Robert Pape Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism: Conversation with  Robert A. Pape, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, February 16, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Problem of Suicide Terrorism

So, let's show your book again. It's called Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Tell us about its origins. How did you come to this problem? Was it something you were thinking about even before 9/11?

Nope, not at all. Before 9/11, I was working on a completely different book, and in fact, if you look at my hard drive you'll see that book was saved at 8:02 AM on 9/11, when I got the first phone call. book coverWhat happened is I didn't immediately after 9/11 get interested in suicide terrorism. On 9/11 I was quite honored to be asked to go on a number of important media shows, along with some important people. In Chicago, for instance, we have an important show called "Chicago Tonight." On this show were the two Senators from Illinois, Representatives, myself, and another academic.

I was brought on not to talk about suicide terrorism; I was brought on because people wanted to ask technical questions about levels of casualties. You might remember that on 9/11 itself and for a few days, we didn't know much about some of the technical things that had happened. Well, given my expertise on air power, and because this was somewhat similar to an air attack, I was able to come on. And so, very early on, I was able to explain [that] the way that we estimate civilian casualties in an air attack is we just look at the floor at which a Cruise missile might hit a building and we assume that's where the fire is going to be and that everybody above that point will probably be killed and everybody below that point has a good chance of escaping. Well, that argument is now the conventionally understood explanation for what happened on 9/11 itself in the two towers, but at 9/11, in the next few days, that was something that I was pleased to be part of.

I was also asked questions about suicide terrorism, simply because I was on the air. I immediately realized that we didn't have much of a factual basis for making judgments about the causes of suicide terrorism. To the extent I had any initial idea -- like most people, I thought the suicide terrorism was a product of Islamic fundamentalism -- I found myself reaching for a Koran, but more than anything else, I found myself, as these interviews went on over weeks, collecting data in a notebook of the actual attacks that had occurred over time, because I couldn't find anyone who had actually collected the data on suicide terrorist attacks around the world. My social science instincts told me [that] absent that, we wouldn't be able to make a judgment about what is the cause and not the cause of suicide terrorism.

And so, we have an event, we have al Qaeda identified shortly thereafter as the key source, but the question of who else has done this, what other groups have done this, was a rather murky area. What did you go about doing to get behind that fog to say, "Okay, here are these different groups -- what data do we have to collect?"

Well, it may sound fairly simple, and it is. We have to collect the data on the actual suicide attacks that have occurred around the world over a period of time, and we want to know not only where they have occurred with some degree of certainty, we want to know where they haven't occurred with a fair degree of certainty. This is a little bit like studying lung cancer. We not only want to know who gets cancer, we want to know who doesn't get cancer, and we want to be tracking this closely enough and with enough confidence in our research that we can be highly confident that we have the right information.

That kind of a project, that instinct, led me to collect the first complete database of every suicide terrorist attack around the world, from 1980 through early 2004, and then since then, I've updated this database for the crucial case of Iraq, just through December of 2005. That database contains 462 suicide terrorists who've killed themselves in order to kill other innocents. What's one of the most striking things about those 462, over half are secular. The world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. They're a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have done more suicide terrorist attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Further, about 30 percent of all Muslim suicide attacks are carried out by secular suicide terrorist groups, such as the PKK in Turkey. That's a Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey.

What this means is that over half of all suicide terrorist attacks, all around the world since 1980, pretty much since they've begun in the modern period, are not associated with Islamic fundamentalism. If that's the case, then Islamic fundamentalism is not as tightly associated with suicide terrorism as most people think.

Now there's an important point, before we go on, which should be made. It wasn't the case that there was no evidence for the answer to this question about the logic behind suicide terrorism, but [that] everybody thought we knew the answer.

Many people thought they knew the answer. It's also fair to say many people realized there's more to the puzzle than meets the eye, because of course religion has been around for centuries, and of course there are many religious people who don't commit suicide, even when stretched in these conditions. So the project, as I began to unpack it -- it was clear to me that many people assumed Islamic fundamentalism was the central cause, but it was also clear to me, as I looked especially at the research underneath that, that many people realized that might be a hollow presumption. They were presuming it given the absence of data that showed anything else. So, as I began to collect the data and as I put the data set together, that's when it also jumped out at me what was driving suicide terrorism, because what over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks, around the world since 1980, have in common is not religion but a specific strategic goal: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw combat forces -- I don't mean advisors with side-arms; I mean tanks, fighter aircraft, or APCs -- from territory the terrorists view is their homeland, or prize greatly. From Lebanon, to Chechnya, to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to the West Bank, every suicide terrorism campaign since 1980 has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory that the terrorists prize.

This is very important. Let's take apart all that you've just said. You're saying that nationalism, or a national liberation movement, is a driving force in all of these cases.

