Suicide Terror and the Preoccupation with Occupation

December 14, 2010

Cutting the Fuse

Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It
By Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman (University of Chicago, 2010)
349 pages, $30.00

On 9/11, America woke up to an enemy willing to die in order to kill. And we were shocked. Looking for answers, experts and amateurs alike sifted through Osama Bin Laden's references to a lost Caliphate and fulminations against infidels, and concluded that Islamic radicalism was to blame for the suicide attacks. Newspapers soon carried stories about jihad, martyrdom, and angry young men. Pundits turned a worried eye to the Middle East and wondered how Islam could ever modernize.

Then, in 2005, Robert Pape came out with Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. In his book, the noted air power theorist argued that nationalist resistance to foreign occupation, not Islamic extremism, was the engine that drove suicide bombings. The solution, therefore, was not to reform the Middle East. It was to leave. As expected, this theory was embraced by the Arab-American community, realpolitik strategists, and critics of U.S. interventionism and of the war in Iraq, in particular.

However, recent events in the Muslim world have confounded Pape's theory. Suicide bombings have spread to Algeria, Iran and Bangladesh—none of which is occupied by Western troops. And while Iraq remains a hellish garden of car bombs and suicide belts, the terrorists there are mainly targeting the local Shiite community, its political institutions and shrines. Likewise, the influx into Baghdad and Mosul of foreign militants ready to blow themselves up leads one to question the national resistance model used by Pape.

In Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, Pape and co-author James Feldman attempt to rescue the stricken theory and push ahead with policy prescriptions. It's a valiant effort, to be sure. Nevertheless, the model collapses under the weight of too many ad hoc hypotheses, while the solutions for combating suicide terror are hardly developed. Will this matter to Pape's fans at Foreign Policy and the Council on American-Islamic Relations? Not likely. But it should to us.

Now, Pape was quite right when he first noted that, al Qaeda jihadists aside, many suicide bombers are not Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, some are not even Muslims. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—the separatist group in Sri Lanka that invented the bomb belt—was, for example, a mainly Hindu movement. But rather than consider that there might be multiple causes for suicide terrorism, Pape simply replaced radical Islam with nationalism as the One Big Explanation.

And that's when the trouble began.

Early on, the Pape thesis had to address three problems. First, most nationalist groups (the Irish Republican Army, Basque ETA, etc.) do not resort to suicide attacks. Therefore, some additional mechanisms had to come into play for the model to hold. Two, the United States never occupied Saudi Arabia, so how could self-determination be al Qaeda's motive for the 9/11 attacks? Three, despite the existence of the LTTE (and a handful of Indian Sikh and Arab Christian outliers), the vast majority of suicide bombers are Muslim.

In Dying to Win, Pape deftly handled these objections by arguing that suicide bombers target a very special class of occupier: democracies—and not just any democracies, those whose citizens are of another faith. Why democracies? Because they are seen as soft. At the same time, religious differences cast the occupier as profoundly alien, which prepares the insurgents for extreme forms of self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation. So, yes, there have been lots of Muslim suicide bombers hitting democracies, but the issue has never been Islam per se.

Now, to clinch his argument, Pape had to eschew the standard definition of military occupation. Instead, a territory is occupied if the terrorists say so. It doesn't matter if, like the Chechens in southern Russia, they are ethnic separatists and their state is just an aspiration. Or if the foreign troops were invited in by the local government, as in the case of U.S. troops who came to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. It is enough that the Americans who remained there until 2003 were perceived as propping up a puppet king.

Indeed, once Pape reframed the situation on the Arabian Peninsula as an occupation of sorts, al Qaeda could take on an entirely different look. Al Qaeda's Saudi core and its bristling foreign tentacles were simply "a cross-national military alliance of national liberation movements working together against what they see as the common imperial threat," he argued.

Of course, even after all this, he had to add a few caveats (e.g., suicide bombings are a weapon of last resort) to his theory to disqualify potential challenges—and then, with only moderate success. He still could not explain why there were no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers from the Occupied Territories or why Hizbullah made its debut in Lebanon with so-called "martyrdom operations." Likewise, the theory stumbled when it came to Kurdish Muslims using suicide terror against Turkish Muslims.

Regardless, most reviewers gave Pape the benefit of the doubt.

Then more and more Muslims started to die at the hands of their co-religionists.

