Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Defusing A Bomb

Robert Pape has an interesting column in today's New York Times entitled, Blowing Up An Assumption, which summarizes some of the findings from his extensive scholarship on the subject of suicide bombers. As the title would implicate, his discoveries buck certain trends in conventional wisdom:

Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 - 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.

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. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.
I willingly confess to ignorance regarding the frequency of suicide bombings by the Tamil Tigers, and for this bit of edification I am thankful. However, I am a little concerned that the inclusiveness of Pape's sampling might dilute the force of some of the conclusions he derives from this data - especially because the Tamils are completely secular and non-religious and as such might be skewing the overall numbers in a misleading direction. In that respect, I prefer the methodology of Marc Sageman - the former Foreign Service Officer, forensic psychiatrist and author of Understanding Terror Networks who created psychiatric/biographical profiles of a very narrow group of terrorists.

Sageman turned his attention to what he terms Salafist jihadists like Al Qaeda - terrorist groups that espouse the twin goals of: First, creating a unified Muslim caliphate (or nation) which would encompass both current and formerly held Muslim lands stretching from the Philippines to Spain; and Second, ensuring that strict Sharia law, as in effect circa the time of the prophet Mohammed, would govern this pan-Muslim "utopia" (for the closest modern example, think the Taliban). Sageman deliberately ignored the broad range of localized terrorist groups and various regional struggles because of the fact that, in his opinion, too wide a sample could render any data or noted trend less useful and, further, that the most pressing threat to US interests comes from the very group he focused on. To paraphrase his methodology, it is less crucial that we understand the rationale and methods of the Tamil Tigers than Al Qaeda and their fellow travelers. More on Sageman below, but first, let's look at how Pape extrapolates from his data:
What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

Before Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there was no Hezbollah suicide terrorist campaign against Israel; indeed, Hezbollah came into existence only after this event. Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into the Tamil homelands of the island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the huge increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980's, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism.

And, true to form, there had never been a documented suicide attack in Iraq until after the American invasion in 2003. [emphasis added]
So far, so good - sort of. Pape is right to note that, historically, suicide attacks have been most prevalent in the context of national struggles, with the aim of expelling a foreign presence (or perceived foreign presence), but there are certainly other motivations involved and there seems to be too powerful a causation vs. correlation claim here. More importantly, perhaps, he seems to ignore the possibility that this tactic might have been given life in such contexts, but has been adopted by others not necessarily involved in such a dynamic. It is true that religion, absent some struggle (or perceived struggle), doesn't cause suicide bombing, but he underestimates the role that the jihadist version of Salafism can play in the process (in terms of manufacturing a conflict or otherwise), and overstates the extent to which Al Qaeda could be characterized as a group struggling for national sovereignty. As such, his thesis begins to fray when he moves to Iraq, and to Al Qaeda in general.

At the moment, our best information indicates that the attackers in Iraq are Sunni Iraqis and foreign fighters, principally from Saudi Arabia. If so, this would mean that the two main sources of suicide terrorists in Iraq are from the Arab countries deemed most vulnerable to transformation by the presence of American combat troops. This is fully consistent with what we now know about the strategic logic of suicide terrorism.
This is a bit of a stretch - at least in terms of the non-Iraqis. According to the Pape theory, the Saudis and other non-Iraqis are either pre-emptively defending their own nations from potential subsequent occupation or identifying with their fellow Iraqis as one homogeneous people. Or is it that mere regional proximity is enough of a factor in this case, and if so why here and not in Palestine or other locales? Even this trans-national modification would begin to alter Pape's secular, nationalist, "homeland" theory to the point of vacuousness. But the linkage gets even more tenuous.

Some have wondered if the rise of suicide terrorism in Iraq is really such a bad thing for American security. Is it not better to have these killers far away in Iraq rather than here in the United States? Alas, history shows otherwise. The presence of tens of thousands of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990 enabled Al Qaeda to recruit suicide terrorists, who in turn attacked Americans in the region (the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the destroyer Cole in 2000). The presence of nearly 150,000 American combat troops in Iraq since 2003 can only give suicide terrorism a boost, and the longer this suicide terrorist campaign continues the greater the risk of new attacks in the United States.

Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism. Spreading democracy across the Persian Gulf is not likely to be a panacea so long as foreign combat troops remain on the Arabian Peninsula.[emphasis added]
Now he's gone too far, and this is where I will rely more on the work of Sageman (as an aside, for a great summary of Sageman's book, check out this site via this post on LAT which itself has a good discussion in the comments section). I don't think spreading democracy across the region would be a panacea, but neither would removing US troops from the Arabian Peninsula - or even a combination of both. Sageman, like Gilles Kepel in The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, traces the evolution of Al Qaeda - a basic understanding of which is helpful in seeing why Pape is oversimplifying matters, and squeezing the facts to fit his theory.

