Almost every month for the past two years, Chechen suicide bombers have struck. Their targets can be anything from Russian soldiers to Chechen police officers to the innocent civilians who were killed on the subway in Moscow this week. We all know the horror that people willing to kill themselves can inflict. But do we really understand what drives young women and men to strap explosives on their bodies and deliberately kill themselves in order to murder dozens of people going about their daily lives?
Chechen suicide attackers do not fit popular stereotypes, contrary to the Russian government’s efforts to pigeonhole them. For years, Moscow has routinely portrayed Chechen bombers as Islamic extremists, many of them foreign, who want to make Islam the world’s dominant religion. Yet however much Russia may want to convince the West that this battle is part of a global war on terrorism, the facts about who becomes a Chechen suicide attacker — male or female — reveal otherwise.
The three of us, in our work for the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, have analyzed every Chechen suicide attack since they began in 2000, 42 separate incidents involving 63 people who killed themselves. Many Chechen separatists are Muslim, but few of the suicide bombers profess religious motives. The majority are male, but a huge fraction — over 40 percent — are women. Although foreign suicide attackers are not unheard of in Chechnya, of the 42 for whom we can determine place of birth, 38 were from the Caucasus. Something is driving Chechen suicide bombers, but it is hardly global jihad.
As we have discovered in our research on Lebanon, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, suicide terrorist campaigns are almost always a last resort against foreign military occupation. Chechnya is a powerful demonstration of this phenomenon at work. (More)
Robert A. Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Lindsey O’Rourke is a doctoral student there, and Jenna McDermit is an undergraduate majoring in anthropology.