The Magazine

Suicide by Bomb

Misunderstanding a weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By MAX BOOT
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This is rather damaging to Pape’s thesis. So is the fact that the suicide bombers in Iraq were not defeated by his preferred strategy of offshore balancing. If taken seriously in the Iraqi context, that would have required a withdrawal of U.S. troops in the face of vicious attacks. One might even argue that, prior to 2007, Generals George Casey and John Abizaid were pursuing a “Papist” approach by trying to move U.S. troops out of population centers. The result, as we know, was more carnage, not less. The suicide bombing threat in Iraq, along with the threat from other types of terrorist tactics (which Pape and Feldman utterly and mysteriously ignore) was reduced more than 90 percent by the application of time-tested counterinsurgency principles. The solution involved not a reduction of U.S. forces (as Pape would advocate) but, rather, an increase in their numbers and a change in their tactics to move into the middle of population centers, thus presumably heightening Iraqis’ sense of being “occupied” which, in the Pape worldview, is the root of all evil.

Israel is another case that resists the pigeonholes into which Pape tries to stuff it. In the first place, Pape and Feldman cite the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade as evidence that suicide bombing is a secular, not an Islamic, phenomenon; but while the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade was set up by Fatah, a secular nationalist organization, it was explicitly religious in orientation. It was named, after all, in honor of the Al Aksa mosque. This was Yasser Arafat’s attempt to co-opt the religious extremism that was being harnessed by Fatah’s rivals in Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade’s adoption of suicide bombing was very much influenced by their example.

A second error that Pape and Feldman commit is to claim that the Second (or Al Aksa) Intifada was ended by “Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank.” Actually it was more nearly the opposite. Israel was able to defeat the suicide bombers because, in April 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the security cabinet made the decision to send the Israel Defense Forces into areas of the West Bank that had been ceded to Palestinian control under the Oslo Accords. 

As part of Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli troops fought difficult battles in Jenin and other cities. They even besieged Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound. These operations were remarkably successful in uprooting terrorist cells that were sending suicide bombers into Israel proper. But those cells would have regenerated themselves if Israeli troops had simply pulled back—as has happened with Hamas and Hezbollah after Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza and southern Lebanon, respectively. Instead of retreating, however, Israeli soldiers and intelligence operatives have remained in the West Bank, and although their presence is less intrusive than it used to be, they still conduct raids every night to arrest suspects. They also actively share intelligence with Palestinian security forces—intelligence they would be hard-put to gather if they did not have a ground presence. The erection of the separation barrier between Israel proper and most of the West Bank also helped by impeding the movement of terrorists. But such a purely defensive response would have proved inadequate were it not for Israel’s continued willingness to stay on the offensive against the terrorists.

Having succeeded in quelling the threat from suicide bombers, the Israeli government then decided to pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Ariel Sharon would never have retreated under fire; so, contrary to Pape and Feldman’s claims, the Gaza disengagement was the result—not the cause—of Israel’s defeat of the suicide bombers of the Second Intifada.

What about Israel’s pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000? Wasn’t this proof of Pape’s thesis that only the end of military occupation can stop suicide bombing? Nope. Suicide bombing had ended long before Israel’s pullout. Hezbollah all but abandoned this tactic after the 1980s, carrying out only three suicide attacks after 1990. By the late 1990s it was strong enough to revert to traditional guerrilla warfare, including the use of IEDs similar to those that would later take a toll on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

When the Israelis once again invaded Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah did not respond with suicide attacks but with rockets aimed at Israel proper and with skillful guerrilla ambushes aimed at Israeli troops. If suicide bombing is the natural result of military occupation, as Pape seems to imagine, why did Hezbollah give up this tactic which it had practically invented? Surely it was not for lack of suicidal volunteers. Rather, it was because Hezbollah recognized that suicide bombing is not the super-weapon Pape imagines it to be. It is one tool in the terrorist’s arsenal, and not a particularly effective one at that—especially after its initial shock value has worn off.

If the experience of Iraq and Israel punctures holes in Pape’s leaky thesis, the case of Pakistan sinks it altogether. Since the decline of violence in Iraq, Pakistan has emerged as the biggest terrorist killing field in the world—more deadly, even, than Afghanistan. Pape’s own database shows 196 suicide attacks in Pakistan from 2006 to 2010 resulting in 2,622 deaths. But this is only a small part of the tragic tale of a country under sustained assault from vicious jihadist groups. According to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, over 12,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan between 2006 and 2010. More are dying all the time.

