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

Page 4 of 4

U.S. Policy and Suicide Terrorism

So, if one looks at the foot soldiers and suicide terrorists of Al Qaeda, we don't find religion. What do we find in their origins that confirm or disconfirm your theory?

Al Qaeda is a prime example of the strategic logic of suicide terrorism. My book is the first to collect the complete set of every al Qaeda suicide attacker from 1995 to early 2004 -- that is, the seventy-one individuals who actually killed themselves to carry out attacks for Osama. Of those seventy-one, we have the names and nationalities of sixty-seven. Over two-thirds come directly from Sunni Muslim countries where the United States has stationed combat forces since 1990. One-third do not; one-third are more transnational in nature, but even among the one-third that are transnational, we see that the motive of causing the United States and the West in general to leave the Arabian Peninsula is a powerful factor. The London bombers are a good case in this regard, because obviously they were from Britain.

Let me make four points about the London bombers. First, the al Qaeda group that claimed responsibility for the London attacks just two hours after they occurred and with specific operational details not yet in the press, said the London attacks were to punish Britain for British military operations in Iraq. Second, Hussein Osmar (he's the would-be July 21 bomber that we have in Rome), said in his interrogation, and I'm quoting: "This was not about religion, this was about Iraq. We watched films of Western military operations in Iraq." Third, Mohammed Khan -- Mohammed Khan is the ringleader of the July 7 attacks, the guy from Leeds. Well, al Qaeda released his martyr video in September. In that video Khan says with an eerily English accent, that one of the attacks was to punish Britain for British military operations on Muslim lands.

And finally, the British government itself. In 2004, the British home office conducted a four-volume survey of the attitudes of the 1.6 million Muslims in Britain. They found that between 8 percent and 13 percent of British Muslims wanted more suicide attacks against the United States and the West, and they further found the number one reason for that: Iraq. Iraq.

So, I'm not trying to say al Qaeda has no transnational support, but it's crucial to see that if Osama were no longer able to recruit suicide terrorists based on the anger generated by American and Western forces on the Arabian Peninsula, the remaining transnational network would pose a far smaller threat and may well simply collapse.

Now your theory and the proof of your theory, which you've given us -- and I should show your book again. It's called Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, and I recommend it both for the argument and the clarity of the presentation. I must say it's a book where all the social science data is presented in such a clear way that one wants to read it and not skip the pages. I read a lot of books, so I was very conscious of that. But in the end, what you're saying has profound implications for our policy, and you say at some point, first we must defeat the current pool of terrorists while working on the conditions that create future terrorists, and these two goals can work against each other. Talk about that.

It's terribly important to directly attack the terrorist organizations, because obviously we want to impede their ability to attack us in the short term, but as we do that it's also possible that we can overreact, it's also possible that we can do many things that we're not even paying close attention to, to actually deepen the anger that, at bottom, is what's causing the walk-in volunteers in the first place. If we're not careful about that, then we can end up easily making the problem worse.

I'm afraid that since 9/11 we have made the problem worse. Since 9/11, al Qaeda has carried out over seventeen suicide and other terrorist attacks, killing nearly 700 people. That's more attacks and more victims than all the years before 9/11 combined. Yes, it's true they have not hit the American homeland, but we now know why. We have a key al Qaeda strategy document.

In September 2003, al Qaeda published a forty-two-page document on radical websites for how to deal with the United States after we went into Iraq. It was later found by Norwegian intelligence, by the way, and is still sitting on the Norwegian intelligence website. That document says that al Qaeda should not seek to attack the American homeland in the short term but instead should focus on hitting America's allies, allies who sent combat forces with us to Iraq or Afghanistan. And then that document went on to assess at the length of forty-two pages whether they should hit Spain, Britain or Poland. They concluded -- this is in the fall of '03 -- that they should hit Spain, in Madrid, just before the March 2004 elections, because that would put the most pressure on the Spanish to get out of Iraq and indirectly put pressure on the British to start getting out of Iraq. We actually got that document before the March 2004 Madrid bombing. The Norwegians gave it to us and we chose to put it aside. But that document is crucial because it makes clear what al Qaeda has been doing, and in fact, of the seventeen attacks that I mentioned, all seventeen, when you look at the victims of the attack (not the countries where the attacks occurred but the victims of the attack), they are overwhelmingly European civilians from countries that have combat forces side-by-side with us in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unfortunately the threat is growing, and a key reason why the threat is growing is because we're waging the war on terrorism on a faulty premise, the premise that suicide terrorism is mainly a product of Islamic fundamentalism. If that premise were true, then it would make perfect sense to conquer Muslim countries so we could transform them and wring the Islamic fundamentalism out of them. But if that premise is wrong, then in fact, by conquering countries, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, we can increase the number of suicide terrorists coming at us.

Since 9/11, we've gone from having 12,000 combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula, 5000 in Saudi Arabia and 7000 in Iraq, to over 140,000 combat forces in Iraq and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. As we've done that, suicide terrorism, both by Al Qaeda and coming right from Iraq itself, has gone up side by side. So, of course it's important that we target or capture or kill al Qaeda leaders, of course it's important that we go after suicide terrorists who are planning operations to kill us, but we must also pay close attention to the cause, the root causes, of suicide terrorism, or we may continue to simply make the problem worse.

What would be your strategy? You are a person whose work shows an understanding of strategic logic -- what works, what doesn't work. We are addicted to oil, President Bush has told us recently, so we have interests in the Persian Gulf. How do we realize our strategic goals there, and interests, while at the same time taking account of what you've taught us?

