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do we understand terrorism? August 13, 2007

Posted by KG in terrorism.

excerpts from an interview with robert pape from the american conservative:

TAC: So if Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily a key variable behind these groups, what is?

RP: The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign—over 95 percent of all the incidents—has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.

TAC: If you were to break down causal factors, how much weight would you put on a cultural rejection of the West and how much weight on the presence of American troops on Muslim territory?

RP: The evidence shows that the presence of American troops is clearly the pivotal factor driving suicide terrorism.

If Islamic fundamentalism were the pivotal factor, then we should see some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world, like Iran, which has 70 million people—three times the population of Iraq and three times the population of Saudi Arabia—with some of the most active groups in suicide terrorism against the United States. However, there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Iran, and we have no evidence that there are any suicide terrorists in Iraq from Iran.

Sudan is a country of 21 million people. Its government is extremely Islamic fundamentalist. The ideology of Sudan was so congenial to Osama bin Laden that he spent three years in Sudan in the 1990s. Yet there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Sudan.

I have the first complete set of data on every al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from 1995 to early 2004, and they are not from some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world. Two thirds are from the countries where the United States has stationed heavy combat troops since 1990.

Another point in this regard is Iraq itself. Before our invasion, Iraq never had a suicide-terrorist attack in its history. Never. Since our invasion, suicide terrorism has been escalating rapidly with 20 attacks in 2003, 48 in 2004, and over 50 in just the first five months of 2005. Every year that the United States has stationed 150,000 combat troops in Iraq, suicide terrorism has doubled.

TAC: Does al-Qaeda have the capacity to launch attacks on the United States, or are they too tied down in Iraq? Or have they made a strategic decision not to attack the United States, and if so, why?

RP: Al-Qaeda appears to have made a deliberate decision not to attack the United States in the short term. We know this not only from the pattern of their attacks but because we have an actual al-Qaeda planning document found by Norwegian intelligence. The document says that al-Qaeda should not try to attack the continent of the United States in the short term but instead should focus its energies on hitting America’s allies in order to try to split the coalition.

What the document then goes on to do is analyze whether they should hit Britain, Poland, or Spain. It concludes that they should hit Spain just before the March 2004 elections because, and I am quoting almost verbatim: Spain could not withstand two, maximum three, blows before withdrawing from the coalition, and then others would fall like dominoes.

That is exactly what happened. Six months after the document was produced, al-Qaeda attacked Spain in Madrid. That caused Spain to withdraw from the coalition. Others have followed. So al-Qaeda certainly has demonstrated the capacity to attack and in fact they have done over 15 suicide-terrorist attacks since 2002, more than all the years before 9/11 combined. Al-Qaeda is not weaker now. Al-Qaeda is stronger.

TAC: Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders also talked about the “Crusaders-Zionist alliance,” and I wonder if that, even if we weren’t in Iraq, would not foster suicide terrorism. Even if the policy had helped bring about a Palestinian state, I don’t think that would appease the more hardcore opponents of Israel.

RP: I not only study the patterns of where suicide terrorism has occurred but also where it hasn’t occurred. Not every foreign occupation has produced suicide terrorism. Why do some and not others? Here is where religion matters, but not quite in the way most people think. In virtually every instance where an occupation has produced a suicide-terrorist campaign, there has been a religious difference between the occupier and the occupied community. That is true not only in places such as Lebanon and in Iraq today but also in Sri Lanka, where it is the Sinhala Buddhists who are having a dispute with the Hindu Tamils.

When there is a religious difference between the occupier and the occupied, that enables terrorist leaders to demonize the occupier in especially vicious ways. Now, that still requires the occupier to be there. Absent the presence of foreign troops, Osama bin Laden could make his arguments but there wouldn’t be much reality behind them. The reason that it is so difficult for us to dispute those arguments is because we really do have tens of thousands of combat soldiers sitting on the Arabian Peninsula.

i think this quote from an interview with michael nagler is relevant to pape’s analysis:

But what about our security?

