Micca, Gambetta suggested, “could be dubbed a proto-suicide bomber.” But is he a paradigmatic one? The political scientist Robert Pape, to judge by Uri Friedman’s recent interview with him, might think so. It is just over a decade on from the publication of his seminal study on suicide bombing, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, in which he argued that “the bottom line is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation.” From a dataset of 315 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003, Pape concluded that strategic logic, rather than ideology or religion, explains 95 percent of all suicide attacks around the world. They are “organized, coherent campaigns” to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from a group’s domestic territory. “Suicide terrorism,” he wrote, “is mainly a strategy to compel democracies to make concessions that will enable a community to achieve self-determination.”
Given that neither the United States nor its Western democratic allies occupy territory in Iraq or Syria, and given also that ISIS constitutes the occupying force in parts of those two countries, how does Pape’s explanatory model—based on pre-ISIS datasets—apply to the recent attacks in Belgium? Friedman summarizes Pape's view in this way:
ISIS has trained its sights on countries like Belgium, France, Russia, and Turkey because the U.S. coalition’s air and ground campaign, along with military operations by Russia and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have significantly eroded ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq in recent months.
Friedman quotes Pape as saying, “ISIS is now losing in Iraq and Syria—they’re losing actually quite badly—and so they’re now in a position where they’re trying to change a losing game.” In other words, per Friedman: “The less in control the organization is at home, the more it strikes at targets abroad.” This would suggest that the Brussels attack, just like the Paris attack before it, had a strategic logic: to compel the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS to stop its bombing campaign against the group, its assets, and—in particular—its territory. This certainly appears to be Friedman’s understanding of what he describes as “Pape’s secular thesis,” according to which “Brussels was being targeted for the participation of Belgium, and European countries more broadly, in the anti-ISIS coalition.”
There is, however, a problem with this thesis and the broader explanatory account on which it draws: It obscures or minimizes the various non-coercive purposes to which suicide terrorism can be put.
A suicide attack might, for example, be intended as punishment for some real or imagined past offense or wrong, and not calculated to achieve anything beyond that. Belgium, as Friedman points out, “has participated in air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, but not Syria.” It is clear that ISIS’s leadership views Belgium as a deserving target of retributive punishment for its role in these strikes—and perhaps also because it sees the country as part of a wider cesspool of satanic wrongdoing. But it isn’t clear the attacks were informed by any strategic logic, and it’s possible that ISIS just wants Belgium to suffer and feel pain. Certainly, ISIS has taken some heavy hits recently, most notably the reported killing of senior commander Omar al-Shishani earlier this month. (In recent days, ISIS supporters have insisted, implausibly, that reports of al-Shishani’s death have been greatly exaggerated.) Attacking Belgium, a soft target if ever there was one, is certainly one way of leveling the score.