In Cutting the Fuse, Pape and co-author James Feldman, an expert in decision analysis and economics, take on this new round of challenges. In doing so, they simply ignore the inconvenient cases of Bangladesh and Algeria and declare "the target of every suicide terrorist campaign from 2004 to 2009 has been a democracy where there has been a religious difference between the occupier and the occupied communities." (The omission of Iran can be excused on the grounds that the campaign there only began in mid-2009.)

Then, moving on to Iraq, the two point out that the country had suffered no suicide bombings until the Americans overthrew the Baathist regime and planted military bases all over the place.

Now, this chronology of terror is essentially true—though, back in 1981, the Shiite Dawa party did blow up an Iraqi embassy in Lebanon. But are the suicide bombings in Iraq really against the Coalition or something else the invasion set into motion?

The oddest thing about Pape and Feldman's treatment of Iraq is that they acknowledge that suicide terrorism is committed by Sunni Arabs, that this group was knocked off its perch when Saddam Hussein fell, and that the 7,800-13,000 victims of the attacks are mostly locals. The authors even admit that the insurgents are trying to preempt the emergence of a strong central state led by Shiites. Yet the two never reach the obvious conclusion: Suicide bombings in Iraq are a weapon in a Muslim civil war.

The authors are not shaken in their conviction even when confronted by the fact that over 50 percent of all identified suicide bombers in Iraq are foreigners.

To explain away the presence of Saudi, Jordanian, and Kuwaiti jihadists, Pape and Feldman argue that these militants come from neighboring countries that are "possible targets of American military control." So it's a preemptive strike against future occupation. Setting aside the fact that the U.S. just left Saudi Arabia in 2003, this utterly fantastic explanation offers no insight into the North African and European suicide bombers in Iraq1 —or the lack of Iranians. Indeed, Iran has far more reason to fear regime change than does Jordan.

As for Afghanistan, the occupation thesis holds. But it falters again in Pakistan, where the local Taliban have perpetrated over 200 suicide attacks without any U.S. troops being in the country.

At this point, a less creative analyst would relent and grant that his theory is not as comprehensive as first thought. But not Robert Pape. In his new book, he and Feldman contend that, as of 2006, Pakistan has been under indirect occupation (a new category to the rescue!) by the Americans. Accordingly, attacks on Sufi shrines, Shiite processions, and Pakistani soldiers are an indirect blow to foreign overlords in Washington, DC. And as for the 12 suicide bombings that occurred in 2003-2005, they are dismissed as small change.

But as in the case of Iraq, the evidence cited by the authors actually upends the nationalism model. For example, the Pashtun tribesmen who fill the ranks of the local Taliban are an isolated ethnic minority. They resent the encroachment of Islamabad and hold no particular reverence for national elections. By contrast, the average Pakistani citizen opposes the Taliban suicide bombings, and 69 percent fear a militant takeover of the country—hardly the reaction one would expect to get for a liberation movement.

Why does all this matter? Because identifying root causes helps one craft matching policies.

Unfortunately, Pape and Feldman devote precious little space in their book for solutions, and much of what they include are underdeveloped thoughts. For instance, regarding Pakistan, the two authors declare that the U.S. "needs a balanced strategy among military, political and economic initiatives …" Indeed. Likewise, the authors want the U.S. to eventually adopt a policy of offshore balancing (whatever that means) instead of basing troops in Muslim lands.

However, it is unclear how balancing "offshore" from landlocked Afghanistan is supposed to ensure the capture of the al Qaeda leadership. Furthermore, what are countries dealing with insurgencies within their own borders supposed to do?

For the short term, Pape and Feldman suggest that the U.S. help local groups take control of security operations in their own towns and villages. No doubt, it's a good idea. It worked with the Anbar Awakening in Iraq. But it is rather like saying, "We will win the war by outwitting the enemy." It's easier said than done. In fact, just a week ago, two suicide bombers attacked a group of tribal leaders in northwest Pakistan, who were trying to form an anti-Taliban militia. Fifty people died.

Now this is the part in the book review where one is supposed to say that, despite its many flaws, Cutting the Fuse is a welcome contribution to the growing literature on suicide terrorism.

It isn't.


1 Some examples of foreign jihadists: Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian convert to Islam, killed herself and five Iraqi policemen in 2005. Five years later, a Swedish citizen with Tunisian roots likewise died as a suicide bomber in Iraq. The Moroccan village of Tetuan has sent as many as 30 suicide bombers to Iraq, while the Libyan village of Darnah has also contributed more than its share of young men seeking martyrdom.
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