Terrorism Facts #3: Is Occupation or Religion the Better Predictor?

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by Neil Godfrey

What does the data tell us?

English: (Robert Pape owns all rights to this ...
Robert Pape (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2005 Robert Pape (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism) published figures that enable us to see whether al-Qaeda terrorists were influenced primarily by their religious beliefs or the foreign occupation forces in their countries.

(I earlier posted other findings of Pape’s identifying terrorist goals and targets: see Terrorist Facts, #2. The figures in this post identify the affiliations and origins of al-Qaeda terrorists.)

“Islamic fundamentalism” — an expression commonly referring to any Muslim movement that seeks to establish an Islamic state — is generally portrayed as “militant”. The fact, however, is that such movements are widely varied (with different movements not accepting each other as true Islamists) and “only a tiny fraction of those who subscribe to these movements have engaged in acts of violence.”

The Muslim world is broadly divided between Sunnis and Shias. The Shias are concentrated mostly in Iran and Iraq and no Al-Qaeda consisted of Muslims (it’s as good as dead now in 2013) who practiced a Sunni form of Islamic fundamentalism known as Salafism.

Apparently oblivious to the varied nature of Salafism (many Salafis oppose and condemn violence) a number of “important scholars and policymakers have . . . come to the conclusion that the ideology of Salafism is a principle cause of al-Qaeda terrorism.” (p. 107)

The following data is based upon the 71 al-Qaeda suicide terrorists who blew themselves up between 1995 and 2003. All but one of 67 whose nationality we know came from a Sunni Muslim country. The exception was from Lebanon and his religion is not known for certain.

An examination of the 66 al-Qaeda suicide terrorists who were known citizens of Sunni-majority countries shows that American military presence is a stronger factor than Salafi fundamentalism in predicting who dies for al-Qaeda’s cause. (p. 109)

Country Muslims Salafi Influenced Al-Qaeda Suicide

Somalia 10 5
Algeria 31 19
Tunisia 10 5 1
Egypt 62 23 2
Sudan 21 21
Nigeria 68 37
Afghanistan 25 10 3
Pakistan 149 43 2
Bangladesh 114 14
Indonesia 185 26 3
Yemen 18 8 3
Saudi Arabia 21 18 34
Jordan 6 2
Oman 2 2
Total 722 233 48

i.e. . . .

1 Al-Qaeda terrorist per 5 million Salafi

1 Al-Qaeda terrorist per 15 million Muslims

Country Muslims Salafi Influenced Al-Qaeda Suicide

Morocco 28 12
Mauritania 3
Senegal 9
Mali 10
Guinea 5
Sierra Leone 3
Chad 4
Burkina Faso 6
Mauritania 3
Malaysia 13
Uzbekistan 21
Turkmenistan 5
Kyrgzstan 3
Turkey 67 4
UAE 2 2
Kuwait 2
Syria 15
Albania 2
Niger 7
Total 212 18

i.e. . . .

1 Al-Qaeda terrorist per 12 million Muslims

Comparing the relative frequency of al-Qaeda suicide terrorists in these two groups of countries, al-Qaeda suicide terrorists are twice as likely to come from Salafi-influenced populations as from Sunni Muslims in other countries.

However, when we examine the effect of the absolute number of the Salafi-influenced population on the absolute number or terrorists from any country, the effect is not statistically significant . . . . Pakistan produced far fewer terrorists and Saudi Arabia and Morocco far more than would be consistent with a direct relationship between Salafism and suicide terrorism. . .

This means that . . . the odds that someone from a Salafi-influenced country will become an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist are not significantly better than chance. (pp. 110-112)

Contrast the data that relates al-Qaeda suicide terrorists with American combat operations. But first, what is meant by “Occupation”?

How can any fair-minded person think the U.S. is an occupying power?

For the purpose of understanding suicide terrorism, it is imperative to view occupation from the perspective of the resistance movement . . . because it is the behavior of the local actors, not the foreign power, that determines whether suicide terrorism occurs. Whether the foreign power regards itself as a “stabilizing” ally rather than an “occupying power” is not relevant.

“Occupation” means the exertion of political control over territory by an outside group. The critical requirement is that the occupying power’s political control must depend on employing coercive assets — whether troops, police, or other security forces — that are controlled from outside the occupied territory.

