Tuesday, September 16, 2003

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The logic of suicide terrorism

The tired refrain against academic political science is that the discipline is so consumed with abstract theoretical debates that it fails to study "real world" problems. [I thought the standard refrain was that too many political scientists lean to the left--ed. That's a different refrain -- click here if that's what you care about.] Therefore, it's important to highlight those research programs that contradict this meme.

Which brings me to my colleague, Robert Pape. The American Political Science Review just published Pape's essay, "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" as the lead article in its August 2003 issue.

I'd describe the topic as pretty important, and Pape has some interesting and provocative things to say about it. Here's the abstract:

Suicide terrorism is rising around the world, but the most common explanations do not help us understand why. Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology, while existing psychological explanations have been contradicted by the widening range of socio-economic backgrounds of suicide terrorists. To advance our understanding of this growing phenomenon, this study collects the universe of suicide terrorist attacks worldwide from 1980 to 2001, 188 in all. In contrast to the existing explanations, this study shows that suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant territorial concessions. Moreover, over the past two decades, suicide terrorism has been rising largely because terrorists have learned that it pays. Suicide terrorists sought to compel American and French military forces to abandon Lebanon in 1983, Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in 1985, Israeli forces to quit the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995, the Sri Lankan government to create an independent Tamil state from 1990 on, and the Turkish government to grant autonomy to the Kurds in the late 1990s. In all but the case of Turkey, the terrorist political cause made more gains after the resort to suicide operations than it had before. Thus, Western democracies should pursue policies that teach terrorists that the lesson of the 1980s and 1990s no longer holds, policies which in practice may have more to do with improving homeland security than with offensive military action.

To download a .pdf version of the paper, click here.

It's worth noting that Pape's findings do not lead to clear-cut policy solutions. For example, Adam Wolfson, while bestowing heaps of praise on Pape's essay in NRO, concludes:

The main reason suicide terrorism is growing is that terrorists have learned that it works. Even more troubling, the encouraging lessons that terrorists have learned from the experience of the 1980s and 1990s are not, for the most part, products of wild-eyed interpretations or wishful thinking. They are, rather, quite reasonable assessments of the outcomes of suicide -terrorist campaigns during this period.

So how should democracies respond to this new scourge? Pape argues in favor of beefing up homeland security. Good advice. But much more than that can and should be done.

We need to see suicide terrorism for what it is; we need to demystify it. Suicide terrorists are not some other breed of men, unsusceptible to the usual tools of statecraft. As Thomas Hobbes once said of human cruelty: "That any man should take pleasure in other men's great harm, without other end of his own, I do not conceive it possible." The terrorists have their ends. Deny these — make sure that suicide terrorism does not pay — and it will surely lose much of its luster.

This is one logical conclusion to draw. However, Pape comes to a very different conclusion, as the final two paragraphs of his paper suggest:

[I]f Al Qaeda proves able to continue suicide attacks against the American homeland, the United States should emphasize improving its domestic security. In the short term, the United States should adopt stronger border controls to make it more difficult for suicide attackers to enter the United States. In the long term, the United States should work toward energy independence and, thus, reduce the need for American troops in the Persian Gulf countries where their presence has helped recruit suicide terrorists to attack America. These measures will not provide a perfect solution, but they may make it far more difficult for Al Qaeda to continue attacks in the United States, especially spectacular attacks that require elaborate coordination.

Perhaps most important, the close association between foreign military occupations and the growth of suicide terrorist movements in the occupied regions should give pause to those who favor solutions that involve conquering countries in order to transform their political systems. Conquering countries may disrupt terrorist operations in the short term, but it is important to recognize that occupation of more countries may well increase the number of terrorists coming at us.

Whether Pape is correct in the conclusions he draws from his evidence is an open question. Pape's seminal contribution to this critical discussion, however, is not.

posted by Dan on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM


There certainly are solutions to use of suicide bombers as a form of strategic attack, but those don't involve defense. Here's an old Strategy Page column of mine, published in April or May 2002. It has since scrolled off the page.

Note this paragraph in particular:

"... What brought the United States government to that decision was the prospective casualties of a prolonged ground conquest of Japan against suicidal resistance, after Japanese Kamikaze attacks and suicidal ground resistance elsewhere had thoroughly dehumanized them to us ..."

