The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism
This is the longer version of an essay that was published in the Jeff/NA News-Tribune...
In this essay, I don't wrestle with what appear to be the dubious benefits of continuing to remain in Iraq. And I don't deal with the cost of the War in terms of lives (4000 American troops and an untold number of Iraqis) or in terms of dollars ($500 billion-- $6500 from the average family of four, financed by debt [i.e. credit cards]).
This is an attempt to spell out a third cost/concern: the extent to which our military efforts in general-- and our efforts in the Middle East in particular-- have contributed to the threat of terrorism.
On the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the War in
The best news is that we toppled Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime in six weeks. In other words, we won “the war” easily.
But since then, we have been trying to “build a nation” in
A more sobering cost is that our efforts in the
This is the thesis of a 2005 book by
(Pape also discusses three historical examples of ST: Jewish “Zealots” in opposition to the
Since many suicide attacks have been done by Muslims, it’s been easy to assume that ST is a “Muslim fundamentalist” thing. But Pape finds that this characteristic is involved in only about half of the cases. The leading instigators of ST—nearly one-fourth of the cases—are the Tamil Tigers, a secular group in
If religion is not the primary cause, then what is? Pape observes that the “logic” of ST is strategic, social, and individual. In terms of strategy, ST is an organized effort to leverage coercive power through a series of planned attacks. Of course, ST requires an individual who is willing to give his life for a greater cause. ST also has a social component in that it strives for and relies upon community support. (This promotes recruitment, helps ST groups avoid detection, and provides social praise and financial support for those left behind.)
Pape’s most profound observations relate to the “strategy” of ST. First, all acts of ST have been committed by members of a weaker group against a much stronger military force. In other words, they believe that traditional warfare—and even guerilla warfare—will almost certainly be ineffective. And so, ST is seen as a military option of last resort.
Second, almost all acts of ST have been committed against democracies. This form of government is seen as more vulnerable or “soft” politically (as opposed to dictatorships). Democracies can be leveraged more effectively and are more likely to be restrained in their response. (As evidence of this, one might recall that the PKK engaged in ST against democratic
Third, and most important, acts of ST have always been connected to a perception that the stronger power is engaged in an occupation of the weaker party’s territory. (Note that this is the weaker party’s perception—regardless of the stronger party’s motive or intent.) ST then is primarily a nationalistic response to a foreign power’s control over its land.
Although religion is not a primary explanation, religious differences can make ST more likely. Religious differences lead to more fear that the occupiers intend to transform their culture. It is easier to demonize “the pagans”. And with religion, it is easier to transform a taboo like suicide into a glorified occasion for martyrdom. As Pape puts it: “Religion matters, but mainly in the context of national resistance.” (Even within Al-Queda, Pape finds that those who engage in ST are more likely to come from lands that are “occupied” than to hold Muslim fundamentalist or Salafist beliefs.)
It is common to argue that Al-Queda attacks us because they hate us or our culture. But think about the timing of the attacks. We’ve had a similar culture for at least 40 years. But Al-Queda’s attacks coincide with our significant (and seemingly unending) troop presence in the
Moreover, this is the primary reason Bin Laden gives for fighting us: “There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land.” Bin Laden has also expressed concern that all six
Likewise, attacks began against European countries in 2002 and 2003—but only against those which had sent troops to
While Muslim fundamentalists certainly do not like our culture, this is insufficient to promote the social support and individual motives necessary for ST. Moreover, polling data indicates that Muslims with “a favorable view of the
ST is not just a 9/11 thing. The horrible events of 9/11 are easiest to remember. But Hezbollah used ST to kill 243 Marines and drive the
At minimum, understanding Pape’s work is helpful in trying to understand the issues—and in particular, why “fixing” the Middle East is not at the heart of this problem. Pape’s policy conclusions are not those of an ideologue. He is not digging for reasons to leave the region and is actually quite open to staying—as long we understand all of the significant costs involved. (As an economist, I love hearing people talk about all of the costs and benefits!)
Pape observes the difficulties inherent in defeating current terrorists without creating conditions that will encourage more terrorism. And he leaves his readers with this warning: “The sustained presence of heavy American combat forces in Muslim countries is likely to increase the odds of the next 9/11.” Is that a cost we really want to pay?