We can't simply cut and run because the fact is, we do have a core vital interest in access to Persian Gulf oil. However, the last six months, I've been offering three other points to the Bush administration. I've been on Capitol Hill four times, I've spoken to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and that comes to three basic points. First, al Qaeda must be our top priority. Yes, Iran and North Korea are important but it's al Qaeda that's actively planning to kill Americans, and we've lost sight of that over the last three years.

Second, in Iraq over the next year it's important that we begin to draw down combat forces even if the insurgency does not subside, and over that year, we should also completely transfer responsibility for the security of Iraq to the Iraqi government. It should be the government of Iraq that builds the Iraqi army, not the American government.

Third, over the longer term, say over the next three years, by the end of Bush's presidency, we should shift to a new military strategy for securing our access to Persian Gulf oil: offshore balancing. Offshore balancing is the strategy we pursued before 1990 and it worked splendidly. Before 1990, the United States didn't station a single combat soldier on the Arabian Peninsula but managed to successfully secure our interests in oil nonetheless. How? Well, instead of stationing combat forces on the Peninsula, we maintained an alliance with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which we can do again, and even opponents of the war in Iraq should admit that that's a good thing that's come out of this war. Second, we station numerous aircraft carriers off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and today air power is much more effective than it was thirty years ago. And finally, we maintain an infrastructure of bases -- bases without troops, but bases so that we could rapidly deploy hundreds of thousands of ground troops to the region in a crisis. Well, that strategy of offshore balancing worked splendidly against Saddam Hussein to reverse his aggression against Kuwait in 1990, and offshore balancing is, again, our best military strategy to secure our interests in oil, to prevent the rise of a new generation of suicide terrorists coming at us. It's a strategy that we can maintain not just for a year or two, not just hang on by our fingernails like we're doing now, but maintain for decades, which is what we're going to need, because it will take decades to produce true alternative sources of energy so that we can diminish the importance of the Persian Gulf.

You've shown us in this interview how a social scientist focused on foreign policy can take a problem, grapple with it and think about it, and you've done an outstanding job in this book. The question becomes how do you then move this insight into the political process? I know you've been speaking a lot, you mentioned you've appeared before the Congress, the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Give us a little insight in how the system comes to discover the error of its ways in light of a piece of scholarship. What are the obstacles, what are the successes in moving the system?

The main obstacle for an independent piece of scholarship is that it's independent of any patron in Washington. So, I have no deep patron, I have no one in Dick Cheney's office who's supporting this, although it might be useful to tell you that some portions of the Defense Department have funded research in this book, so it's not fully independent of Washington. But the fact is there are no patrons that are giving me access to give talks. Instead what's happened is the findings of the research are so striking that many people in the media have picked up on those, and many people in Washington, either political leaders themselves, administration officials themselves, or their staffs, are actually deeply interested. They recognize there are areas of suicide terrorism they don't know about, and so when they see these stories in the media about the book, they might actually go out and get a copy of the book or invite me to give a talk.

I've been on Capitol Hill four times over the last four months, I've spoken to probably 40 of our 535 representatives and senators, about half from each party -- or half were Democrats, half were Republicans. The fact is, that's extremely unusual. I've been doing research since probably 1985 in national security affairs. In the whole twenty years before, I had never been on Capitol Hill to give a talk. I've briefed individual Congressmen one on one but never a group, and these briefings go on for an hour and twenty minutes, they often allow me to give a presentation, and then we typically sit there and much like that University of Chicago group, I get grilled!

It's terribly important for those important people, men and women, to be able to look someone in the eye, ask them direct questions after they've actually seen the data. One of the other things that's very important to know is that there're no cameras in the room here. These are over breakfasts and over lunches. What I've found is very helpful in this regard is that without the cameras in the room, I have never heard in all this conversation anybody begin, or insert in the middle, or even at the end of a comment, an attack on the Bush administration or a defense of the Bush administration. It's all been about, as one prominent member put it, "We want to know who's trying to kill us and why." This data provides some new insights there, and it's the case that quite a few people in Washington have a lot more interest in the facts than we sometimes see on television.

If you could speak to a general audience, I'm curious -- well, I have a two-part question. What is the most important finding of your book, and what should people do about that? They're not making policy. book coverHow does one affect the consciousness of a broader audience, and what can people do about it to make the learning experience meaningful?

I've spoken to a number of public audiences over the last six months as well, and I would say that the main message is that when we look at the facts, the actual data, this is a lot like lung cancer. It wasn't until we did those studies in the 1950s and '60s that we saw that there are, yes, multiple causes of lung cancer but one cause stood head and shoulders above the others, which is smoking. Well, now we have a similar type of study where we can see that yes, there are multiple causes of suicide terrorism but one cause is standing head and shoulders above the others, and it's the presence of foreign combat forces on the territory that the terrorists prize.

What's terribly important then is to tell other people about this point, because many people still don't know about the new information and as that word spreads, it has a very important effect in Washington. I'm optimistic. Yes, I'm critical of the Bush administration; I've said a lot of things critical about them in the book, but the fact is, one of the things that's very striking is that the Bush administration is now planning, for the first time, to remove two combat battalions from Iraq and not replace them. If that process goes on, then in fact, this will be, for the first time this year, an actual draw-down of American combat forces in Iraq. Bush doesn't have to have the rhetoric of, "Oh gosh, I was wrong, I'm going to change." He can say whatever he wants. The issue is what does he does underneath it, and that's what's important not only for us but also the suicide terrorists, because that's the same thing that they're going to be tracking. That that means that yes, our enemies have been dying to kill us for the last decade, but with the right strategy it's America that's poised to win.

Well, Robert, again, let me show our audience your book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, and I want to thank you very much for writing the book and thank you for taking the time to be with us today. Thank you.

Well, thank you so much for having me, Harry, and also reading the book so carefully. Thank you so much.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page