“They hate us for our freedoms” –George W. Bush
Most reasonable people realize that the President’s now infamous characterization of the 9/11 terrorists’ motive is drivel. But many reasonable people, when asked what does drive people to commit suicide terrorist acts will give reasons that, though less obviously drivel, are none-the-less completely wrong.
There have been many plausible and well-intentioned hypotheses about the root causes of suicide terrorism. The causes are generally held to be some combination of unstable or suicidal personalities, indoctrination in the tenets of fundamentalist Islam, socio-economic deprivations, and the history of Western, especially American, involvement in the Middle East. That is how I thought about the phenomenon myself, until I read Robert Pape’s comprehensive study of every suicide terrorist incident since the inception of modern suicide terrorism in 1980.
There is nothing better for destroying misconceptions and faulty assumptions than a fat dose of facts. Pape created a detailed database of every suicide terrorism incident between 1980 and 2003 – 315 attacks in all – to test hypotheses regarding what variables actually predict suicide terror, and what factors are actually causal. The result of his work is published in his book, “Dying to Win.” The hypothesis left standing at the end of the day is surprising and has dire import for the conduct of American foreign policy.
It is simply this:
Suicide terrorism is an effective tool of nationalism that is used specifically against democratic states engaged in military occupation of territory the terrorist group considers its homeland.
First of all, Pape points out that the reason suicide terrorism is one the rise is because it works. It works because it is used against societies that are democratic. Democratic governance translates mass opinion into government policy with an appreciable degree of efficiency. Democratic societies have largely proven unwilling to sustain civilian casualties unless its most vital national interests are stake. A good illustrative pair of examples is Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in the face of Hezbollah’s suicide attacks, versus the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank even in the face of continuing suicide terrorism by Hamas and others. Suicide terrorism is a strategy for bringing to bear the most coersive violence while using resources most efficiently in an asymmetric conflict.
Suicide terrorism’s taproot is nationalism, not religious extremism. Religion is a useful tool to terrorists to get the society they are based in to overcome the powerful and universal taboo against suicide. Pape points out the champions of suicide terrorism, in terms of the number of attacks, is the entirely secular Tamil Tigers who are based in a Buddhist culture. Religion is also a factor when there is a significant difference between the religions of the occupying power and the occupied people. That sharp distinction is a fertile source of misunderstanding that unscrupulous leaders can exploit to instill fear and mistrust among their people, like “they hate us for our freedoms,” for instance.
Pape’s evidence is stark and quite convincing. The seeming outlier is Al Qaeda, since they purport a global mission and presence. The truth of Al Qaeda’s recruitment and internal rhetoric presents a much more parochial agenda, however. Their main dispute with the United States was the stationing of American combat troops in the land of the prophet, Saudi Arabia. Most people realize that 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi. It was the perceived occupation of their homeland by an infidel army that drove recruitment, not a free-floating fundamentalist fantasy about restoring the Caliphate. The attack was entirely predictable given Pape’s hypothesis and the escalating pattern of Al Qaeda attacks against American targets through the 1990s.
We garrisoned almost 800K troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1991, and kept several thousands there following the first Gulf War. At the end of 1992 Al Qaeda made its first attack on American targets, culminating in the attacks of 9/11/2001. Consider for a moment whether is really just a routine redeployment with Bush withdrew almost all of the 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia in advance of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What better way to cover one’s capitulation to the demands of terrorists than by saying we need the troops elsewhere? The result? No more terrorist attacks in the United States for almost 5 years. Sounds almost like the price of peace to me.
Bush’s capitulation is likely the true source of our relative safety from further domestic suicide attacks, not color codes and NSA domestic wiretapping, nor extraordinary renditions and indefinite detentions. In all likelihood, these poisonous policies are only aimed at expanding the imperial Presidency to absurd proportions, not at increasing our safety. Indeed, the dearth of terrorist prosecutions and the Administration’s inability to substantiate its claims to ‘progress’ in the ‘War on Terror speak’ more loudly than their propaganda. There have been subsequent attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia, of course, but those have focused on the local assets of the contractors supporting the Saudi regime and that regime itself, not the civilian population in the United States. It looks very much like Al Qaeda has achieved their political goals in the United States and are now consolidating their gains and turning their attention to ‘Coalition Allies’ as specified in bin Laden’s strategy papers.
But Pape’s theory doesn’t just illuminate the past, it has frightening predictive value, as well. We now have around 135,000 troops in Iraq. Right now, acts of suicide terrorism have been directed at American assets in Iraq, both military and civilian. How much longer will it be until Al Qaeda, or another terrorist organization, is able to recruit, train and position another team to attack us here at home? Pape’s hypothesis suggests that as long as we stay in Iraq, it is not a matter of whether, but when.
Those who suggest that withdrawal from Iraq may cause a civil war and a failed state are correct; it might. But Pape’s hypothesis suggests that even if that happens, so long as we don’t have troops on the ground in Iraq, we are very unlikely to be attacked by Iraqis here at home. Suicide bombers don’t do revenge.
Likewise, many who advocate withdrawal from Iraq suggest that we should withdraw our forces to other countries nearby, such as Kuwait, U.A.E., Qatar or Turkey, and maintain a rapid deployment force in the area to support our puppet government. The problem is that our military presence in these places might further inflame nationalist passions and fuel terrorist attacks from these newly occupied countries, or even from Saudi Arabians again.
Pape’s study is a tremendous contribution to American national security. Only by fully and objectively understanding the motives and goals of your enemy can you hope to defeat him. American anti-terror and foreign policy in the Middle East has been stumbling in the dark for years (excepting, perhaps, Bush’s capitulation to Al Qaeda’s demands in Saudi Arabia), and it is time that our policymakers started applying the lessons that Pape has mined from his data.