The number of troops actually stationed in the occupied territory may or may not be large, so long as enough are available, if necessary, to suppress any effort at independence. . . . If the local government requires the power of foreign “stabilizing” troops or police in order to maintain order — then, from the perspective of the resistance, these foreign troops are occupying forces that are preventing a change in government that would otherwise occur. . . .

By this standard, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar all qualify today [2005] . . . The other Persian Gulf regimes — Bahrain, the United Arab Emirites, and Oman — also qualify, since U.S. troops are available in neighboring countries.

In short, the presence of heavy American military power — tens of thousands of frontline combat troops since 1990 — on the Arabian Peninsula constitutes a foreign occupation, certainly in the eyes of opponents of local regimes. This is so even if the United States disputes the characterization. (pp. 84-85)

Al-Qaeda suicide terrorists were ten times more likely to come from a Sunni country with American military presence than from another Sunni country. . . . Even if the effect of Salafi-influenced populations on al-Qaeda suicide terrorism were assumed to be significant, American military presence would remain five times as powerful a predictor of al-Qaeda suicide terrorism. (p. 112)

American Military Presence in Sunni Countries and al-Qaeda
Country Muslims Al-Qaeda Suicide

Afghanistan 25 3
Saudi Arabia 21 34
Turkey 67 4
Uzbekistan 21 0
UAE 2 2
Oman 2 0
Kuwait 2 0
Total 140 43 (1 per 3.2 million)
All Other Sunni Countries
Total 794 23 (1 per 35 million)


American Military Presence in Salafi Countries Versus Other Sunni Countries and al-Qaeda
Country Muslims (millions) Al-Qaeda Suicide

Afghanistan 25 3
Saudi Arabia 21 34
Oman 2 0
Total 48 37 (1 per 1.3 million)
All Other Sunni Countries
Total 886 29 (1 per 31 million)

American military presence accounts for 64% of the attacks: What accounts for the rest?

American military presence account for a large fraction of al-Qaeda suicide attackers — forty-three of sixty-seven overall (including the one from Lebanon), or 64 percent. What accounts for the remaining attackers? . . .

Examination of [the following table] reveals an important pattern: al-Qaeda’s transnational suicide terrorists have come overwhelmingly from America’s closest allies in the Muslim world and not at all from the Muslim regimes that the U.S. State Department considers “state sponsors of terrorism.” There are twenty-four al-Qaeda suicide terrorists not associated with American combat presence. Of these, nineteen, or 79 percent, come from Muslim regimes strongly allied with the United States and none from the Muslim regimes that the United States considers most hostile. (p. 114)

U.S. Foreign Policy and al-Qaeda Suicide Attackers, 1995-2003
American Combat Presence U.S. Backed Regimes
Saudi Arabia 34 Egypt 2
Turkey 4 Pakistan (post-2001) 2
Afghanistan 3 Indonesia (E. Timor) 3
UAE 2 Morocco 12
Total 43 19
U.S. “Terrorist States” Other
Iraq 0 Yemen 3
Iran 0 Tunisia 1
Libya 0 Lebanon 1
Syria 0
Sudan 0
Afghanistan (pre-2001) 0
Total 0 5

At the time of the publication of Pape’s book America was giving billions of dollars to Muslim regimes to support their military authority — especially for Egypt and Morocco.

In those same four countries al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorist operations were associated with efforts to topple their pro-Western regimes or with attempts to win greater political autonomy for local Muslim populations.

Al-Qaeda has said that its goal is to rid Muslim lands from the American “Crusader” occupation of Muslim lands and the data verify the authenticity of their claim.

Demographic Data on Suicide Terrorists

Robert Pape’s book was published in 2005. There have been new waves of terrorist attacks since then. As Western powers clamp down harder on the economic and communications opportunities of terrorist groups the attacks have become less sophisticated. Nonetheless, it is instructive to consider the pattern of terrorist demographics from 1980 (when the modern wave of suicide terrorism began in Lebanon) to 2003.

Today’s waves of suicide terrorism began in Lebanon in 1982.

Between 1982 and 1986 there were 36 suicide attacks by 41 suicide attackers against American, French and Israeli forces in Lebanon.