Other writers use euphemisms about this. Here are some examples:

Lee Harris at:



By Lee Harris 03/11/2003

"... This gives a sense of Greek tragedy, with its dialectic of hubris and nemesis, to what has been unfolding in the Islamic world. If they continue to use terror against the West, their very success will destroy them. If they succeed in terrorizing the West, they will discover that they have in fact only ended by brutalizing it. And if subjected to enough stress, the liberal system will be set aside and the Hobbesian world will return - and with its return, the Islamic world will be crushed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
... This thirst for the indulgence of bloody fantasies at our expense must be brought to an end by whatever means it takes."

Jonah Goldberg at:

"September 11, 2003, 1:30 p.m.
On “Blowing It”
Arab-world issues.

... We are trying through example, persuasion, and all-too necessary toughness to show the Arab world that there is a better way than grinding poverty, violence, and corruption. I, like most Americans, truly want it to work. But if it doesn't, if the cup-of-coffee-and-the-sandwich approach doesn't work, America will still do what is necessary to protect itself. And that won't be the preferable option for anybody. Trust me. ..."

I didn't use euphemisms.

"JUNE 18, 1945 - When A Democracy Chose Genocide

The United States government decided on June 18, 1945, to commit genocide on Japan with poison gas if its government did not surrender after the nuclear attacks approved in the same June 18 meeting. This was discovered by military historians Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen while researching a book on the end of the war in the Pacific. Their discovery came too late for inclusion in the book, so they published it instead in the Autumn 1997 issue of Military History Quarterly.

Polmar & Allen ran across references to this meeting in their research and put in a Freedom of Information Act request for related documents. Eventually they received, too late for use in their book, a copy of a document labeled "A Study of the Possible Use of Toxic Gas in Operation Olympic." The word "retaliatory" was PENCILED in between the words "possible" and "use".

Apparently there were only five of these documents circulated during World War Two. The document was requested by the Chemical Corps for historical study in 1947. In an attempt to "redact" history, another document was issued to change all the copies to emphasize retaliatory use rather than the reality of the US planning to use it offensively in support of the invasion of Japan.

The plan called for US heavy bombers to drop 56,583 tons of poison gas on Japanese cities in the 15 days before the invasion of Kyushu, then another 23,935 tons every 30 days thereafter. Tactical air support would drop more on troop concentrations.

The targets of the strategic bombing campaign were Japanese civilians in cities. Chemical Corps casualty estimates for this attack plan were five million dead with another five million injured. This was our backup to nuking Japan into surrender. If the A-bombs didn't work, we were going to gas the Japanese people from the air like bugs, and keep doing so until Japanese resistance ended or all the Japanese were dead.

Genocide is defined by treaty as the murder of a large number of people of an identifiable group, generally a nationality or religion, which number comprises an appreciable percentage of the total group. Five million dead is 6.4% of then 78 million people in the Japanese Home Islands, so this proposed gas attack would certainly have qualified as genocide.

What brought the United States government to that decision was the prospective casualties of a prolonged ground conquest of Japan against suicidal resistance, after Japanese Kamikaze attacks and suicidal ground resistance elsewhere had thoroughly dehumanized them to us.

The American people certainly would have supported such tactics at the time, especially as Japanese Imperial General Headquarters issued orders a month later, provided to us courtesy of code-breaking (MAGIC), to murder all Allied prisoners of war, all interned Allied civilians, and all other Allied civilians Japanese forces could catch in occupied China, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Malaya, etc., starting with the impending British invasion of Malaya in late September 1945. The Imperial Japanese Army was every bit as evil as the Nazi SS, and more lethal. They'd probably have killed at least an additional 50 million people, more than had died in all of World War Two to that point, before Allied armies could eliminate Japanese forces overseas.

The horror would not have stopped there. An estimated ONE THIRD of the Japanese people (25-30 million) would have died of starvation, disease, poison gas and conventional weapons during a prolonged ground conquest of Japan. The Japanese Army planned on locking up the Emperor, seizing power and fighting to the bitter end once the US invasion started. Thank God for the atom bomb - killing 150,000 - 200,000 Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved 75-80 million lives. One of whom would have been the writer's father, an infantry lieutenant who survived Okinawa.

So the United States has within living memory made a decision to commit genocide on a whole people as a matter of state policy. We didn't have to do it because the Japanese Emperor knew we'd do it.

