How does religion affect the severity of suicide bombings?

On 22 November 2012, a suicide bomber attacked a Shia religious procession in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, killing 23 and wounding over 60. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — a religious terrorist group often referred to as “the Pakistani Taliban” — claimed responsibility for the attack. The bombing was, unfortunately, not a fluke, as attacks by religious terrorists against both civilian and military targets have been increasing in frequency and intensity in Pakistan for years. This is part of a worldwide trend in suicide bombings by religious terrorist groups, beginning with Hizballah in the 1980s and peaking with the campaigns of al-Qaeda affiliates around the world in the 2000s.

Although many groups using suicide bombings have religious ideologies, the connection between religion and their, often severe, attacks is not always apparent. Some nationalist terrorist groups use suicide attacks — most notably the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka — and numerous attacks are related to non-religious factors, like state repression or the presence of occupying forces. Many Islamic groups are nonviolent, so there is nothing inherent in Islam — or religion in general — that causes suicide violence. Likewise, while religion does influence some terrorist groups’ goals and motivations, they often act based on rational calculations and non-religious factors; for example, HAMAS defines its struggle in Islamic terms but emphasizes Palestinian nationalism and can be very strategic in its targeting and public relations.

But one place where the influence of religion on suicide bombing is most apparent is in the severity of the attacks. Even though religious terrorist groups might fight over territory — rather than purely religious causes — and rationally calculate their strategies, the intensity of religious beliefs could come out in their suicide bombings.

So, do groups with religious ideologies conduct more destructive suicide bombings than those with nationalist or leftist ideologies?

I argued that religious terrorist groups frame their actions in religious terms, which makes them less discriminating in their targeting and more willing to conduct incredibly severe suicide attacks. I tested this with a quantitative analysis of suicide bombings, looking at the effect of religious ideology on the number of deaths an attack caused.

I found that religious ideology results in more deaths per suicide attack, even when I factored in other possible explanations (like the intensity of the conflict, the presence of occupying troops, and whether or not a terrorist group is composed of Muslims). Specifically, suicide bombings by religious groups caused about 60% more fatalities than attacks by nationalist or leftist groups. These results held up even after I took into account the effects of specific conflicts and attacks, such as Israel-Palestine or the 9/11 attacks.

These findings present numerous implications for research on religion and terrorism, as well as policy responses to terrorism.

In terms of research, these findings support others that indicate religion has a significant effect on political violence —making attacks more intense and conflicts more intractable. But religion itself is not the problem. Instead, when violent groups frame their struggles in religious terms they increase the severity of their violence, even if religious beliefs do not drive all of their activities. Scholars of religion and terrorism should thus focus less on religious beliefs themselves, e.g. “what does Islam say about suicide?” Rather, they should analyze the dynamic means through which social movements draw on religion as an ideology, in line with the contentious politics research program; McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly spearheaded over a decade ago.

Policymakers, in turn, should chart a middle course between exaggerating and ignoring the role of Islam in contemporary conflict in Muslim countries. The religious ideologies of groups like the Pakistani Taliban do influence their severe attacks, and these would continue even if all international military actions ceased in South-Central Asia. Yet, because their extreme violence is related to the religious framing of their struggles, an effective strategy to combat them would involve “counter-framing;” Islamic groups that promote a less violent approach to Muslims’ political grievances could undermine the influence of religious terrorists. Indeed, this can already be seen in the declining popularity of al-Qaeda offshoots in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, even as they persist in conducting horrifying suicide attacks. There is a savage potential within the political mobilization of religion, but it will not inevitably be released.

The full study is published in the January 2012 issue of Terrorism and Political Violence:

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