Suicide terrorism is an extreme form of a national liberation strategy. Nationalism, that is nationalist commitment to the territory that's at issue, is the core driving force, and of course, some nationalists are also religious. It doesn't mean that nationalism is always fundamentally opposed to religion, but it's terribly important to see that the key concept underneath suicide terrorism, the key driving factor, is a deep anger over the presence of foreign combat forces on territory that the terrorists prize greatly. Absent that core condition, we rarely see suicide terrorism.

An important characteristic that you identify in these groups that you're looking at is their weakness vis-à-vis the occupier. So, this is an alternative that develops in a context where there isn't much that can be done militarily in a normal set of interactions.

Well said. The key purpose of suicide terrorism is not to die but to use the person's body as a weapon to kill, to try to put pressure on the opposing society so that society will put pressure on its government to change its military policies. What's interesting about this tactic is that we see it as a weapon of last resort. We don't see suicide terrorism often as the first choice of a terrorist group. Instead, we see it as the choice after many other things have failed. In fact, suicide terrorist groups are often large guerilla organizations with thousands and thousands of members who have tried ordinary guerilla tactics, or even ordinary terrorism, before resorting to suicide terrorism. And they're evolving from a very large group.

The PKK in Turkey, for instance, has 10,000 cadres who are armed fighters; the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, 5000 to 10,000 armed cadres. What's occurring here is that these groups are evolving to suicide terrorism when other means have not gained the concessions, the independence of the territory. They don't look like what we might think, which is a cult -- thirty people sitting in a room at the feet of a leader. Before I did this research, I was expecting to see suicide terrorist groups looking a bit like the Branch Davidians -- that's David Koresh out in Waco, where David Koresh has forty-some followers who stayed at his feet for hours every single day, and he essentially brainwashed them. That's not what suicide terrorist organizations look like. They're very large, and in fact, the suicide terrorists themselves are typically walk-in volunteers and not long-time members of the group.

It's very important to make the point here that this strategy seems to work because they are dealing with democracies -- that is the adversary, and so this extreme action has an impact.

Yes. Every one of the suicide terrorist campaigns that's kicked off since 1980 has been targeted against a democracy. It's important to recognize that, rightly or wrongly, democracies are viewed as soft, especially vulnerable to coercive punishment. Suicide terrorism is a strategy that's trying to exploit that vulnerability in two ways: First, because suicide terrorist attacks in a tactical sense kill more people on average than a non-suicide attack, because someone who actually uses his Mark II eyeball to steer a bomb in can simply have the bomb go off when there are ten, twelve, twenty people nearby. But secondarily, it produces a greater sense of fear in the target society, because target societies instinctively know that if there was one, two, or a group of suicide attackers willing to give their lives to kill them, there could be more, possibly many more. That strategy produces coercive leverage which suicide terrorist leaders, over the last twenty years, have learned pays dividends.

The very first set of suicide terrorist attacks in the modern period began in Lebanon in the 1980s. One of the -- just the very fourth attack was the famous suicide truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, in October 1983, which killed 241 of our Marines. Well, the purpose of that attack was to cause American troops to leave Lebanon, and they did. Ronald Reagan, no pacifist, responded to that attack by, just a few months later, picking up and withdrawing all of our troops from Lebanon, and actually virtually abandoning the country economically and diplomatically. In fact, Reagan in his memoirs has a whole chapter devoted to this, where to his credit he is honest and lays out exactly why he did what he did. He says -- and I'm quoting directly from his memoirs -- he "could not stay there and run the risk of another suicide attack against the Marines." Well, terrorist leaders observed that key event, and in fact, that event has motivated them, and encouraged them, to do other suicide attacks, not only Hezbolah (that is the suicide organization in Lebanon), but this key event, this single event, shows up in the mobilization rhetoric of Hamas, by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and even by the Tamil Tiger leadership. They point out that this event demonstrates that suicide attack can cause a democracy to withdraw combat forces from territory that that democracy really doesn't prize as much as the terrorists.

What do you think is the reason that democracies are so vulnerable? Is it just the shock of what has happened, the fear that this could happen again and it can't be controlled and it can't be stopped? What is the dynamic there?

I think that democracies, when put under this coercive pressure -- first of all, they don't always buckle, so I don't think democracies are vulnerable to this pressure without limit, but I think democracies, when put under coercive pressure, re-evaluate their interests that are at stake. And Ronald Reagan, to give you his full logic, said that the reason he wouldn't run the risk of another suicide attack against the Marines in Beirut is we had so little at stake. There was nothing at stake for the security of the American homeland, there was nothing at stake for the American economy, and in fact, as he said, there was even nothing at stake in the Cold War. This was not a key battleground in the ideological battle with the Soviet Union. So, the fact is that as he looked at this case, the extra cost caused him to re-evaluate his interest and his strategy in this particular scenario, and he just decided the benefits were not worth the costs.

That's an important point to make, because it's not that suicide terrorism is so powerful it can cause democracies to abandon all interests. It can cause democracies to abandon moderate interests or minor interests, but probably not core interests of importance to the strategic vitality of the state as a whole.

