Thursday, September 25, 2003

Dying to Kill Us

The Op-Ed section in Monday's New York Times featured an important essay by Robert A. Pape, who "spent a year compiling a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 to 2001 -- 188 in all."

Pape, an associate professor of poli sci at the University of Chicago, included "any attack in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while attempting to kill others" but not "attacks authorized by a national government, such as those by North Korea against the South."

What did he learn from his analysis?

"First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of organized campaigns, not as isolated or random incidents. Of the 188 separate attacks in the period I studied, 179 could have their roots traced to large, coherent political or military campaigns.

"Second, liberal democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists. The United States, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decades, and each country has been a democracy at the time of the incidents.

"Third, suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective. From Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign have been terrorist groups trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democratic power to withdraw from the territories they claim. Even Al Qaeda fits this pattern: although Saudi Arabia is not under American military occupation per se, the initial major objective of Osama bin Laden was the expulsion of American troops from the Persian Gulf."

Pape himself says the "most worrisome" fact revealed by his research is that "the raw number of suicide attacks is climbing at an alarming rate" even as other types of terrorism are on the decline.

But the most important thing I took away from his essay is that "the presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is wrongheaded, and it may be encouraging domestic and foreign policies that are likely to worsen America's situation."

The data assembled by Pape reveal "that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter. In fact, the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion (they have have committed 75 of the 188 incidents)."

Pape continues: "Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel liberal democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective."

Point being: "The close association between foreign military occupations and the growth of suicide terrorist movements shows the folly of any strategy centering on conquering countries that sponsor terrorism or in trying to transform their political systems. At most, occupying countries will disrupt terrorist operations in the short term. But over time it will simply increase the number of terrorists coming at us."

Once again, in blunter language: To invade and occupy countries that sponsor terrorism in an effort to change their regimes will, in the long term, only result in creating more terrorists.

Of course this is hardly a new opinion. And it makes sense. Many of us who opposed the war in Iraq cited this as a reason for our opposition, and now we have the data to back us up.

I'm sure the officials pursuing our "war on terrorism" and the ideologues of PNAC who set their agenda will pay no heed to Pape's conclusions. But at least now they can't claim that no one has produced any hard, statistical evidence to prove their policies wrong.

Pape suggests one of the first steps the U.S. should take is to allow the United Nations to "take over the political and economic institutions in Iraq." In my opinion, that would be a good start.