The relative power of America's armed forces vis a vis the rest of the world has grown to the point where genocide is unlikely to be necessary to impose our will on any possible combination of enemies lacking the ability to seriously menace the American homeland. The American people might support genocide as policy if further attacked at home, but the American government will act based on its perception of American interests, and keep that demon in the bottle, absent overwhelming public demand. Nuclear weapons use is another matter - the American government has used nuclear weapons to avert greater evils and recently indicated some willingness to do so again, albeit with non-genocidal force.

Our enemies considering further attacks on us should keep these history lessons in mind.

So should our erstwhile "friends".

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

Going only on the summary of Pape's article presented in the post, Pape repeats two very common errors not closely related to his main topic, but worth noting.

First, the assertion that "energy independence" (translation: oil independence) will lead to all sorts of desirable outcomes, in this case, fewer American troops in the Persian Gulf, leading to fewer suicide terrorists targeting US interests. Owing to oil's role as the lifeblood of the global economy, the integration of our economy with our trading partners, and the prohibitive costs of changing either condition, oil independence is not a practical option for reducing US involvement in the Persian Gulf. Even an implausibly large reduction in our imported oil dependence would not change our vital interest in protecting unhindered Persian Gulf oil exports. This situation is only cemented further by the virtual military impotence of other equally-dependent industrial nations.

Second, Pape misidentifies (for Iraq at least) the objective of "foreign military occupation." It is not to "disrupt terrorist operations in the short term," nor to "transform their political systems." In the case of Iraq, the clear primary objective was to eliminate a potential future force multiplier for terrorist groups -- that is, to pre-emptively destroy a regime that had the clear technical capacity and behavior pattern to become a supplier of unconventional weaponry (WMD) to non-state actors.

Disrupting near-term terrorist operations probably played no role at all; transforming the political system will, if accomplished, be of value chiefly in preventing reconstitution of the distinctively dangerous and reckless hazard posed by Ba'athist Iraq -- that is, it will prevent our primary objective being compromised.

One critical consideration in all this never seems to be included. Al-Qaida was a direct outgrowth, not of frustration or opposition to some limited practical grievance, but of islamist triumphalism. The movement was born of victory (in Afghanistan), not defeat.

Yes, the degeneracy of the Saudi regime (by islamist lights) and the US military presence in the kingdom were decorations from the start, and others have been added along the way, but any vision al-Qaida offered was in a sense a positive, triumphalist one: restoration of the caliphate, under sharia. Islamofascist machismo was born in the Afghan war, reinforced by Mogadishu '93 and probably by the feeble responses to Khobar Towers, the east African embassy bombings, and the USS Cole attack, and reached its apex on 9/11.

The relevance here is that causes perceived to be winners attract recruits, losers don't. There's nothing magical or even comparable about occupations in terms of their affect on terrorist recruiting. To the contrary. Al-Qaida was born in glorious perceived victory (not defeat) and thrived in a decade of no US occupations, constant US intervention on behalf of Muslims, and general US complaisance on the international front. There's no perfect way to proceed, but Osama's right about one thing: people will follow the strong horse. A relatively small number of fanatics have joined the doomed struggle against us in Iraq, but there's little doubt who will loom as the strong horse over the medium term.

Better border security is an obvious thing to do. But offense is more important than defense here, not just in pre-empting the capacity of terrorist enemies or their would-be rogue state quartermasters, but in undermining the basis of their attraction to any recruits.

posted by: IceCold on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]


I would go farther concerning Pape's statement concerning to "energy independence". IMO any favorable reference to the concept is automatic proof that the writer is not a serious thinker. It is a dead give-away to a "stop the world, I want to get off" attitude. Such writers, especially in the political science field, thereby demonstrate such a paradigm-magnitude failure to subject their opinions to their own critical analysis that their opinions can be disregarded.

I disagree that our only interests in that area's oil production are that it be unhindered. Rather it is a vital American national security interest that world terrorism be deprived of income from oil exports there.

This has vast implications for our relationship with the Saud regime, whose major oil-producing areas have Shiite Arab majority populations. The latter is significant because one of the major components of our occupation strategy in Iraq is to cement an alliance with its Shiite Arab majority. Success at that would result in the continued existence of the Saud regime no longer being in America's interest. The Saud clan know this and are acting on it.

You do not seem to fully accept Pape's valid, albeit understated, point that suicide bombing is a form of strategic attack. Suicide bombing campaigns require privileged sanctuaries and outside financial support from governments. I suggest you read Laurie Mylroie's _Bush v. the Beltway_ for a description of the dispute as to whether foreign terrorist attacks on us are due to "rootless" non-state actors or to state-supported actors, though IMO it's really a question of degree.

