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Morning Report 7/13/05Suicide Bombings as an Occupational Hazard


The grim logic of insane actions

© Zanbel-e Gham


Who’s pulling the strings—and why? A recent cartoon in Zanbel-e Gham (Wheelbarrow of Sorrows), a satire mag in Afghanistan that skewers terrorists and government officials alike. The magazine had been published secretly during the Taliban’s reign.


Confirmation that the London Underground was blown up by British suicide bombers—gor blimey, they even played cricket—has shaken the U.K., and it should shake us as well.

Yes, the four young men were of Pakistani descent. That does not mean it’s open season on Muslims. Let’s not forget that Tim McVeigh was a red-blooded ‘Murrican boy, and he blew up 167 people in Oklahoma City in April 1995.

But suicide? How can that be? University of Chicago professor Robert Pape has tried to answer that question by pointing out that there is indeed a logic to suicide terrorism, like it or not. Pape’s August 2003 article “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” published in the American Political Science Review, is a must-read.

Only this past May, Pape (left) addressed the rise in suicide attacks in Iraq in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that has posted. In that piece, Pape translated his research into suicide terrorism into the current Iraq debacle (another bombing this morning in Baghdad, by the way, killed 24, including seven children):

Since Muslim terrorists professing religious motives have perpetrated many of the attacks, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause, and thus the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, is the obvious solution. However, the presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading, and it may spur American policies that are likely to worsen the situation.

The main connections are secular and territorial, Pape says, adding this:

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

If you see suicide terrorism in terms of occupational hazards, there are things you can do about it. Pape writes:

Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism. Spreading democracy across the Persian Gulf is not likely to be a panacea so long as foreign combat troops remain on the Arabian Peninsula. If not for the world’s interest in Persian Gulf oil, the obvious solution might well be simply to abandon the region altogether. Isolationism, however, is not possible; America needs a new strategy that pursues our vital interest in oil but does not stimulate the rise of a new generation of suicide terrorists.

Beyond recognizing the limits of military action and stepping up domestic security efforts, Americans would do well to recall the virtues of our traditional policy of “offshore balancing” in the Persian Gulf. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the United States managed its interests there without stationing any combat soldiers on the ground, but keeping our forces close enough—either on ships or in bases near the region—to deploy in huge numbers if an emergency. This worked splendidly to defeat Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait in 1990.

And maybe it’s just as well that we’re losing the Great Game in Central Asia and thus may be kicked out of our military bases in those heavily Muslim nations. That’s because Pape concludes:

The Bush administration rightly intends to start turning over the responsibility for Iraq’s security to the new government and systematically withdrawing American troops. But large numbers of these soldiers should not simply be sent to Iraq’s neighbors, where they will continue to enrage many in the Arab world. Keeping the peace from a discreet distance seems a better way to secure our interests in the world’s key oil-producing region without provoking more terrorism.

Just a couple of weeks ago, on, Christopher Shea tackled the question “Why do suicide bombers do it?” He talked about Pape’s research in a review of the professor’s new book, Dying to Win, based on his journal article.

Naturally, the neocons come unglued when they hear nuanced explanations. They think they’re way past such gunboat diplomacy. To them, it’s a clash of civilizations, the good guys against the bad guys, good vs. evil. Of course, the fanatically right-wing Jews among them want to protect Israel at all costs, even if it means blindly supporting Ariel Sharon‘s regime. Besides, the neocons’ business pals, like Halliburton’s Dick Cheney, want to plunder the Middle East, not do business with countries there.

If you want to know the detail that drives Pape’s conclusions, go to the source, his August 2003 journal article, in which he wrote:

Even if many suicide attackers are irrational or fanatical, the leadership groups that recruit and direct them are not. Viewed from the perspective of the terrorist organization, suicide attacks are designed to achieve specific political purposes: to coerce a target government to change policy, to mobilize additional recruits and financial support, or both.

Analyzing the 187 suicide terrorist attacks worldwide from 1980 to 2001, he basically came up with five “findings”:

The vast majority of suicide terror attacks aren’t “isolated” or “random acts by individual fanatics” but are part of a larger campaign to achieve a “specific political goal.”

“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.”

Suicide terrorism has increased during the past 20 years “because terrorists have learned that it pays.”

Suicide terrorism “relies on the threat to inflict low to medium levels of punishment on civilians.” The more ambitious the level of horror attempted, the less successful the terrorist campaign’s organizers are.

“The most promising way to contain suicide terrorism is to reduce terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out such attacks on the target society. States that face persistent suicide terrorism should recognize that neither offensive military action nor concessions alone are likely to do much good and should invest significant resources in border defenses and other means of homeland security.”

Yeah, well, that last is difficult. In fact, it’s impossible.

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