America's military presence in the Middle East is supposed to be a vital part of the War on Terror. But a database created by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism indicates that the U.S. is actually increasing suicide attacks through its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and its perceived quasi-occupations of places such as Pakistan.
The database, which was partially funded by the Defense Department, catalogs 2,200 suicide attacks dating back to the 1983 hit on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Its contents are analyzed in a new book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, by Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and James K. Feldman, a defense policy analyst at the Air Force Institute of Technology. In an October interview with NPR, Pape summarized the evidence: "When you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns.…When the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign."
While past studies hypothesized that religious fanaticism or mental illness was the best explanation for such tactics, Pape finds that 87 percent of post-2004 suicide attacks—against soldiers as well as civilians— were motivated by the presence of foreign troops, with most of the attacks coming from locals in the occupied areas, not transnational agents of radical Islam. The United States is not the only occupier to experience such attacks. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and much of the West Bank, for example, has been associated with a reduction of more than 90 percent in suicide attacks by Palestinians. And since the same nation's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, no Lebanese suicide attacks have occurred.
"In 2000," Pape writes, "before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world, and only one (against the USS Cole) was directed against Americans. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred, and over 270 were anti-American."