How could this possibly be the case if, as Pape has it, foreign military occupation is needed to spur suicide bombers into action? I am not aware of any foreign army occupying Pakistan. Far from it; much of that country’s frontier region is unoccupied, even by Pakistan’s own army. But Pape is not daunted by a logical obstacle that would send lesser scholars scurrying back to the drawing board. Rather than concede that Pakistan is an exception to his all-encompassing thesis, he gamely tries to shoehorn it in by claiming that, in 2006, when suicide bombings began on a large scale, “the alliance between Pakistan and the United States evolved into—what is better termed—an indirect occupation.” Got it? Pakistan is occupied by the United States indirectly—so indirectly, in fact, that the occupation is not perceptible to anyone other than Robert Pape and James Feldman.

To justify this astonishing claim, they define “indirect occupation” as any instance where one country “dictates .  .  . strategic priorities” to another country. Since, they claim, “U.S. pressure has shifted Pakistan’s strategic priorities” to turn against the militants, then Pakistan must be under U.S. occupation. To which one can only reply: It would be nice if the United States actually had shifted Pakistan’s strategic priorities. But the fact that Pakistan continues to support terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Taliban which are killing American soldiers—not to mention the probability that elements of the Pakistan establishment winked at Osama bin Laden’s presence in a military garrison town—suggests otherwise.

Pape and Feldman’s problems with defining “military occupation” extend beyond Pakistan. To account for the fact that so many leading terrorists come from countries that haven’t been occupied by the United States (al Qaeda’s longtime number-two, Ayman al Zawahiri, for example, is a native of Egypt), they are compelled to claim that any U.S. military presence is tantamount to “occupation.” Thus they offer a list of the following “Sunni countries with U.S. combat operations”: not only Afghanistan and Iraq but also Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, and Jordan.

This only makes sense if you adopt the late Osama bin Laden’s definition of “occupation” to mean any infidel military presence in Muslim lands. Yet even this expansive definition hardly fits countries such as Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Morocco, which have given rise to numerous suicide bombers in spite of the total absence of American troops on their soil. Libya and Syria are not even American allies but, rather, our enemies: How could our “military occupation” be responsible for the creation of their terrorist groups?

Pape and Feldman respond that suicide bombers are being driven around the bend by “the implementation of U.S. foreign policies aimed at controlling Muslim countries.” Again, this is to adopt Osama bin Laden’s perspective as reality. Is the United States actually trying to “control” Muslim countries? Isn’t it more accurate to say that we are helping to defend Muslim nations at their own invitation? By focusing so heavily on America’s supposed “occupations,” Pape and Feldman take a very narrow and selective view of terrorist motivations. They thereby ignore the dismal conditions in most of the Middle East, including the lack of political, social, and economic opportunity, which has a lot to do with the making of terrorists.

 Most terrorist groups are primarily concerned with toppling homegrown regimes. Isn’t it possible, even likely, that fighting American “military occupation” is only an excuse or a means to an end—as shown by the fact that al Qaeda did not end its attacks on us after we pulled all of our troops out of Saudi Arabia? Alan Krueger, a distinguished economics professor at Princeton (and liberal Democrat), also studied What Makes a Terrorist—the title of a nifty little book he published in 2007. He concluded that the single most important risk factor was not poverty or occupation or anything else but rather “the suppression of civil liberties and political rights. .  .  . When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.” This explanation is not all-encompassing because some terrorists have arisen in countries such as Britain and France where civil liberties are not suppressed. But on the whole, Krueger’s explanation is a lot more convincing than Pape’s.

I do not mean to suggest that Pape’s work is entirely worthless. The online database of suicide bombings he and his team have assembled seems useful, if limited, insofar as it does not account for the vast majority of terrorist attacks which do not involve suicide bombers. The problem is that the analytic spin he puts on the data is unconvincing and misleading. Even worse, his policy prescription—a shift to a strategy of “offshore balancing”—is just plain dangerous. If the United States were to remove our forces from the Middle East, as he advocates, the result might very well be a short-run decrease in suicide bombings aimed at American personnel. But it would mean an increase in tyranny and violence because it would cede the political playing field to extremists, both Sunni and Shia, from al Qaeda to Iran’s Quds Force. In fact it was the very crumbling of the previous policy of “offshore balancing,” brought about by events such as the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, that compelled greater American engagement in the Middle East.

Pape and Feldman are welcome to make the case for their preferred policies, but they should have the honesty to admit that there is nothing remotely objective about their views. Having read their polemical tome, one might even suspect that their policy prescriptions are the result of—gasp—a “specific worldview” and an “ideological orientation” rather than of a “dispassionate consideration of the facts.”

Max Boot, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.