Elimination of such sanctuaries and government-tolerated (if not government-provided) financial support requires elimination of the regimes involved, or at least that they be so terrified that their behavior is thoroughly modified. Given that most regimes supporting terorrism do so for survival-level domestic political reasons, their elimination is the more effective course.

Such would not, however, resolve the disputes underlying a faction's resort to suicide bombing. It would only moderate the bombing to a probably significant degree. Getting a suicide bombing campaign going requires inculcating the necessary mindset in a statistically significant element of the population involved such that a new campaign would likely emerge if the oppression necessary for effective suppression eases in less than a generation.

Pape recognizes this but he, like most academics, has issues with too much realism. The time-honored solution to this (ask the Assassins and Anabaptists) is bloody massacre. Most writers who are willing to acknowledge this do so with euphemisms.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

I must reluctantly disagree with your judgment that Pape's contribution is somehow "seminal." Or even instructive.

His decidedly defensive, pacifist prescriptions for winning the war against terror are hardly novel--unless at this stage of the global debate merely discussing terrorism rationally, without succumbing to Chomskyesque conspiracy theories or the acidic rhetoric of blank check justification, is now itself to be judged remarkable.

Pape suggests, for instance, that "the terrorist political cause made more gains after the resort to suicide operations than it had before."

Judging the strategic success of a particular expression of resistance with little regard to wider contexts just isn't credible.

Certainly _terrorists_ are convinced that such operations are catalysts for change wherever they employ them, but whether that conviction tracks any facts on the ground is a question that cannot be answered without reference to the myriad other political, personal, social, and military variables involved in any conflict.

Ignoring the many domestic and political forces swirling around the combatants in Lebanon, Turkey, Sri Lanka, etc., naturally causes Pape's "terror variable" to appear singularly decisive.

Employing such reductionist analysis, an argument for the _self-defeating_ nature of terror operations can just as easily be advanced. To use just one example, excluding expansionist tendencies among some Israeli factions, one might similarly argue that the Palestinians would have secured their own state by now if terror operations had _not_ been initiated.

My own suspicion, based on little other than armchair observation, is that terrorism is generally counterproductive--useful only in special cases where the political or territorial interests of its adversaries are shallow ones, and therefore easily damped by the spectacle of unacceptable casualties. I also suspect that the supposed gains of "suicide operations" are too often confused with gains made by other, less crude, forces acting simultaneously--forces that Pape doesn't seem much interested in.

And as for Pape's hunker-down-and-hope-for-the-best-possible-world war-fighting advice:

"In the short term, the United States should adopt stronger border controls."

I would like to remind Pape of the inconvenient existential fact that "border control" in the United States is a physical near-impossibility and an absolute political impossibility. Anyone doubting so needs only turn his skeptical gaze toward the physical and political landscape of the U.S.'s southern border. Stratagems depending primarily upon homeland defense (even in a geographically manageable territory, such as Israel) as a bulwark against terror are demonstrably doomed to failure.

Pape continues in this benign and benighted vein, preferring that the "...the United States should work toward energy independence.."

The prognostications of ecofantasists notwithstanding, the technological and infrastructure revolutions required for such energy independence are (optimistically) fifty to a hundred years distant. As a long-term stratagem against near-term terror, such advice is similarly deluded.

The only question remaining is why someone as reliably astute as Dan Drezner might be tempted to find any of the above either remarkable or contributory.

posted by: Dan Goss on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]


Actually I agree with everything you said. I pulled my punches on "energy independence" just because I didn't want to be harsh or dismissive. But in fact, the whole idea is fundamentally unserious, as you suggest, and merely raising it does call the whole enterprise into question. What's worse -- you'll hear ritual references to this "idea" from the whole spectrum of public figures, from the President to the silliest academic or pundit.

In fact I do not differ a bit on the issue of terrorism's dependence on states, at least for a sustained or high-impact level of operations. Even though my post was too long, I simplified in a failed attempt to keep it short.

I'll end this furious agreement by noting that I agree with Dan's comments also.

posted by: IceCold on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

IceCold & Dan Goss,

Pape's article is IMO seminal, but not for the reasons given by Mr. Drezner. I feel it is seminal as one of the first attempts by a political science academic to analyze suicide bombing as a form of strategic attack, and also as a clear example of why academics should not go there. The subject involves too much realism for people who have to exist in an academic environment - it raises obvious issues which they cannot safely address for collegial and career advancement reasons.