Two interesting phenomena detailed by these authors are worth noting: First, Al Qaeda's roots are really in the Egyptian, not Saudi or Afghan, struggle between Salafists and the secular Egyptian regimes of Nasser and Mubarak. As such, the primary raison d'etre of these conflicts centers around the belief that these secular regimes are apostate in character and "against Islam" and as such must be overthrown and replaced with a regimes governed by Sharia law (such process to be replicated across the region until there is the contiguous quasi-mythical Salafist caliphate as referenced above). Nowhere is the presence of foreign troops a linchpin.

Second, many of these Egyptian activists (like Al Qaeda's ideological leader Ayman Al Zawahiri), were fleeing repression at home when they joined the Afghan jihad against the U.S.S.R. linking up with other Arabs and Muslims like the Saudi Osama Bin Laden - which then led to a cross-pollination of the Salafist ideology, world view, and goals with others in related movements. Two events led to the self selection of Al Qaeda within this context. Initially, when the Afghan campaign ended, many jihadists went home leaving behind only the most die-hard and those incapable of returning home (often one and the same). Then, this core group migrated to Sudan but was expelled from that safe-haven in the mid-1990s (returning to then Taliban led Afghanistan) which again caused a winnowing of the ranks until only the most committed and, increasingly, the most anti-American were left behind to form "the base" or vanguard of the Salafist jihadist movement.

At this point, there was a shift in strategy. Zawahiri counseled in favor of targeting the "far enemy" (read: the United States) as a means to expedite the toppling of local apostate regimes (the "near enemy") since those corrupt regimes were being propped up by the U.S. and thus appeared immune to the local efforts to usurp them (in addition, the targeting of fellow Muslims was not as popular as needed for their grand designs, and a series of setbacks in achieving the realization of Salafist regimes in Chechnya, Bosnia, and even Sudan caused a recalibration of objectives). Osama bought into this shift in focus, and began issuing calls for action against the U.S. interests everywhere.

With this in mind, Pape takes a very complex set of strategies, intentions, and policies and boils it down to:

The presence of tens of thousands of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990 enabled Al Qaeda to recruit suicide terrorists, who in turn attacked Americans in the region.
Not quite. Al Qaeda's core leadership was in place and active in various arenas before there even were U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and the goals of the leadership supersede ejecting American troops by leaps and bounds. Further, as Sageman notes in his groundbreaking psych-profiles of the Salafist terrorists, including the 9/11 crews, the issue of U.S. troop presence was not of tantamount importance in any significant way. More prevalent was a sense of alienation from society (often caused by the physical disconnect from family and culture felt by Muslims living in non-Muslim countries) and a reaching out for community at local mosques spurred on by the same. As such, a common biographical occurrence was a recent personal reaffirmation of religiosity in the form of dedication to Salafism (given impetus by attendance at the area mosque which was, in turn, caused by feelings of isolation and lack of community).

The decision to employ suicide bombing as a tactic by Al Qaeda represented the culmination of strategic and ideological goals that existed quite separate from the presence of American troops on Muslim lands, and this fact was not what made this route feasible to the leadership, nor was it the primary selling point to the foot-soldiers and actual suicide bombers. There were religious/ideological/logistical concerns that were all more important, causally and otherwise, to the Al Qaeda led suicide attacks.

Therefore, suicide bombing in certain settings might be tied to the presence of foreign troops and thus might be alleviated by the withdrawal of these troops, but there are strains of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that will not recede into oblivion just because U.S. troops are completely removed from the theater. I'm not saying that their presence is not a powerful rallying cry and propagandistic tool for Bin Laden and his ilk, but Pape is dead wrong if he thinks Al Qaeda's overall mission will in any way be undermined or satisfied by the absence of U.S. troops, or that Al Qaeda's ability to recruit suicide bombers and carry out suicide attacks is in any way causally linked to the presence of U.S. troops on Muslim lands. Unfortunately, the Salafist jihadists have broader goals, and more wide ranging appeal, and suicide attacks have evolved into what many perceive as a legitimate tactic to be employed in asymmetrical conflict in a broader array of circumstances than those described by Pape.

(Note: As a result of the lightening pace of the blogosphere, while I was composing this piece,
Dan Drezner, Praktike, and Stygius all weighed in on the topic in one form or another - with Stygius doing some heavy lifting)

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