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Son of Robert Pape's Suicide Bombing Crusade Returns


Robert Pape did a great service in 2003 when he pointed out that not all suicide bombers are Muslims. He spoiled it by outrunning his data with a number of questionable assumptions, putting him fairly close to the position of justifying suicide bombing. Now he's back with even more questionable assumptions.

Pape had compiled a database of suicide bombing incidents and reached some interesting conclusions in 2003:

The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter. In fact, 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 (they have committed 75 of the 188 incidents).

Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel liberal democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.
Three general patterns in the data support my conclusions. First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of organized campaigns, not as isolated or random incidents. Of the 188 separate attacks in the period I studied, 179 could have their roots traced to large, coherent political or military campaigns.

So far so good in 2003. But Pape went on to explain:

Second, liberal democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists. The United States,
France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide
attack of the past two decades, and each country has been a democracy at the time of the incidents.

Third, suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective. From Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign have been terrorist groups trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democratic power to withdraw from the territories they claim. Even Al Qaeda fits this pattern: although Saudi Arabia is not under American military occupation per se, the initial major objective of Osama bin Laden was the expulsion of American troops from the Persian Gulf.

Pape's claims were somewhat dubious in 2003. American troops were not occupying anyone's land in the Persian Gulf, they were there at the invitation of friendly governments. It is not easy to make a case that the policies of Russia, Turkey and Israel toward their minorities and occupied peoples are consistent with liberal democracy.

It is easy for anyone to leverage on the American fiasco in Iraq and gain acceptance for a thesis, since there are so many fulcrums that provide leverage. Nothing succeeds like success. Nothing fails like failure. Not surprisingly, Pape wanted to get in on the action too. Accordingly Pape produced a sequel to his 2003 effort.

Things have changed a bit since 2003. In two short years, there are no longer 188 suicide attack incidents, but 315 in Pape's database. Perhaps suicide bombers have flourished, since so many, including the New York Times, are willing to give them a sort of back-handed legitimation. The Tamil Tigers are recorded as having committed 76 of these attacks, about the same as in 2003. Their "market share" has shrunk. They have signed a peace treaty with the Sri Lankan government, though they are threatening to resume violence, because the government has not abided by the treaty. Pape however, writes essentially the same things he wrote in 2003:

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 Aqsa Martyr Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.

Pape still believes that "occupation is at fault, and he writes:

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.

Spreading democracy across the Persian Gulf will certainly be impossible if the US abandons Iraq to a bloody civil war. There are several terror groups working in Iraq, with different aims. The largest suicide bombings in terms of numbers of victims, have been those directed at Shi'a worshippers in mosques. The violence is at other Iraqi civilians. It is not about the occupation. It will get worse, not better, if the US withdraws immediately from Iraq. Of course, for Americans this might not make any difference. However, anyone who wants to offer a serious alternative to the current US policy in Iraq (we hope there is one) has to take account of genuine humanitarian concerns and concerns for the integrity of Iraq, the safety of its citizens and of its neighbors.

Likewise, beyond the truism that not all suicide bombers are Muslims, most of Pape's contentions fall apart when we consider both the historical evidence and his data.

Suicide bombing is not a universal tactic used against democracies or others by oppressed peoples. The peoples of Nazi occupied Europe, subject to the most outrageously barbaric occupation in history, did not use suicide bombing. The people of India subject to occupation by the British democracy used non-violence. It was effective because democracies are vulnerable to non-violent protest. The IRA used bombings against the British, but not suicide bombings. The Tibetans have not used suicide bombings against the Chinese. The Germans did not use suicide bombings to free themselves of Allied occupation. The Japanese air-force used suicide bombings against military targets, but they certainly weren't fighting to free anyone from occupation, and they were not powerless.

Democracies do not seem to be very vulnerable to suicide bombing as claimed by Pape. The 9-11 attack in the United States mobilized public opinion against the terror groups and provoked a vigorous reaction, perhaps an over-reaction.The United States has not left the Persian Gulf, though it lowered its profile in Saudi Arabia. Killing of Iraqis by other Iraqis will not motivate the United States to leave Iraq, to allow the Iraqis a freer hand at killing each other. Russia did not leave Chechnya after the revolting attack in Ossetia. Israel is not leaving Gaza because of suicide bombings, but because of the expense and futility of defending the settlements against any sort of attacks, and of defending the presence of settlers in Gaza in international public opinion. The Israeli security forces achieved a remarkable rate of success in foiling these bombings inside Israel so that they constituted less and less of a problem, despite numerous attempts each month. On the contrary, suicide attacks robbed the Palestinians and the Chechnyans of a great deal of public sympathy. The bombings helped harden the hearts of the public to any legitimate grievances the occupied people's might have, and served to justify repression in the name of "suppressing terrorism." The Hamas and their associates helped Ariel Sharon win huge majorities in 2001 and 2003.

Pape's emphasis on suicide bombings diverts us from considering reprehensible to kill civilians with non-suicide bombs or by other means, and that concentrating on a particular tactic, rather than on the targets and results, may not be very meaningful. A car bombing can be carried out by a suicide attacker, a time bomb or a remote detonation. In some cases there is no way to tell that the bombing was a suicide attack except that remains of the attacker are found in the vehicle. Thus, the distinction is somewhat arbitrary.

