From the end of World War II until 1980, the world did not witness a single successful act of suicide terrorism. Since then, the global rate of such attacks has risen from an average of three a year in the 1980’s to about one a month in the 1990’s to almost one a week from 2001 to 2003. In Iraq, suicide car bombings are now so common that they often fail to make the front pages of Western newspapers. Though self-preservation is the most basic instinct known to man, Islamic holy warriors have somehow managed to turn suicide terrorism into something horribly banal. How did this happen?
Since 9/11, that question has produced two broad answers: “it’s them” and “it’s us.” The “it’s them” camp focuses on the jihadists’ cult of martyrdom, their unquenchable hatred of the West and its freedoms, their extreme interpretation of Islam, and even the violent tendencies that seem to inhere in the Muslim faith itself. The “it’s us” camp responds with a pro-forma denunciation of the terrorists’ methods but follows by emphasizing all the ways that Western nations have antagonized the Muslim world and invited such an “extreme strategy” in response. Robert A. Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, has written the most intellectually ambitious effort yet to advance this latter thesis.
Pape has compiled a database of every suicide attack committed between 1980 and 2003 and has broken it down into categories. According to his analysis, eighteen distinct campaigns are responsible for all but fourteen of the 315 suicide attacks he has catalogued, and each campaign has had a similar objective: to compel a state to withdraw its forces from a particular piece of occupied territory.
Pape distinguishes in several ways between suicide attacks and “regular” terrorism. While previous groups like the Basque ETA, the Irish Republican Army, and the 1970’s-era PLO sometimes took pains to limit the number of their victims, suicide attackers always aspire to murder on a grand scale. Their goal is not to gain sympathy or publicity for their cause but to punish their enemies in the most brutal manner possible, even at the cost of alienating potential supporters. Because they do not bother with timing devices, remote controls, getaway plans, and other complicating details, they are able to inflict more damage, killing 21 people on average as opposed to one victim for the typical non-suicide assault.
Moreover, suicide attacks are almost always directed against democracies. Not only are democratic regimes more restrained in fighting back than their authoritarian counterparts, they have a lower threshold of tolerance for civilian casualties. Indeed, suicide terrorism is on the rise, Pape believes, because terrorists have learned that it works. In at least seven of the eighteen campaigns he profiles, the tactic won concessions of one kind or another. His clearest example is Hizballah’s campaign against U.S. and French forces in Lebanon in 1983, which resulted in the removal of both nations’ troops. In Sri Lanka, although the suicide-bombing campaign of the Tamil Tigers in the 1980’s and 90’s did not yield them an independent homeland, it did force the Sri Lankan government to the negotiating table, and later helped win a measure of autonomy for Tamil areas.
The “taproot” of suicide terrorism, Pape suggests, is nationalism—or, more precisely, the belief among members of a distinct ethnic, linguistic, or historical community that they “are entitled to govern their national homeland without interference from foreigners.” To support this claim, Pape provides numerous excerpts from speeches, manifestos, interviews, videos, and other documents. To illustrate the true motivation behind al Qaeda, for instance, he cites a May 1998 statement in which Osama bin Laden declares, “The call to wage war against America was made because America has spearheaded the crusade against [Saudi Arabia] over and above its meddling in its affairs and its politics, and its support of the oppressive, corrupt, and tyrannical regime that is in control.”
Religion is not entirely irrelevant to suicide terrorism, in Pape’s view, but what matters most is not the particular faith but whether it happens to differ from that of the occupier. Conflict that crosses a religious divide, he writes, “makes demonization, and therefore killing, of enemy civilians easier” and makes it possible to redeem “suicides that would otherwise be taboo.” As Pape emphasizes, such ideas are not unique to Islam. His database includes groups that adhere to several different creeds, all of which embrace some version of martyrdom.
Indeed, Pape tries to prove mathematically that there is no special connection between Islam and terrorism. In one statistical analysis, he divides 66 known al-Qaeda suicide terrorists into groups based on national origin. Comparing these nation-by-nation tallies with the total number of Muslims in each country who are known to be influenced by Salafism—the fundamentalist creed embraced by al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist terrorist groups—he finds no significant statistical relationship between the two.
In a second analysis, Pape groups the terrorists according to whether or not their country of origin has experienced the presence of American combat troops. Here he finds a correlation: the deployment of American soldiers is strongly associated with a country’s tendency to produce al-Qaeda suicide bombers. Based on these results, Pape reasons that “the stationing of tens of thousands of American combat troops on the Arabian peninsula from 1990 to 2001 most likely made al-Qaeda suicide attacks against Americans, including the atrocities committed on September 11, 2001, from ten to twenty times more likely.”
Since its release, Dying to Win has received a great deal of attention in the media. Many opponents of the war in Iraq have seized on the book as confirmation that removing Saddam Hussein and occupying his country have made the world more dangerous for the U.S. Pape himself has summarized his arguments in a lengthy New York Times op-ed, and has been profiled favorably in the Washington Post. Throughout, he has been portrayed as a dispassionate scholar trying to use rigorous, scientific analysis to get to the truth behind suicide terrorism. He is, however, anything but that.
