What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?

A new report provides essential info for filtering fact from fantasy. The President would be wise to study its conclusions closely

By Stan Crock

Two decades ago, comedian/actress Lily Tomlin starred in a brilliant one-woman show called The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In one skit, she portrayed Trudy, a crazy but incisive bag lady who gripes that her "space chums" couldn't distinguish between a can of Campbell's soup and a picture of Andy Warhol's painting of a can of Campbell's soup. When she shuffled the items behind her back, her alien friends became hopelessly confused about which was real.

That came to mind when I compared President Bush's June 28 speech on Iraq with a presentation two days later by Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. Pape is the author of a new book, Dying to Win, which provides the first data-based analysis of suicide bombers, and he reaches conclusions that are stunningly different from the President's. But no one could be confused about what's real and what isn't.

Consider, for example, this passage, from Bush's speech: "Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home." The President also declared, "Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression -- by toppling governments, by driving us out of the region, and by exporting terror."


 The implications: There's a connection between September 11 and the war in Iraq, radical Islamic fundamentalists are behind all of the suicide bombings in Iraq, and they're spurring insurgencies throughout the Islamic Crescent. Yet government studies of intelligence failures and Pape's analysis indicate there's no evidence that any of this is true.

About the only point Pape agrees with is that the bombers want to drive the U.S. out of the region. But he argues that American policies to combat the terrorists are wrong-headed. "The presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading and may be encouraging domestic and foreign policies likely to worsen America's situation and to harm many Muslims needlessly," he writes. Here's a summary of his analysis, which is based on the 315 suicide terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003:

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist Hindu group opposed to religion, committed the largest number of suicide attacks, 76. The Kurdish PKK, which used the tactic 14 times, is headed by a secular Marxist-Leninist, Abdulah Ocalan. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another Marxist-Leninist group, and the al-Aqsa Brigade, which has ties to the socialist Fatah movement, account for a third of the attacks against Israel. Communist and socialist groups account for 75% of the attacks in Lebanon. Islamic fundamentalists, he concludes, were associated with about only half of the attacks from 1980 to 2003. And such fundamentalist Islamic countries as Iran and Sudan aren't producing any suicide bombers.


  Pape argues that the common denominator among the bombers in 95% of the cases is that they're nationalist insurgents with a secular, strategic goal: ousting the military forces of democratic countries from land the insurgents believe is theirs. The suicide terrorists, who account for about 5% of all terrorist incidents but about 75% of all fatalities, believe their land and way of life are threatened. The religions of the occupier and the insurgents invariably are different, Pape notes, but he contends that difference is merely a useful recruiting tool and isn't at the root of the animosity.

Al Qaeda fits this pattern. Osama bin Laden's opposition to the House of Saud stemmed from its decision to allow U.S. troops on Saudi soil. Bin Laden's goal is not simply to kick the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia, a country that's a Western construct, but rather from the Arabian Peninsula, which arguably stretches as far north as Iraq and includes Kuwait, Bahrain, and other countries in the region where the U.S. has troops.

Almost every suicide attack is aimed at a democracy, from the Tamil Tigers targeting Sri Lanka to Kashmir strikes against India. That's because the insurgents view democracies as vulnerable to this pressure, as President Bush noted. Indeed, the watershed event that sparked copycat attacks was the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, which prompted President Reagan to bring U.S. troops home. Indeed, governments have made concessions in 7 of 13 completed campaigns (5 are ongoing). Not bad odds. And growing American disenchantment with the military operation in Iraq proves the point yet again. By Stan Crock


  The mere presence of foreign troops is the instigation for the attacks, so lengthy stays to secure democracy actually make attacks more probable and help boost recruitment. Substituting Iraqi security forces for U.S. troops is the only thing that will likely make a difference. Pape notes that arrests of al Qaeda and other insurgent leaders are rising, but the metric that counts is the number of attacks, and they're rising, too. That suggests al Qaeda is growing stronger, not weaker.

Equally troubling is that even as the total number of terrorist attacks globally is declining, the number of suicide attacks is rising. The first five months of this year saw as many suicide attacks as all of last year.

Yet there are some encouraging signs. Pape points to the sharp decline in attacks in Israel when it left southern Lebanon, as it prepares to leave Gaza, and as it builds a protective fence. The insurgents need public support to survive, and if the goal of getting the enemy out is achieved, support for such tactics evaporates.


  Interestingly, Pape doesn't believe Uncle Sam should high-tail it out of Baghdad right away. He thinks the U.S. needs to turn the security responsibility over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible but says doing it immediately isn't feasible.

And Pape isn't an isolationist. He suggests that long-term, America should revert to the strategy of the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. relied on local regimes but had forces ready to jump when needed -- but not constantly on the ground, poisoning the atmosphere with their presence on land.

I find Pape's argument wholly convincing. He's the first to collect these data, so it's no surprise that Washington was operating on the blithe assumption that the suicide terrorists were all poor, young Islamic radicals. In fact, 42% have post-secondary educations, and they're part of concerted campaigns with coherent goals.


  The Kurds, for example, didn't use suicide tactics against Iraq but did use them against Turkey. Fanatics would have attacked both, but rational strategists recognized that the chance of success was better in a democracy than in an autocratic state. What's more, Fatah, a socialist group, used the tactic before Hamas, a more religious-oriented organization, was even created, Pape says.

The goals and tactics of these groups are anathema to a democratic people, but we can't combat them if we don't understand them. Pape has briefed key lawmakers, and the executive branch is funding his continued work because it doesn't have the information he has. Let's hope that in the future, the Bush team can tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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