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Insightful study of suicide terrorism, but not wholly convincing
on 28 October 2010
"Dying to Win" is the catchy title of Robert A. Pape's thorough study of suicide terrorism and its background. By compiling and making use of a large number of statistics about suicide attacks as a method of terrorism and/or warfare by non-state actors, Pape has been able to draw some important and significant conclusions about the background and meaning of this phenomenon. Most importantly, he emphasizes that 1) suicide terrorism is not specifically a product of Islam; 2) it is not undertaken, even in majority-muslim countries, mainly by the most intensely religious; 3) it correlates not with religious fundamentalism, but with nationalist movements against foreign occupation and oppression. Based on these facts, and analysis of the biographies of major suicide terrorists and their organizations, Pape suggests that we should see the phenomenon as the final weapon of choice of nationalist organizations. Although often using religious differentiation as a source of nationalist ideology and recruitment, these essentially nationalist groups are very weak against the military power of their opponents and are forced to choose this method to do maximum damage or simply give up. As a result, the average suicide bomber, if there is such a thing, fits not the profile of the crazy loon or the suicidal loner, but rather the profile of the educated working class or professional lower middle class political activist - in other words, the constituency of virtually any broad political movement, in particular left-wing ones.
Pape makes his case well and much of it is highly convincing. It is especially important to disprove the notion that suicide terrorism is an entirely new phenomenon and that it is 100% correlative with fundamentalist Islam. In fact, as Pape shows, in the suicide terrorism campaign against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in the early 1980s, a majority of the actual volunteers were from left-wing organizations and secular backgrounds, even though Lebanon is a (small) majority muslim country. As the author's dissections of the known biographical facts about suicide bombers show, it is not possible beforehand to estimate who will become a suicide bomber, nor is there usually some major trauma or event that causes them to 'switch' to a willingness to give up their life for the cause. This makes any counterinsurgent strategy based on the notion that one can identify and eliminate suicide bombers before they undertake the attack completely pointless, and it greatly limits the use of profiling for security reasons.
Not all of the book is entirely persuasive, however. Although I think Pape is right that suicide bombing is an ultimate weapon of the weak in national liberation struggles (or ones seen as such), it is a bit of a stretch to fit Al Qaeda into a 'nationalist' pattern. Pape notes that the point of Al Qaeda is precisely to unite the different local sunni Islamist struggles in the respective countries of the Middle East and North Africa, but the pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism of Al Qaeda have only very weak support and cannot really count as coherent and popular enough to work on behalf of a sunni Arab 'nation' at this time. What is also interesting in that context is that Pape ignores entirely the small suicide bombing campaign of the Turkish Communist group DHKP-C, which had already started its suicide bombings before the first edition of this work was published (so presumably was known) and which explicitly profiles itself as opposed to Turkish nationalism. I think therefore that a better framework, although very similar, is to see it not as a weapon of nationalism as such but more broadly anti-imperialism. That allows it to include not just direct perceived occupation and oppression by a foreign entity, as in the case of Palestine or the Tamils, but also campaigns where the issue is not a nation-state to be but rather a sense that an existing nation is being controlled by foreign imperial entities (as in the Turkish case) or a multiplicity of nations are made puppets in this way (as for Al Qaeda). This preserves Pape's basic framework, which seems to me correct, but I think increases its explanatory power.
The last chapter contains a series of recommendations for American national security strategy based on Pape's analysis. This is an odd mixture of the wise and the foolish. The author very sensibly underlines the importance of withdrawing as much as possible all American combat troops from the greater Middle East, because they are the number one cause of resentment against America in the nations where suicide bombers disproportionately come from - it is much more rare to see them from nations which do not have American troops on them. At the same time, however, Pape does not at all mention American support for Israel, which surely is about equal a source of irritation in that part of the world; even if it does not immediately produce suicide bombers the way American 'occupation' does, it surely greatly increases the appeal of Islamism and nationalism generally and aimed against America in particular. This is all the more true since the United States otherwise is acceptably popular in the Middle East, because of the relative freedom of its citizens and laws compared to their own. Since Pape is a student of John Mearsheimer, one would expect the 'Israel connection' to not be overlooked. It also strikes me as rather bizarre that Pape stresses the importance of building border walls and stricter immigration controls in the United States itself as a short-term solution against the already existing terrorists-to-be. His own book exactly makes it clear that one cannot predict or profile a suicide attacker with any real meaning, all the more since neither socio-economic background nor religious affiliation of itself can be succesfully used for this purpose. At most one could 'profile' relatively well-educated working class people from the Middle East and other war zones, but there are so many people who potentially fall in this category that only a complete shutdown of tourist visas and the like could have the desired effect, and the cure would be much worse than the disease. In any case it may be the somewhat dubious nature of the last chapter is because the author sees it as his task to formulate a strategy to "defend America's core interests" in it, such as occupying nations in order to safeguard the flow of oil to the United States, whereas I have no interest whatsoever in defending 'America's interests' or those of any other nation (in fact, it is by no means clear that nations actually have interests).
This is an excellent and must-read analysis of the nature and background of suicide terrorism since 1980, but one would do well to take the author's conclusions somewhat skeptically.