Creating people's geographies
Also see ‘Dying to win’ entry and book excerpt here
Mark Coultan Herald Correspondent in New York | Sydney Morning Herald | August 26, 2006
IN THE year since Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win was published he has talked to politicians on Capitol Hill four times, and to the National War College and the National Counterterrorism Centre. He has even visited the office of the Defence Secretary twice, although he is yet to speak to Donald Rumsfeld.
His project, studying suicide terrorism, was partly funded by an arm of the Pentagon. So is anybody in the White House listening to him? Apparently not, if you listen to George Bush’s frequent speeches about the “war on terror”.
Although the US President recently had a small epiphany about foreign policy – no more cowboy statements like “Wanted dead or alive” – he has not changed his rhetoric when it comes to the “war on terror”. Mr Bush speaks in terms of good versus evil, says that the terrorists hate us because of who we are, and that in waging the war we are defending freedom.
After British police arrested a group of men and women accused of plotting to blow up airliners over the Atlantic with bombs mixed from liquids on board, Mr Bush said: “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.”
But the main finding of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism is that it is not, as Mr Bush and conventional wisdom would have it, a product of Islamic fundamentalism.
Instead, it is the product of secular and strategic goals. The terrorists see it as a way to pressure democracies to withdraw military forces from territory they consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, but an aid in recruitment. This false presumption, Pape writes on the first page of his book, is dangerous because it can lead to policies that worsen US security and harm Muslims.
For example, he says it has led to Mr Bush’s policy of democratising the Middle East on the assumption that Muslim societies need to be transformed, and democracies do not attack each other.
Pape looked at 315 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003, the first complete database of such attacks, he says.
His conclusions are drawn partly from what the terrorist organisations and the suicide bombers themselves say. His study finds, for example, that the leading practitioner of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers, a secular group of Hindu fighters who want to establish a separate homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. And he points out that during Hezbollah’s campaign against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s, only eight of 38 suicide terrorists he studied were Islamic fundamentalists. Most (27) were from leftist political groups and three were Christian.
Pape does not mince words about this: “It comes down to a fundamentally faulty premise, which the facts demonstrate are simply not true – it’s wrong.”
So invading Iraq was not the way to combat terrorism? “The invasion of Iraq created far more enemies than it could ever have stopped. And so the invasion of Iraq was exactly the way to cause suicide terrorism to surge.
“In fact, since the invasion of Iraq, suicide terrorism, both by al-Qaeda and in Iraq itself, has just been surging. We now have a pretty good idea of the cocktail to create suicide terrorism, and it’s not a madrassa [Islamic religious school], it’s the presence of foreign combat forces.”
In fact, this week Mr Bush, after years of trying to draw a link between Iraq and the battle against terrorism, admitted they were quite separate.
Asked what Iraq had to do with the September 11 attacks, he replied: “Nothing” – except it had taught the US a lesson about acting before threats emerged.
So what about the idea that the terrorists are motivated by our lifestyle, our decadence – our freedoms – as Mr Bush insists?
Pape says: “The answer is quite the opposite. If we were to take the [July 7, 2005, London transport bombings] as an example, the four London bombers were born and bred in British culture, they played cricket … They were at odds not with British culture but with British military policies. They saw these military policies were leading to atrocities against Muslims.”
A year later, a martyr videotape of one of the London bombers, Shahzad Tanweer, was released. In a Yorkshire accent, he tells the camera: “What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.”
Pape says that al-Qaeda has put a fair amount of energy into recruiting British and US Muslims to commit suicide attacks, as in the recent British alleged airliner bomb plot.
“Those recruit videos don’t talk about 72 virgins, they don’t talk about Islam, they are all about the atrocities that American, British and other forces are committing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and they are calling for direct strikes.”
Pape’s thesis is not unchallenged. Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks, has criticised Pape for putting al-Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers in the same basket.
Peter Bergen, an expert on terrorism who is a consultant for CNN, has said that although he finds Pape’s theory brilliant, it does not fit all cases, citing the Basques’ fight against Spain and the IRA struggle against Britain, which never produced suicide bombers. He also notes that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan did not produce suicide terrorists.
Martin Kramer, in a debate with Pape at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was wary of an all-encompassing theory on suicide terrorism.
Dr Kramer says that it took the reworking of the Islamic concept of martyrdom by the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah, Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, for attacks in Lebanon to begin, which then spread to Hamas.
Hamas attacks, he says, were an attempt to compete with other Palestinian groups. Al-Qaeda, Dr Kramer says, does not fit the theory very well, as the US troop presence in Saudi Arabia – often cited by Osama bin Laden – never resembled an occupation and caused no local casualties.
Even more contentious are Pape’s conclusions from his research. If foreign occupation is the key factor that fuels suicide terrorism, his reasoning goes, then the way to reduce such attacks is to withdraw combat troops from the Middle East.
Pape does not believe in leaving the Middle East to its own devices. He believes that US foreign policy should be centred on its main economic interest – oil. He recommends “offshore balancing”, a policy the US pursued until the 1990s, whereby it influenced events in the Middle East but did not seek to station troops in the region, instead being ready to intervene as necessary.
But Mr Bush sees the world completely differently. He may have been addressing Pape’s work directly when he said: “It would be a huge mistake for the United States to leave the region, to concede territory to the terrorists, to not confront them.”