Posted by: sean | July 13, 2005

Taking terrorism seriously

In the past few years, there has been a concerted effort to try to understand terrorism, and particularly suicide terrorism. There have been varying levels of conventional wisdom put forth, which tell us that suicide terrorism is an Islamic creation, because of the rhetoric of religious martyrdom, or that the key to suicide terrorism is economic, only poor, isolated and futureless people will choose to blow themselves up. Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, shows us otherwise in his article, sent to me by a friend,The Strategic Logic of Terrorism (pdf), published in 2003 in the American Political Science Review and expanded into book form this Spring as Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

Pape has compiled a complete database of every known suicide terrorist attack between 1980 and early 2004. His research was conducted in many different languages — Arabic, Hebrew, Tamil and Russian, among others — in order to better understand suicide terrorism through the materials written by terrorist organizations themselves. Although I have yet to read the book, his article draws five main conclusions:

  • 1. “Suicide terrorism is strategic. … Groups using suicide terrorism consistently announce specific political goals and stop suicide terrorism when those goals have been fully or partially achieved.”
  • 2. “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism is specifically designed to coerce modern democracies to make significant concessions to national self-determination. In general, suicide terrorist campaigns seek to achieve specific territorial goals, most often the withdrawal of the target state?s military forces from what the terrorists see as national homeland.”
  • 3. “Suicide terrorism has been steadily rising, because terrorists have learned that it pays.”
  • 4. “Although moderate suicide terrorism led to moderate concession … more ambitious suicide terrorist campaigns are not likely to achieve still greater gains and may well fail completely.”
  • 5. “States that face persistent suicide terrorism should recognize that neither offensive military action nor concessions alone are likely to do much good…”
  • While drawing these conclusions through the study of nearly 500 cases of suicide terrorism, he dispels some of the myths and misconceptions that are generally held to be conventional wisdom on the subject.

    First, he shows that the majority of Suicide bombers are not Islamic fundamentalists, but rather Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who come predominately from Hindu families. Second, while no one religion has a monopoly on suicide terrorism — there were several Christian suicide terrorists in Lebanon in the 1980s — there is usually a difference in religion between the perpetrator and the target of suicide terrorism. Third, through biographical studies of suicide terrorists, he shows that they can be poor or rich, religious or secular, men or women, young or middle aged. What links this broad base of backgrounds is the belief in a political goal, which is generally forcing the withdrawal of occupying enemy forces from one?s homeland. Oftentimes, such as in Chechnya, Iraq and Palestine, this comes in the form of a force that is perceived as being foreign and hostile actively and explicitly exercising political power on another population. In other cases, such as in Saudi Arabia, while the American forces present do not constitute an occupation per se, the threat of such an occupation remains a real fear for supporters of al Qaeda. According to Pape, in a recent interview with a conservative magazine, also pointed out to me by a friend,

    In 1996, [Osama Bin Laden] went on to say that there was a grand plan by the United States?that the Americans were going to use combat forces to conquer Iraq, break it into three pieces, give a piece of it to Israel so that Israel could enlarge its country, and then do the same thing to Saudi Arabia. As you can see, we are fulfilling his prediction, which is of tremendous help in his mobilization appeals.

    Of course, this is nothing new, al Qaeda has always had a list of complaints against the US, and the main one, until the invasion of Iraq, has always been the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia.

    So where does this leave us? What can be done to stop suicide terrorism? When asked if it was too late to try to wind down suicide terrorism against the US, Pape responded,

    Many people worry that once a large number of suicide terrorists have acted that it is impossible to wind it down. The history of the last 20 years, however, shows the opposite. Once the occupying forces withdraw from the homeland territory of the terrorists, they often stop?and often on a dime.

    In Lebanon, for instance, there were 41 suicide-terrorist attacks from 1982 to 1986, and after the U.S. withdrew its forces, France withdrew its forces, and then Israel withdrew to just that six-mile buffer zone of Lebanon, they virtually ceased. They didn’t completely stop, but there was no campaign of suicide terrorism. Once Israel withdrew from the vast bulk of Lebanese territory, the suicide terrorists did not follow Israel to Tel Aviv.

    This is also the pattern of the second Intifada with the Palestinians. As Israel is at least promising to withdraw from Palestinian-controlled territory (in addition to some other factors), there has been a decline of that ferocious suicide-terrorist campaign. This is just more evidence that withdrawal of military forces really does diminish the ability of the terrorist leaders to recruit more suicide terrorists.
    That doesn?t mean that the existing suicide terrorists will not want to keep going. I am not saying that Osama bin Laden would turn over a new leaf and suddenly vote for George Bush. There will be a tiny number of people who are still committed to the cause, but the real issue is not whether Osama bin Laden exists. It is whether anybody listens to him. That is what needs to come to an end for Americans to be safe from suicide terrorism.

    It seems obvious that anyone seriously and sincerely interested in stopping terrorism should try to understand its roots. This does not mean a facile recourse to clichés about how “savage muslims hate our freedom.” We know that fundamentalist Islamic groups in Nigeria, Iran and Sudan, for example, are not producing suicide terrorists. And those groups from Saudi Arabia and Iraq that are producing acts of suicide terrorism are not attacking Sweden, Switzerland or Canada, but rather the US, Spain and the UK, governments supporting an occupation of the Arabian Peninsula Iraq.

    Terrorism is a tactic, and as such is suited to certain circumstances. It’s high time that the US start taking it seriously as a political strategy, which means taking measures to quell it rather than adding fuel to its fire.



    1. Man, you wrote this back in 2005? If you’d asked me what a blog was in 2005, I’d probably have said that it was an anagram of glob.

    2. Yeah, but if I knew what I was doing, I might have more readers after nearly half a decade! ;)

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