07 September 2007 - MECA conference, day 2
Today’s highlight thus far was a lecture by Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago entitled “Why the War on Terrorism Goes South?” In his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Pape argues that those who use suicide bombing around the world have the common goal of pushing a foreign military to withdraw its forces from territory that the terrorists consider theirs.
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer rely on Pape’s analysis to justify their charge in The Israel Lobby that supporting Israel is bad for America’s national interests. And, indeed, in his lecture, Pape attacked the idea that Islamic fundamentalism is the cause of suicide terror around the world. He argued that this idea encourages foreign policies that may, in turn, encourage further suicide terrorism.
Pape has assembled a database of every suicide attack in the world—a database that no other academic and no government had previously compiled. The data, he said, show that ordinary terrorism is declining and suicide terrorism is increasing., and that this trend pre-dates 9/11. More attacks were carried out by the Hindu Tamil Tigers than any other, and 30% of Islamic attacks were by secular Muslims.
Pape has explored various motives for suicide terrorism, and focused today on the strategic goals. The common purpose, he said, was to “coerce democracies to withdraw military forces from terrorists’ homeland.” Religion was rarely a root cause, he said, but it was used as a tool in recruiting terrorists. These patterns, he said, accounted for 95 percent of the suicide terrorism encountered since 1980.
He presented a chart of attacks that included some of those by Hamas inside Israel. He identified the goal of Hamas as “Israel out, Palestine”—presumably meaning a withdrawl of Israel from the occupied territories. He also said that Hezbollah stopped suicide attacks after American and Israelis from withdrawal from Lebanon—that it did not follow the U.S. to New York or Israel to Tel Aviv.
Democracies, he said, are seen by terrorists as uniquely vulnerable to suicide tactics. Al-Qaeda’s main goal was to push foreign forces out of the Arabian peninsula, and almost 35% of its suicide attackers were Saudis. Al-Qaeda has killed more people since 9/11 than it did beforehand, and most attackers came from countries where U.S. combat troops were stationed. Few came from Iran, he noted.
That did not, he said, justify the 9/11 attacks or suicide bombing in general. But it was something that had to be taken into account. True, I thought, but states that have sponsored terror groups abroad—Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc.—have not had foriegn troops on their soil, or else lost territory in interstate conflict. They have used terrorism to achieve specific political, military and ideological goals.
Al-Qaeda published a strategy document in 2003, Pape continued, in which it said that it would not focus on attacking the U.S. homeland in the short term, but would attack America’s military allies such as Spain (which it then did) to push them to withdraw from Iraq (which it then did) and to put additional pressure on the British government to pull troops out as well (which it is now busy doing).
I thought of Alan Dershowitz’s argument in Why Terrorism Works, in which he argues that government appeasement of terror—even the U.S. and Israeli governments, on several occasions—have taught extremists that terror is a useful tactic. Perhaps it is because democracies reward terror groups with withdrawal that terror groups have increasingly adopted this strategy. The phenomenon is complex.
Pape then played an Al-Qaeda propaganda video by Adam Gadan, the American convert who has become one of the movement’s most important spokesmen. Pape ended the tape and pronounced: “No 72 virgins . . . . This is an empathetic plea” for people to understand Al-Qaeda’s grievances. But would we expect the propaganda that a movement broadcasts to its potential recruits and its enemies to be the same?
Pape concluded with some observations about Iraq, acknowledging that while there might be multiple causes for suicide terror there, the core motivation was the presece of U.S. troops and the American occupation. More bombers came from Saudi Arabia than Iraq, but Iraq was the next biggest group, and after that most of the attackers came from neighboring countries with an American presence.
“For this pattern to be wrong, there would have to be hundreds of suicide attacks that we’ve missed,” Pape concluded. There is a pattern, but I’m not convinced the “strategic logic” is what Pape claims it to be. He rounded off his remarks by pointing out how the two stereotypes of a suicide terrorist—poor on the one hand and Islamist on the other—don’t apply, since many are educated and may be secular.
Female suicide bombers, he added, tend to be older than male attackers—most of the men are 19-23 years old, while a higher proportion of the women are past 24 years of age, possibly correlating with declining marriage prospects. The number of reglious versus secular attackers is roughly equal, with more religious than secular attackers in Israel/Palestine, and no secular attackers in Al-Qaeda.
Pape then delivered the argument we all knew was coming: the American attempt to transform Muslim countries will increase suicide terrorism, and the U.S. should therefore use an “off-shore” balancing strategy. This didn’t mean withdrawing immediately from Iraq and the Arabian peninsula, but it did mean giving more responsibility for security to Iraqis, and keeping heavy weapons out of the country.
The Q&A then began, and the first question—surprise, surprise—went to the same woman who had been badgering me yesterday. She asked whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was driving Al-Qaeda. Pape delivered a clear “no.” He pointed out that over several years and dozens of attacks, Al-Qaeda had never even attempted to attack Israel. The issue was rhetorical, but only a third-tier motive.
I then asked about the broader territorial ambitions of terror groups—how Hamas wants to destroy Israel, and Al-Qaeda sometimes talks about reclaiming Spain. He said there has never been an “offensive” campaign of suicide terror. I followed up by asking about the role of states like Iran in sponsoring terror. He said that their own citizens don’t become suicide bombers, saying not even Shias in Iraq did so.
Later on, in response to a question from the Palestinian professor who was at my panel yesterday, Pape argued that suicide attacks in the West Bank and Gaza increased almost hand-in-hand with the increase in Israeli settlement. This did not justify terrorism, he said—although he desribed 200,000 settlers versus 3 million inhabitants as if it presented a real threat, which I thought was a bit over-the top.
I left feeling that while I still have a few reservations, I think Pape’s argument is basically sound, but only as it applies to suicide bombing, not terrorism in general. Walt and Mearsheimer cite Pape to support their claim that Palestinian terror is a reaction to Israeli occupation (64). But Palestinian and Arab terror against Israel began before the occupation and has continued after the Gaza withdrawal.
I think that Pape, like many other scholars who study this problem, does not give enough attention to the other state actors in the region, historically and today. I also think that he gives too much credit to suicide bombers for stopping their campaigns after territorial withdrawals, when in fact the reason might simply be that a foreign power is better able to protect itself at home than abroad.
The data set Pape has assembled is interesting and powerful, and it is probably one of the most important scholarly efforts of the past ten years in the attempt to understand terror. But I don’t quite buy his interpretations. Suicide terror may be directed against occupation, but whether that is the only reason for suicide bombing, or the only available tactic to encourage withdrawal, is another matter.