… if your father’s name is Robert Pape.
Friday, February 1, witnessed two notable suicide terrorist attacks in quick succession. Both were bad news for Robert Pape’s theory of suicide terrorism, which argues that suicide terrorism is almost always the result of foreign occupation, whether real or imagined. Pape finds that suicide terrorism is employed by ethno-national or religious groups that perceive themselves as being occupied by an outside group, particularly if other types of violence have failed and if the occupying force is a democratic state (see here, here, and here). This answer fits in nicely—perhaps too nicely—with realist skepticism of George W. Bush’s interventionism. Why shouldn’t you invade places? Reason #207: People will blow themselves up. As Pape and James Feldman argue in a 2008 book, “To stop and reverse the recent explosion of suicide terrorism, it is important to reduce the reliance on foreign occupation as a principal strategy for ensuring national interests.”
But why was Friday bad for this theory? While it is still too early to know why the suicide bomber detonated himself at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the Marxist group that claimed responsibility apparently condemned Turkish support of anti-Assad forces in Syria. That sentence reads like a bad geopolitical “Mad Libs,” but it doesn’t sound like Pape’s theory. Also occurring on Friday (and in my opinion, more problematic for Pape) was yet another suicide bombing in Pakistan where Sunni extremists attacked Shi’as. This has happened repeatedly over the last few years, and whatever the poor Shi’a in Pakistan are, they are not foreign occupiers. (The same case could be made for the Barelvis and Sufis who are periodically targeted by members of the more orthodox Deobandi Sunni movement).
Pakistan was already a problematic case for Pape given its non-occupied nature and its sky-rocketing rate of suicide terrorism from 2001 to 2010. (The chart below is drawn from Pape’s Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.) Pape’s counterargument has been that because Pakistanis feel that their government is merely a puppet of the United States, the suicide bombing campaign can be interpreted as one against the “indirect occupation” of the United States. While this line of reasoning may certainly explain attacks against the Pakistani state, police, or military, it cannot explain the soaring anti-Shi’a violence. It is basically impossible to construct a narrative where Sunni extremists perceive themselves as occupied by the Shi’a minority.
I think Pape has made the mistake of treating suicide terrorism as a static phenomenon when, in fact, it is evolving. Suicide terrorism has grown much, much more common over the last twenty years, while the level of foreign occupation has remained fairly constant. While not a perfect indicator, one that I have on hand is the percentage of terrorist groups that engage in suicide attacks over time. I have modified data from Michael Horowitz to construct this suicide terrorist “market share” variable, which is just the number of groups employing suicide tactics divided by the total number of terrorist groups in Horowitz’s data.
If suicide terrorism is becoming more ubiquitous, there is no reason to expect that old predictors will remain valid. Imagine if you had a perfect model of who purchased computers in the 1960s and used it to predict consumers today. You would go out of business. The cauldron of the 1981-1983 Lebanon civil war produced modern suicide terrorism. There is no reason to assume that a phenomenon that is only thirty years old will remain the same, nor its causes stay constant over time. Friday’s gruesome attacks are a reminder of that.