could they point to any credible claims to this effect, let alone “prominent” ones. If there is one country in the region that has had reason to fear a U.S. invasion, though, it is Iran. Indeed, the bombing or physical occupation of Iran has been discussed multiple times in mainstream American publications, and the idea of attacking Iran has been prominently featured as cover stories in the U.S. press. Yet, as Pape and Feldman observe, there have been “no suicide attackers from Iran” (p. 32) inside Iraq. They strangely think that this fact confirms their theory, since the U.S. occupation of Iraq has propped up Shias at the expense of Iraqi Sunnis. But their contradictory and shifting criteria are crystal clear: They argue that the threat of future occupation when America is physically occupying an immediately adjacent border country can trigger suicide campaigns, yet have no explanation for the absence of Iranian suicide attackers. This is significant since a large part of their refutation of other theories involves showing that by their own logic, the world should have seen more suicide attackers than have actually arisen. The same is true of occupation theory, which would clearly have predicted an Iranian suicide campaign.

Moving beyond the obvious example of Iran, their contention that occupation exists if “the local government requires the power of foreign ‘stabilizing’ troops” or “gives a higher priority to the goals of the indirect occupier than its national interest alone would warrant” is grossly overpredictive in other ways. Under this definition, the U.S. is occupying South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, all three of which depend on America for protection from external threats. And with respect to giving a higher priority to American goals than national interest alone would warrant, most every country that took part in the Multi-National Force-Iraq would be considered indirectly occupied, including Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Tonga, and Ukraine. Yet we have seen no suicide campaigns launched by any of these “occupied” or “indirectly occupied” states. Moreover, I should point out that under a definition of occupation that includes the ability to exert “economic pressure on a local government,” America itself is being occupied—by China.

The Case of al Qaeda
Cutting the Fuse is replete with cherry-picked biographical and historical evidence concerning suicide attackers designed to bolster the centrality of occupation as a causal force. Al Qaeda is the clearest case of this cherry-picking and distortion of evidence.

Pape and Feldman attempt to fit al Qaeda into their framework in which suicide campaigns are driven by foreign occupation, and are designed to “safeguard the local way of life” (p. 13). Al Qaeda, however, has never been devoted to safeguarding local ways of life. Instead, it has sought to completely transform local ways of life by replacing extant governments with fundamentalist regimes. The organization has made little secret of this fact. Indeed, one key factor in producing the Sunni rebellion against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is the way that AQI upended local ways of life. In May 2008, for example, military operations caused AQI to melt away from a Sunni area of Mosul, the capital of the Ninawa governorate, and al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold in the country. What U.S. forces found there illustrates the governance that the jihadi group imposed. It had banned the side-by-side display of tomatoes and cucumbers by food vendors, because AQI regarded the arrangement as sexually provocative. AQI banned a local Iraqi bread known as sammoun on the grounds that it did not exist during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The use of ice was banned because Muhammad did not have ice. Barbers were not allowed to use electric razors. All these restrictions might be humorous were it not for the fact that Iraqis died for flouting them.[3] In no way is this indicative of a group looking to protect the local way of life.

Indeed, a study released in the summer of 2009 by a jihadi “think tank” argues that in seeking to supplant the Saudi regime, Osama bin Laden was faced with the decision of fighting Saudi Arabia directly, or striking at the American presence in that country.[4] If he fought Saudi Arabia, the attacks would have met with the Saudi ulema’s (religious scholars) condemnation, and the effort would have been doomed because of the ulema’s legitimacy and prestige. On the other hand, the study viewed striking at the Americans as a wise choice because the Kingdom would be forced to defend their presence, “which will cost them their legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims.” Thus, that study correctly perceives al Qaeda’s attacks on the Americans as part of a campaign to drastically change, rather than preserve, the way of life in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Pape and Feldman concede this point (if not consciously) when they write of al Qaeda’s “visionary goals of restoring the Caliphate” (p. 167), which is anything but a status quo goal.

Yet Pape and Feldman frame bin Laden’s war against the United States as nationalist in nature by stating that bin Laden’s “principal objective has long been the expulsion of American troops in the Persian Gulf” (pp. 22-23). A bit of history is in order here. The United States never “occupied” Saudi Arabia under any conventional definition of the term. Rather, American forces were invited into the country following Saddam Hussein’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which clearly posed a clear and present danger to the Saudi monarchy. Thereafter, the Americans not only protected Saudi Arabia from the threat of invasion, but also liberated Kuwait from Iraq’s occupation. (No Kuwaitis took part in suicide attacks against Iraqi forces during that period of occupation.)

So why did bin Laden view the American presence as an occupation rather than a friendly protection force? Pape and Feldman never explain this—thus producing another contradiction within their analysis. Elsewhere they explain that the U.S. occupation of Japan and South Korea during the Cold War did not incur local resistance because the U.S. military presence “was offset by greater concern with the Soviet threat” (p. 24). So why didn’t bin Laden and al Qaeda recognize that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a greater threat to Saudi Arabia, just as the Soviet Union posed a greater threat to Japan and South Korea during the Cold War? The answer can only be discerned if one incorporates religion, and not just nationalism, as a significant factor in analysis. Bin Laden saw the American troop presence in Saudi Arabia as a violation of his faith, a view informed by a famous hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad, on his death bed, ordered that “no two religions should coexist in the Arabian Peninsula.” A worldview that sees all resistance as nationalistic, and religion as only marginal, misses out on this critical factor.

The problems outlined above demonstrate that the book is flawed at its core. Premised upon a false dichotomy, the book gleefully refutes strawmen that don’t actually represent academic opinion. The book’s causal logic is contradictory, and actually refutes its own occupation theory. Its elastic definitions, though intended to be self-serving, in fact illustrate the theory’s own flaws. Its analysis of al Qaeda is—to put it mildly—a stretch. Yet, in terms of errors contained within the book, these problems only represent the tip of the iceberg.

Pape and Feldman compare an objective analysis of the root causes of suicide terrorism to scientific assessment of the causes of lung cancer. They explain, accurately, that what has helped in the fight against lung cancer isn’t just aggressive after-the-fact treatment, but also new scientific studies. Thus, they write: “If collection of comprehensive data, reasoned assessment of the facts, and debate about how information we have fits or does not fit alternative explanations can help reduce suicide terrorism even modestly, this is all worth the effort” (p. 8). This is, of course true; and all the more reason that a sloppily framed and reasoned book like Cutting the Fuse, written by two distinguished academics and published by one of the most prestigious academic presses in the country, is such a terrible disappointment.

None of this review is meant to suggest that occupation has no explanatory power with respect to suicide attacks and terrorism, nor even that occupation isn’t a powerful cause. But based on Pape and Feldman’s work, we really cannot say. The most that can be said about this book is that Pape and Feldman sure seem to be convinced that occupation is the dominant cause of suicide attacks: so convinced that they did everything possible to make the data prove their case, and in the process completely undermined what might otherwise have been a powerful study.


[1] Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005).

[2] Mitchell D. Silber & Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (New York: New York City Police Department, 2007).

[3] “Forbidden Pleasures Return to Mosul as al Qaeda Melts Away,” AFP, May 24, 2008.

[4] Historical Studies and Strategic Recommendations Division, “Strategic Study on Global Conflict and the Status of the Jihadist Trend,” 2009, Open Source Center trans.

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