Consider Pape’s catalog of suicide-terrorist campaigns. All but two of them, one immediately notices, are the work of Muslims. And one of the exceptions—by a Sikh separatist group—involved just a single successful attack. Pape’s thesis of a non-sectarian basis for suicide terrorism thus hangs on a lone remaining example: the on-again, off-again efforts of the Hindu Tamil Tigers. Yet even this is problematic, since the Tigers’ war effort has depended in large part on child-soldiers abducted from their families and forcibly brainwashed—a cult-like recruitment tactic that even the jihadists have eschewed.
No less problematic is Pape’s claim that al Qaeda is just another group seeking “national liberation.” Though bin Laden has indeed pointed to the presence of “infidel” troops in Saudi Arabia as a pretext for declaring war on the U.S., American combat forces were removed following the fall of Saddam—with no discernible effect on al-Qaeda violence. Far more prominent in the group’s rhetoric, of course, is its Islamist agenda: its intention to prosecute a worldwide jihad in hopes of bringing down the whole of Western society and building an Islamic caliphate on its ashes.
His thesis is even less consistent with the ongoing carnage in Iraq, where jihadists and former Baathists have now switched from targeting coalition troops to attacking Iraqis, in particular the politicians, soldiers, and police seeking to create a democratic, self-governing state that no longer requires propping up by the U.S. military. Only through a thoroughly tortured logic can such a nihilistic campaign of Muslim-on-Muslim murder be ascribed to “national liberation.”
As for Pape’s effort to prove his thesis mathematically, it in fact proves nothing. Like all statistical results, his are only as reliable as the assumptions built into the underlying model. In this case, as any informed observer of the Middle East would know, the assumptions are not credible.
In a nutshell, Pape starts with the premise that all “Salafist-influenced” citizens in Sunni nations should exhibit an equal chance of becoming suicide bombers. Since Saudi Arabia accounts for 52 percent of the 66 al-Qaeda terrorists under study, but only 8 percent of the total number of Salafists in Sunni nations, the discrepancy, Pape concludes, must be the result of the U.S. military presence in that country.
But Salafists cannot be treated as interchangeable data points, like so many fruit flies in a jar. For years, and in a manner unparalleled elsewhere in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia’s leaders have systematically indoctrinated their subjects with a sectarian and particularly virulent brand of militant Islam known as Wahhabism (a term sometimes used synonymously with Salafism). Until very recently, state-sponsored preachers openly espoused jihad, and the government paid hundreds of millions of dollars in protection money to al Qaeda. The practice of Christianity is a criminal offense there, and any deviation from the country’s official sect is deemed heretical. Obviously, such a nation can be expected to produce far more terrorists per capita than a randomized model would predict.
To be sure, most suicide-terror campaigns, as Pape notes, are related in some way to a revolt against those perceived as an occupying force. That is hardly an original observation. Far more interesting, however, is the question of why adherents of a single religion seem systematically disposed toward expressing their grievances, territorial and otherwise, in the most indiscriminate and barbaric manner imaginable.
Pape does not answer this question, or even acknowledge its pertinence. But he does supply some clues. Suicide terrorism, he tells us, is indirectly fueled by religious rivalry, which enables the spread of paranoid rumors, facilitates demonization of the enemy, and allows terrorists to recast suicide murder as a form of martyrdom. All three of these elements have been characteristic of many Islamic societies in history.
Even to a casual reader of core religious texts, it is striking how intensely Islam emphasizes the difference between the believer and the infidel. Because the Islamic empire spread so rapidly following its birth, it came to rule over many non-Muslim societies. From the 7th century onward, elaborate legal and social protocols were devised to emphasize the superiority of Islam in every encounter between Muslim and non-Muslim, as well as the duty of jihad whenever Islamic dominion is threatened.
This Manichean tendency endures, laying a psychological groundwork for Muslim extremists, even those whose explicit agenda may be secular or Marxist, to dehumanize their enemies and promote bizarre conspiracy theories. The same tendency has also created a powerful trans-national empathy among Muslims, which helps explain why Saudis and other Arabs are flocking to Iraq and why Pakistanis are exploding themselves in Afghanistan and other nations. (According to a recent poll, 79 percent of Pakistanis see themselves as “Muslim first,” while only 7 percent see themselves as Pakistanis first.)
Few Muslims, even Wahhabists, find in their tradition any godly permission to engage in random slaughter. But all one needs is a few. And while most Muslims will not support such killing directly, too many have permitted themselves to overlook the gruesome tactics for the sake of maintaining intrafaith solidarity. This is especially true in the case of the Palestinian terrorist campaign against Jews, which has come to be regarded as an almost existential expression of Muslim suffering.
Despite Pape’s best efforts, such thinking cannot be explained away as the misguided fury of national liberators. While terrorists may seize on Western actions as a means to justify their actions, there is simply too much evidence showing that cultural forces deeply rooted in Islam are primarily responsible for the current suicide epidemic. To which one might add that, along with relentless pressure from the outside, cultural forces no less deeply rooted in Islam will have to be primarily responsible for stopping it.
In other words, it’s not us, it’s them.
Jonathan Kay is a managing editor of Canada’s National Post.