Violence does not bring security; if history teaches anything, it teaches us that. If we succeed in “eliminating” Osama bin Laden, others will take his place. But if we eliminate the grievances that the Third World, and in particular the people of the Mideast, have against us, why should they hate us? Security comes from well-ordered human relationships; it does not come from bomb-sniffing dogs and high-tech spy satellites.

Every time we have pursued violence to further our interests in other countries—supporting Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban—it has rebounded to harm us—what the CIA calls “blowback.” If we truly want to be secure, we must understand why we’re hated and take steps to correct it.

a couple of things strike me:

1) when presented with evidence or theories that fly in the face of orthodox thought or our comforted and/or conditioned beliefs we either a) dismiss the purveyor of said evidence as a lunatic (see steven levitt) or b) ignore and persist in whatever course of action confirms our misperceptions, or rather – doesn’t contradict our sense or understanding of what we think should be right (e.g. terrorists hate us for our freedom)

2) which is more compelling? they attacked us because they hate our way of life or because they take issue with our foreign policy. if we assume they are fundamentally irrational it’s much easier to conclude that they hate us for our way of life. on the other hand, if we grant them some level of basic humanity, rationality, or intelligence then it’s easier to conclude the latter. we steadfastly refuse to perceive them as human beings however, which clouds our logic. the problem is that when our reactions to terrorist attacks are guided by fear and prejudice, as well as a dualistic view of the world (good vs. evil) we will continue to demonize rather than analyze. hence, we will never tackle the root causes of terrorism.  instead, we will continue to react to the surface level, forcing us to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, adding more retributive power to the cycle of violence.

oh, and to answer my own question that this post’s title posits:


your thoughts?





1. kb - August 13, 2007

I think that the point about eliminating actual grievances is true.

BUT, that said, I think you’re confusing rhetoric for actual reasons, and therefore are repeating what has been said a thousand times before. So the Bush administration keeps repeating that ‘they hate us,’ and we know that is bullshit, but it would be stupid of us to actually think that the US actually went to war in Iraq because “they hate us.” Statements like “they hate us” is just part of the rhetoric of war.

CFR, PNAC and other policy institutions are actually talking about actual reasons for our current world situation. The reasons they cite are structural — in the economy.

At this point, Nagler’s contributions become less meaningful. “We” (read Republican and Democrat politicians) *know* why we’re hated, but we are not going to ‘take steps to correct it’ because most of the time, it’s not in our economic interest.

I don’t know how well I explained that, but hopefully I did.

2. KG - August 13, 2007

point taken about confusing rhetoric for actual reasons
there’s no doubt of the economic/strategic/geopolitical motives of pnac etc

however, in some kind of twisted way… because that’s the rhetoric they use – those are the reasons that the general populace believes are true, which in turn gives the support needed to fund/continue the iraq war…so there still is value i think in pointing out the faults of the hate us for our freedom argument because that is the rhetoric that the war is justified on and where it derives it’s power from

3. kb - August 13, 2007

That’s correct, but to do so without mentioning the structural problems leads to ineffective conclusions and solutions (like Nagler actually thinking that we can end the war if we choose to, conscientiously using a classless ‘we’). If we understand that it is a structural problem, then voting in a Democrat, or writing a letter to your congressman, etc. isn’t going to do shit.

4. KG - August 13, 2007

fair enough
but what is your solution to the structural problem then?

i guess what i’m asking is for you to define the structural problem

what if we hypothetically found alternative energy sources and the middle east no longer served as a primary strategic interest for our energy needs and at the same time we had a form of public financing where our elected officials were less colluded with oil/energy interests?

are those only stopgap measures, what in your estimation is the ultimate structural problem?

5. kb - August 13, 2007

alternative energy sources are good for the environment, but still doesn’t solve the problem of distribution and who owns the resources. So, if we started using corn fuel, then what would happen? we use Iowa as our economic leverage.

And public financing doesn’t stop the formation of a social elite in government and private businesses. William Domhoff’s _Who Rules America?_ is an excellent explanation for this.

6. KG - August 13, 2007

back to original thought…
my point was that through trying to understand their grievances you can begin to understand the motives/root causes on both sides
didn’t mean to validate the rhetoric

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