Pape classifies certain groups as "secular," and then draws the conclusion that there is little relation between Islamist fundamentalism or Islam and suicide bombing. It is true that not all suicide bombings are done by Muslim fundamentalists. It is correct that secular groups like PKK (Kurdish Worker's Party) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have used suicide attacks. However, they have not committed many such bombings, and the PKK has tended to target government institutions, military and police, rather than civilians. Pape lists the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as a secular group. Surely though, the Shahids of the mosque of Al-Aqsa cannot be entirely secular. It would be difficult to convince anyone that a group called "Temple Mount Holy Martyrs Brigade" is secular.

The first suicide bombing in Israel occurred at Mehola on April 16, 1993. It was perpetrated by Hamas against civilians. The occupation had been in effect since 1967 (or since 1948 according to Hamas) but they only started suicide bombing in 1993. The bombing was not caused by the occupation, but rather by the impending peace talks and the prospective legitimation of Hamas's rivals, the PLO/Fatah. Hamas and other Islamist groups wanted to show that they could not be ignored. The massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 provoked a wave of suicide attacks, but so did the "threat" of a PLO-Israel agreement, especially in the spring of 1996. Secular groups like Fatah El-Aqsa Brigades and PFLP did not participate in suicide bombing until relatively late in the second "Intifada," when it had become evident that the bombings were winning respect and adherents for the Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At the peak of the Intifada, polls showed that over 80% of the Palestinians supported the bombings. The Fatah had to "go with the flow." And why not? Since Pape and others were legitimizing suicide bombings as "resistance to occupation," it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

There are at least two factors to consider that challenge the supposed championship of the Tamil Tigers. The first is interception and deterrence. The IDF has intercepted or prevented hundreds of terror attacks, many of them would-be suicide bombers. These wannabe suicides, like the 14 year old Palestinian caught recently, never get into the database. The success of the IDF has, in addition, prompted the Hamas and other groups to change to other tactics such as rockets. The second factor is competition. The Tamil Tigers are the only group committing such attacks in Sri Lanka. If there is a bombing, they did it. There are several Palestinian groups operating against Israel, and several groups in Iraq fighting either the government, the Americans or each others. There are dozens of attacks by "unknown groups" in Iraq. The situation in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers is not strictly comparable to either the situation in Iraq nor that in Israel, nor is the philosophy the same. The fatal attacks of the Tamil Tigers were usually against police and government targets, with spectacular and horrible exceptions. The fatal attacks of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad are focused on killing of civilians.

We cannot examine Pape's database directly, however there are sufficient data accessible elsewhere on the Web that allow a less tendentious analysis. The Terrorism Knowledge Base at http://www.tkb.org has a very extensive compilation of incidents, though suicide bombings are not classified separately. At the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Web site and other sources there are compilations of incidents. The MFA page lists 144 incidents since signing the Oslo accords. One more occurred at Mehola before the accords were signed. Since the MFA page does not attribute many of the bombings, several additional sources were used to find which groups apparently carried out each act, especially Jewish Virtual Library - Terror Attacks and various press reports.

From the MFA and other sources, we find the following regarding suicide bombing incidents:
Organization      Incidents
Hamas    62
Islamic Jihad    25
Fatah El Aqsa    16
PFLP             5
Unknown          16
Total 124

There are several attacks that were either joint efforts of two or more organizations or were claimed by more than one group. In each case, the attack was attributed to only one group above. Therefore the numbers are somewhat arbitrary. Likewise, there are several cases where there was more than one suicide attacker in coordinated attacks. These are counted as a single incident for each one. Moreover there are at least 16 cases in which it was not possible to find any information about the attackers, but given the type of bomb and the location, as well as the preponderance of Hamas suicide bombings, it is probable that the attacks were carried out by Hamas. In addition to the attacks tabulated above, there were a number of incidents that can be characterized as "suicide missions," because the attackers were certain to be killed. We must ask ourselves if these are really different from suicide bombings. Didn't Baruch Goldstein know that he would never get out of the Tomb of the Patriarchs (mosque of Ibrahim) alive when he began shooting the Muslim worshippers? When Palestinian groups sent people to start shooting and throwing grenades in a bus station, did anyone imagine they were coming home? There are also, as noted, many car bombings that many or may not have been suicide bombings, set off with the driver inside the vehicle.

The Israeli occupation is continuing, but the suicide bombings have now stopped. They did not stop because of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. They continued even after the plan was announced, with the purpose, announced by the Hamas, of proving that it was their attacks that had gotten Israel to leave Gaza. Clearly, the motivation for the attacks is internal political competition. The attacks stopped because Mahmud Abbas has coopted the Islamic Jihad and the Hamas into the PNA. The attackers seem to have obtained their objective, which was political power. If the violence is renewed, it remains to be seen whether or not Hamas and other groups will resume suicide bombings.