We know the ideological affiliations of 38 of these 41 attackers.

  • 27 (71%) were from communist or socialist groups (secular groups with no commitment to religious extremism of any kind) such as the
    • Lebanese Communist Party,
    • the Lebanese National Resistance Front,
    • the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,
    • Amal,
    • the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party,
    • the Arab Socialist Union,
    • the Arab Egyptian League,
    • and the Baath Party
  • 3 (8%) were Christians
    • a female Christian high school teacher (Norma Hassan)
    • a Christian factory worker (Elias Harb)
    • one from the Vanguard of Arab Christians
  • 5 (21%) were from an Islamic fundamentalist group
    • Islamic Jihad
  • 3 were not clearly identified with any ideology.

All 38 were native Lebanese.

Moving beyond Lebanon and surveying suicide terrorist attacks more widely between 1980 and 2003. . . .

An interesting datum emerges when one looks at the sex differences across the various suicide terrorist groups.

From 1980 to 2003, the numbers of female attackers employed by the various groups were:

  • None by al-Qaeda
  • 6 by Palestinian groups (5%)
  • 6 by Lebanese groups (16%)
  • 23 by the Tamil Tigers (20%)
  • 14 by the Chechens (60%)
  • 10 by the Kurdish PKK (71%)

This suggests an interesting hypothesis: Islamic fundamentalism may actually reduce the number of suicide terrorists by discouraging certain categories of individuals from undertaking the act. (p. 209)

What do we know of the ideological affiliations of this larger group of suicide attackers?

The survey Pape uses contained information on the religious or ideological affiliation of 384 of the 462 suicide terrorists worldwide from 1980 to 2003. Of the 384 attackers for whom we have data:

  • 166 (43%) were religious (mostly al-Qaeda and about two-thirds Palestinian)
  • 218 (57%) were secular (mostly Lebanese, Tamil and PKK with about one-third Palestinian)

Other data is also of interest. There are clear distinctions in economic and educational status among various groups of terrorist attackers. Moreover, occupation forces appear to only invite this sort of attack if they also belong to a foreign religion. But for now, I think the data I have been able to share here should be of some interest.

2009 New York Times postscript

Of course much has happened since the publication of Dying to Win. In 2009 Robert Pape had an article in the New York Times, “To Beat the Taliban, Fight from Afar” (Oct 15).  Pape wrote the following by way of explanation for the dramatic increase in suicide attacks there from 2006 on:

General McChrystal’s own report explains that American and NATO military forces themselves are a major cause of the deteriorating situation, for two reasons. First, Western forces have become increasingly viewed as foreign occupiers; as the report puts it, ”over-reliance on firepower and force protection have severely damaged the International Security Assistance Force’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.” . . . 

In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban and kicked Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan with just a few thousand of its own troops, primarily through the combination of American air power and local ground forces from the Northern Alliance. . . . . Up until 2004, there was little terrorism in Afghanistan and little sense that things were deteriorating.

Then, in 2005, the United States and NATO began to systematically extend their military presence across Afghanistan. . . .

As Western occupation grew, the use of the two most worrisome forms of terrorism in Afghanistan — suicide attacks and homemade bombs — escalated in parallel. There were no recorded suicide attacks in Afghanistan before 2001. According to data I have collected, in the immediate aftermath of America’s conquest, the nation experienced only a small number: none in 2002, two in 2003, five in 2004 and nine in 2005.

But in 2006, suicide attacks began to increase by an order of magnitude — with 97 in 2006, 142 in 2007, 148 in 2008 and more than 60 in the first half of 2009. Moreover, the overwhelming percentage of the suicide attacks (80 percent) has been against United States and allied troops or their bases rather than Afghan civilians, and nearly all (95 percent) carried out by Afghans.

The pattern for other terrorist attacks is almost the same. . . .

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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3 thoughts on “Terrorism Facts #3: Is Occupation or Religion the Better Predictor?”

    1. That’s about the most apt indicator of the depth of thought on this issue that we see from Coyne, Harris, Dawkins and the BNP whose depth of analysis would predict any and every Muslim person on the planet to be equally a potential terrorist killer because he or she reads the Koran! Not that they are casting aspersions on all Muslims, of course . . . .

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