Sunday, July 24, 2005

What do the (suicide) terrorists want?

I wanted to respond to this op-ed placed in the NYT on Friday from someone presumably sent out by the "war on terror" guardians to damper any interest the media might have in Robert Pape's book Dying to Win. I made some comments over at Steve's No More Mister Nice Blog perch but thought I would expand on those thoughts here.

The op-eder argues that the terrorists aren't attacking us (London, U.S., Spain) because of Iraq, but because they want to destroy western civilization. How does he know this? Why, because the terrorists attacked us on 9-11 before we were in Iraq. So there.

In Dying to Win, Pape argues that, based on empirical data from the terrorist attacks and the sucide terrorist attackers, suicide terrorism is about expelling western, democratic governments from the lands the attackers are from or identify with. Pape also argues that suicide terrorism is an instrument of last and limited resort, after or because other tactics are not working or accessible. The history of suicide terrorism also indicates that when occupying democratic governments withdraw their forces from the foreign land (either as a direct or indirect response to the suicide terrorist attacks), that the suicide terrorism against that government by that group ceases. Such was the case with the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah "pioneered" the use of suicide terrorism in the early 1980's and other diverse (i.e. some Muslim, some non-Muslim) groups adapted the same strategy. In the case of Lebanon, a suicide attack on U.S. Marine barracks in 1983 led Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. troops from that country. With no U.S. military presence remaining in Lebanon after the attack, Hezbollah had no further reasons to attack U.S. representatives there.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda began its attacks on the West during the 1990's, AFTER the U.S. had stationed troops in Saudi Arabia to guard against any military aggression by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Al Qaeda has stated that the presence of military forces in their holy lands is one of, if not the primary basis for Al Qaeda's actions. So yes, Al Qaeda was attacking the west before Iraq, but primarily because of the U.S. military presence in that region.

So, would Al Qaeda withdraw its fatwa against the west and cease support for acts of terrorism directed at the West if the West withdrew its military? While we can't say for sure, the empirical evidence from Pape suggests that it would. Or at the least, that support for suicide terrorism would diminish.

The connection between suicide terrorism and foreign occupation that Pape makes is a critical one, for at least two reasons.

The first is that the NYT op-eder says the occupation-terrorist connection is false because terrorist plotters have been foiled in Spain since the deadly attacks in that country and after Spain has withdrawn its military from Iraq.

I'll leave it to the op-eder to provide more information on the foiled plots in Spain should he desire later, but his reference to them didn't specify whether the attacks were designed to be suicide attacks or not. From the Pape perspective this is a critical distinction. While there may be no way to eliminate all forms of terrorism, the data according to Pape suggest that suicide terrorism, being a last resort, would probably not continue in the absence of a recognized grievance. And with no military occupation, it would be difficult to enlist suicide attack participants and to maintain the community support necessary for such attacks. While its possible that Al Qaeda wannabes might continue to attack with less discretion, suicide terrorism is a strategy of obvious personal catastrophe for the participants. Without a clear purpose, suicide terrorism would be much harder to plan and less appealing for terrorist organizations.

The second point goes to what the suicide terrorists want. The NYT op-eder is vague as to what Al Qaeda's purpose is in its so-called global jihad, if it isn't removal of foreign troops from Islamic land. The closest he comes is this phrase:

They find it (their cause) in the dream of a virtual, universal ummah.

I'm not sure what this means, but again, suicide terrorism is not something one is going to take lightly or for some vague or highly unachievable goal. The "clash of civilization" terrorism theorists undoubtedly see in Al Qaeda's statements and strategies a mission to destroy the western world. But is this feasible? Does it make sense for Al Qaeda (or another terrorist group) to appeal for community support and self-sacrifice to attempt such an overwhelming task? If you consider the support needed in the community, and the continuous stream of recruits suicide terrorism requires, I would suggest that it does not.

But if the goal is smaller, more precise, such as expelling foreign troops from holy or treasured land, than support for and participation in suicide terrorism would be more attainable for the sponsoring organization.

It may be that Al Qaeda's references to U.S. military occupation of Islamic lands is a ruse, propoganda to recruit members for an anti-western jihad and global domination. But Pape's data, and a review of our history in the region would suggest that alternatives in the "war on terror" should be open for consideration.

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