Suicide bombings became popular because they drew attention to a group and gave them a mystique, and because people like Pape legitimized them or justified them, making it difficult to mobilize public opinion against terrorism. The same people can tell us that violence by governments provokes a cycle of violence, also tell us that violence by suicide bombers and other terrorists is justified in some way, and that it necessarily makes democracies put up the white flag.

The "suicide mystique" is beginning to wear off though. Suicide bombing and other terror will not bring freedom for anyone. It will only bring retaliation and more oppression. Acts of murder incite murderous reprisals. Even if the murderous groups win, they may practice the same savagery on the people they "liberated."

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 4 comments

I think the taxonomy which only distinguishes between "suicidal" and "not suicidal" is incorrect. The main characteristic should be "against civilians" or "against military targets" and inside this two completely different classes there are the subclasses of suicidal or not. I also want to state that from a military point of view, when due to the nature of the target, the exfiltration of the atacker is improbable, suicidal attacks are reasonable such was the case of Japanese pilots. After the battle of Marian Islands, it was clear that a japanese plane that aproaches an american boat (with their decks materially covered with AAA and with swarms of friendly planes above) will never go out. To take this fact as data and plan over it was the reason for Kamikaze. Different militay traditions face this with different aproaches. For some traditions "live for fighting the next day" is more important and for others like Prussian or Japanese "do everything possible" is attached to soldiers duty. Many especulations about this difference have been made by military historians. I think is very linked with tradition and with the existence of a militay class with privileges that must give back live in case of need. The soldiers of militia are less prone to suicidal except if with it they save their own families. However is a very complex issue because as you say, mystic is involved and sometimes civilians (like Baruk Goldstein or palestinian teenagers) are more sensitive to mystic than experienced soldiers, thus reversing my argument.

Posted by Aleph @ 05/24/2005 04:06 PM CST

Several studies have shown that democracies are disproportionately likely to win wars. Suppose, therefore that you are a totalitarian strategist seeking to defeat a democracy. You would strive to strike at the "weaknesses" -- a society that welcomes strangers (lets you in), is reluctant to fire on civilians (gives you hostages), has a free press (gives your cause free press), abhors war and loves debate (democratic citizens will actually campaign for your cause!). The suicide bomber is exquisitely designed for this, so I agree with Pape that democracies are indeed the targets, and by design. All this means is that if we allow this kind of terror to suceed in giving the Islamists what they want, other totalitarian ideologues, including the Oklahoma home-grown type, will soon employ it as well. Fortuanately, the weaknesses are truly strengths.

Posted by Lamed @ 05/30/2005 09:37 AM CST

Hi Lamed (no email so I can't write to you),
You wrote:
"Several studies have shown that democracies are disproportionately likely to win wars"

History always gives a very small sample from which it is hard to generalize. There were no democracies at all before about 1800. The first or second democracy was France. Remember Waterloo? The Taleban were not democratic. Ho Chi Minh was no big democrat either. A country where there is only one party is not democratic.

Those countries that industrialized first were those countries that became democracies first. What history shows is that the side that can produce the most steel very often wins the war, all other things being equal. If not for the USSR as well as the US, Hitler might have won WW II. USSR was not a democracy.

What history also shows, is that after the war is won, the side that won says they are the democracies and they beat the bad guys. England before WW I wasn't much different from Germany before WW I in terms of democratic rights. USA still had segregation and lynchigs, which continued until after WW II. When did women get the right to vote?

Aleph - Baruch Goldstein was an Israeli reserve soldier. He was the same guy whether he was serving in the army or not serving in the army at the moment. From the point of view of his mentality, it is moot to discuss if he was soldier or civilian. He was, we should note, a member of a nut organization, and did not simply act according to a deranged impulse of an individual.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 06/01/2005 11:01 AM CST

May I suggest that wars are won by nations or factions that have the will and resources (physical and emotional) to seize territory and hold it to the exclusion of their enemy. Further it is education either through nationalist or religious "brainwashing" or understanding the rationale for war that motivates people to fight effectively. However, battle effectiveness is also determined by sodeletedation - thus soldiers from a feudal society are less likely to perform well against soldiers from a modern democracy. The reason for this is that in feudal societies society is centred on the family, and therefore cooperation between non-family members is rare. The hierarchies in feudal societies tend to oppress the subservient members. These societies are not meritocratic and thus the wealthy or powerful become the officers regardless of competence. Thus there is an absence of social cohesion in the form that modern societies understand it. The impact on a 3rd world army is that it simply lacks the cohesion that armies of modern states have, and do not automatically coordinate their activities. Although 3rd world soldiers are often very brave, their efforts are simply wasted and their officer cadre has little regard for them.
However, suicide bombers are evidence of despair. The faction that produces them is absolutely aware that it cannot win the war but it needs to do a number of things. 1. Be seen to be taking action, hitting back to keep up morale. 2. To raise its profile in the media and the world community. 3. To raise and maintain its profile amongst its own people and the fantasy that the war continues with some purpose.
Yes the victims of these bombers suffer, but in practical terms they have achieved nothing other than destroying the willingness of Israelis to find a mutally acceptable peace. Never forget that once the war is over, the fighters are just a bunch of thugs who have nothing to contribute to society. They need the war.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 06/01/2005 10:20 PM CST

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