You ask three very important questions, and we've discussed one. You've explained the strategic logic of terrorism, and then you go on to talk about the social logic of suicide terrorism, and although you're not saying that religion is the primary reason, you're not removing it from the table in terms of the role that it does play. That comes in here as you answer the question of the social logic. What is the social logic here?

It's important to address not only the strategic logic but the social and individual logics, because there are multiple causes to suicide terrorism. One cause that is virtually a necessary condition is foreign occupation or the threat of foreign occupation, that is where the democracies put combat troops on territory the terrorists prize. But not every foreign occupation by a democracy has escalated to suicide terrorism. So, to find out which did and which didn't, I went further, and actually, about two-thirds of the book are devoted to answering that particular question. I found the answers in the social logic of suicide terrorism in particular.

The other factors that matter, once you have the presence of foreign combat forces on the critical territory, is whether there's a religious difference between the predominant religion of the occupying force. If that is the case, it encourages both secular and religious members of the occupied community to see a sense of urgency in responding to the occupation, so that in fact, the foreign combat forces aren't simply the first stage of a fundamental transformation of the local community toward the values, and especially the religious values, of the foreign combat troops.

In the case of al Qaeda, we see this directly in Osama's use of the crusader image in many of his speeches. When Osama gives motivating speeches, they're often forty or fifty pages long and they often follow a fairly standard pattern. In '96, for instance, one of the most famous was entitled, "The American Occupation of the Arabian Peninsula." Well, it began in '96 with a detailed discussion of American combat operations on the Arabian Peninsula. And remember, we're engaged in the containment of Iraq during that time, so we had a lot to go through. Then the next section was all about why we were doing it, and he presented it as the American design was a crusader design. We had, in his view, a crusader logic where we were following a Christian agenda to weaken Islam, perhaps convert Muslims, and possibly help Israel expand so that both Christians and Jews could extend control over Jerusalem.

Interestingly, in this speech he went further and he said, given the crusader design of the American forces, they would soon conquer Iraq, break it into three pieces and then do the same to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Well, in 2003, unfortunately this looks all too prescient for bin Laden, because we did do exactly that, and his argument, the core argument, is yes, religion is important, and yes, he does want Islam to respond, but where religion begins is in the goals of the Americans and why they have combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula. That's what he's using to create a sense of urgency among his community to respond.

And so on the one hand, American involvement in the nineties offered a real change in what we were doing in that area. First there was the Iraq War, then after that we had troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, and so on, so that Osama bin Laden is trying on his side to clarify what he sees as our agenda, whether or not we stumbled into this or it was part of a strategic logic on our part.

That's exactly right, and even many expert audiences, Harry, don't know that before 1990 we did not station combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula, even going back to World War II. Yes, we had advisors with side-arms, a few hundred with side-arms, but no tanks, fighter aircraft. Bin Laden is using the presence of the foreign combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula, and the fact that there's a religious difference between us and them, in order to mobilize not just the terrorists but the general public in that area to oppose this particular occupation. Why does he do that? Well, it's because suicide terrorists themselves depend very much on broad popular support in the local community from where the terrorists come from.

This is an uncomfortable fact. Many of us would like to believe that suicide terrorist groups, whether it's among the Palestinians or bin Laden, have just tiny fractions of support. In fact, most recently as we do this interview, there were elections on the West Bank where Hamas seemed to mystify our State Department by winning. Well, it really doesn't come as much of a surprise that Hamas could have this broad support once you realize that in general, suicide terrorist groups have very broad support from their local societies, and it's crucial because suicide terrorists are walk-in volunteers who overwhelmingly have little experience with the terrorist organization, which means they have to meet up with recruiters. The recruiters must be somewhat visible in that local community, or else these walk-ins couldn't find them. That means that the local population must know where most of them are, and if they wanted to, they could turn them in. So without the support of the local population, it would be quite easy to get information on the recruiters and the organization of most suicide terrorist groups. It's crucial for bin Laden then, as a leader of this organization, to build a broad argument that explains not just to two or three people why they should do this attack, but to the societies at large that are at issue, so he has their general support.

So, to sum up, religion is not primary but it's not unimportant because it enables the terrorist organization, or the nationalist organization, to win support, to legitimate the action, to create an enemy that appears to want to destroy the integrity of the group that is behind the terrorism, and then it also legitimates martyrdom.


So, religion somehow is a glue that brings a lot of things together, but it's not the primary cause.

That's right. When we look over time at all the cases where democracies have put combat forces on other territories since 1980, about fifty-eight, what we find is there's a certain key commonality about the small sub-set that have produced suicide terrorism, and it's a religious difference.

A prior rebellion is also important, because it's often the case, as I said before, that suicide terrorists evolve to suicide terrorism rather than start that way. Those key conditions are what you see when you look at that broad set of occupations, and absent those three conditions we rarely see suicide terrorism.

Next page: U.S. Policy and Suicide Terrorism

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