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World: Experts Discuss Complex Causes Of Suicide Bombings

(epa) An attempt to blow up the world's largest oil refinery in Saudi Arabia on 24 February underscores the importance radical Islamist networks are placing on suicide terrorism. Al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the thwarted attack, vowed to target more oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Suicide bombers are highly motivated religious men and women who turn themselves into human bombs by strapping explosives onto their bodies. Contrary to popular belief, experts say, suicide terrorism is not always religion-related, or particular to Islamic fundamentalism.

NEW YORK CITY, 27 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and a renowned expert on suicide terrorism, argues in his new book "Dying To Win" that although Islamic fundamentalism seems to be the obvious central cause for suicide terrorism, at least half of the suicide terrorist attacks during the period 1980-2003 were not associated with Muslim fundamentalists.

The presumption for the strong link between Islamic fundamentalism and suicide terrorism, Pape says, has fueled the belief that to avoid future attacks like those of 11 September 2001, there is an urgent need for a radical transformation of Muslim societies.

"However, this presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading and maybe encouraging domestic and foreign policies that are likely to worsen America's situation," Pape says.

Pape was speaking on a panel on suicide terrorism hosted by New York University. In his book, he has compiled an extensive database on suicide terrorism in the world from 1980 to 2003 and for Iraq in particular -- through 2005. He says that between 1980 and the end of 2003 there were 315 suicide terrorist acts. The overall leader is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a secular group fighting to establish an independent state.

According to some accounts, the Tamil Tigers have carried out at least five times more suicide attacks than other similar organizations put together.

Tamil Tigers are said to be behind a very notorious suicide terrorist attack -- the assassination of former Indian Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi by a female bomber during an election rally in 1991.

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common, Pape says, is a specific secular goal: to coerce a democratic state to withdraw military forces from territory that terrorists consider to be their homeland or that they prize greatly.

"From Lebanon to Israel, to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to Chechnya -- every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 had as its main goal to establish or maintain self-determination for territory that the terrorists prize," Pape says. "Religion is rarely the root cause although religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations to serve the broader strategic objective."

Peter Bergen, who is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a CNN terrorism analyst, met Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1997 and has written a book, "The Osama Bin Laden I Know."

He says that the main reason for Al-Qaeda terrorist activity against the United States was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. The greatly reduced U.S. military presence there now does not seem, however, to deter further attacks from Al-Qaeda.

"When you conduct a suicide operation, the jihadists who are doing this are, of course, very happy about doing it," Bergen says. "They announce the fact that they've done it, they announce themselves by name and by country. At least 50 percent of the suicide attackers [in Iraq] are Saudi, they're not Iraqis. Now, to me, that says something about Islam being a motivating factor here. Only 9 percent of the suicide attackers [in Iraq] are Iraqi."

Bergen says that although Pape presents a compelling picture of suicide terrorism prior to 2004, this picture is already changing. In November 2005, for instance, a married, 38-year-old Belgian woman who had never been to Iraq blew herself up in front of a U.S. convoy. It was determined that she was a member of a group of Belgian nationals planning to carry out suicide operations in Iraq. Her husband died in a similar act. They were devoted Muslims and there is an undeniable link here, Bergen says, between Islamic fundamentalism and suicide terrorism.

"And I think we're going to see a lot more of this," he adds. "As 2006 develops we're going to see more and more people motivated by militant Islam conducting suicide operations in Iraq who come from countries like Canada, France, Spain, Germany, and Belgium. We just had a case two days ago of three guys in Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. The allegation is that they were training to go and fight in Iraq. We've had French citizens die in suicide operations in Iraq, [and] there are cases in Germany and Spain."

The Iraq war, Bergen says, is a disaster in the war on terrorism since it sparked an epidemic of terrorism that seems to only grow. Bergen says we now have a globalization of martyrdom, and this is strongly motivated by religion.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, who is a professor at the Ecole des Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and an expert on suicide terrorism in Europe, argues in his book "Suicide Bombers" that Islamic fundamentalism does not, by itself, push people toward radicalism and suicide attacks.

"Some kinds of fundamentalism [end] up in radicalization and possibly terrorism and some kinds of fundamentalism [do] not," Khosrokhavar says. "In the case of Islam that's a major problem: whether or not we should look at fundamentalism as a kind of footstep towards radicalization or not. My personal view is that in most cases fundamentalism prohibits radicalization."

Khosrokhavar distinguishes between two types of martyrs: those from the developing world, who are excluded from what modernity has to offer; and the minority who live in the West but whose experience is marked by racism and discrimination.

RFE/RL Expert Discusses Mideast Violence

RFE/RL Expert Discusses Mideast Violence

'PEOPLE TAKING TO THE STREETS': There are reasons to suspect that Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group is trying to spread violence in Iraq to Jordan and other parts of the Middle East. We examine why in this interview with JOYCE DAVIS, an expert on the Middle East and associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. Davis is the author of the books "Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance And Despair In The Middle East" (2004) and "Between Jihad And Salaam" (1998) .... more

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