Suicide attack and defense as consistent patterns are self-defeating because those eventually so enrage the victims that they resort to genocide. There are historic examples and I listed several, with ours being stated in full as the URL for it is no longer available.

The past twenty year pattern of suicide bombing terrorism has lasted this long only because of the victims' restraint. IMO every victim has had the capability of inflicting genocide on the perpetrator's faction, including the Sinhalese majority of Sri Lanka vs. the Tamil rebels.

Generally this restraint has been imposed externally by the so-called international community, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Israel where domestic moral factors are dominant. Another significant exception concerns Chechnya where the conflict has been used by Russian leaders as a means of securing/maintaining domestic political power to the point where some attacks on Russian civilians seem to have been perpetrated by Russian security forces acting to exacerbate the conflict. I.e., the Russian leadership's interests lie in perpetuating the conflict, not terminating it on favorable terms for the Russian nation, let alone its people. Genocide of the Chechnyans seems to be underway in a piecemeal and possibly unintended fashion - at most a happy by-product.

Lee Harris' article cited above summarizes how this restraining international system came into being, and is fraying now.

A related issue here is that a suicide bombing tends to require mass support among the perpetrator's ethnic group/faction such that it cannot be easily turned off whether winning or losing. Other commentators have noted that it basically creates a zero-sum situation inhibiting termination of hostilities on terms less than mass slaughter of the loser. The Japanese were very, very, lucky.

Academics are not yet ready for a dispassionate discussion of suicide bombing as the subject necessarily entails historic solutions to suicidal attack/defense patterns, i.e., mass slaughter if not genocide. It would be wonderful if academics never get there.

But they will. "War is the ultimate moral solvent" - George F. Will.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

"Academics are not yet ready for a dispassionate discussion of suicide bombing as the subject necessarily entails historic solutions to suicidal attack/defense patterns, i.e., mass slaughter if not genocide. It would be wonderful if academics never get there.

But they will. "War is the ultimate moral solvent" - George F. Will."

This is sadly very true.

As Tom Holsinger points out, it takes a certain level of, well, call it "societal engineering" to create a supply of suicide bombers.

Too dispassionately analyze it also requires that academia be similarly "reengineered" so that the careers of anyone doing it are not destroyed with a politically correct black list.

The ex-FBI WTC security chief's professional career is a shining example of what happens when someone is right on the big issue too soon. He was right. He was professionally black balled by the FBI and other national security agencies. His peparations as security chief in the WTC saved lives, but he still died and the WTC was still destroyed.

I also have some experiance with this as well. After the 1998 African embassy bombings I became absolutely certain that were were going to get a high body count WMD Islamist terrorist attack on US soil. I stated this in a number of e-lists I was on.

After 9/11 when I pointed his out to one of my strongest critics. What I got was a tie raid that said I had put forth so many "crazy scenarios" that I could only be a monster and it didn't matter that I was in the ball park because I did not guess the exact means and method in advance.

In short, I was the messenger that got shot. And this was only an e-mail list.

Academia will do far worse to any Academic that studies this subject before its time, and *most especially* if that academic is right.

posted by: Trent Telenko on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

Well ... the real issue is the ability of terrorists to project force at a distance.

For example, lots of bombings in Northern Ireland, many fewer in England, none in Canada.

Without a state base (or a stable financial base), the ability of the Taliban to project force at a distance (vs. bombing each other in Saudia) is minimal.

Interesting stuff, that. Liked that George Bush stated publicly that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 -- even though he believes that in another five years it would have been involved in the next 9/11.

posted by: Anon Again on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

The basic analysis here is correct:

- Suicide bombing has been on the rise because it has been effective against liberal democracies

- Nevertheless if it continues to grow it will unleash a fearfully destructive response on a scale quite beyond what we have seen so far

This is true quite independently of the cross-currents of day to day politics. If the Democrats in the US get the bit between their teeth on this, for example, they are capable of being just as zealous as the Republicans and in fact rather more so, as during the earlier years in Vietnam.

The Bush response to date has been, contrary to the baying of his critics, measured and moderate compared to what may follow, and the very Democrats howling that he has gone too far may well and quite soon be declaiming that he did not go nearly far enough.

posted by: JK on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

im so confused!! somebody explain to me

posted by: Jennay on 09.16.03 at 05:36 PM [permalink]

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