Is there anything interesting left to be said about suicide terrorism? Robert A. Pape sure thinks there is, and so will you if you’re fooled by the cockeyed statistics in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. “The data show,” Pape explains, “that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.” Occupation, not Islam, is the best predictor of suicidal behavior: Before September 11, 75 out of 186 suicide attacks since 1980 had been committed by Hindus — the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the fundamentalist Islamic countries in which the United States has not stationed troops (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, and Nigeria), have produced one al Qaeda terrorist for every 71 million citizens, while those in which the United States has done so (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states), have produced one for every one million citizens.
It follows that “What nearly all suicide attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland,” particularly when the occupier and occupied are of different religions. Democratic states are especially vulnerable during such nationalist uprisings because terrorists perceive them as easier to coerce. Of 13 separate campaigns against democracies, “seven correlate with significant policy changes” in favor of the terrorists. No wonder the annual rate of suicide terrorism has increased over the past 25 years while the rate of suicide attacks has fallen. It works, convincingly so.
With 14 pages of charts in hand, Pape does not hesitate to offer comprehensive alternatives to a Bush administration approach that he casually describes as “embarking on a policy to conquer Muslim countries.” Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, is also of the school of “offshore balancers” that generally argues imperial overstretch dooms major powers. To avoid provoking weaker powers into coalescing against them, hegemons should not interfere with the internal affairs of countries within their Kissingerian spheres of influence. Effective and secure powers float offshore, on the aircraft carriers and destroyers that supposedly ensure regional peace without rankling local sentiments. If it is true, as Pape argues, that suicide terrorists only come from countries that are occupied by democracies of a religion different from that of the occupied, then the United States, as a democratic, Christian nation, can avoid that danger by simply not occupying any Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist nation. (President Bush can apparently feel safe invading and occupying Europe — at least the Protestant Low Countries — should he so desire.) Democratization, oil stability, Israeli security and nuclear arms control will suffer, sure, but at least the United States will be certifiably free from suicide terrorism.
Before we cancel the next shipment of armored Hummers, let’s double check Pape’s math. Indeed, one doesn’t need more than a glancing familiarity with concepts like sample size and distribution to realize his statistics are not only misleading but also meaningless. First of all, factoring 315 suicide terrorists into a billion people is just foolishness, a sort of statistical homeopathy. And with such a small set —only 15 total campaigns over 30 years — one group can easily flood the average. It is technically true that if the Tamil Tigers are included almost half of all pre-September 11 suicide attacks were committed by non-Muslims. But if they are excluded, it is clear from Pape’s own charts that every single other suicide attack since 1980 was committed by a Muslim. Since September 11 this has included bombings by Kashmiris, Chechens, Palestinians, Afghanis, Saudis, and Iraqis. The Tamils are obvious outliers — and even Pape acknowledges that they didn’t start using suicide bombers until after a number of them returned from training in Lebanon.
Pape plays similar tricks in trying to demonstrate that occupation, not Islam, is the fertile seed of suicide bombing. “The best test,” of whether a country is occupied, he says, “is…if the local government requires the power of foreign ‘stabilizing’ troops or police in order to maintain order.” Accepting his definition, it isn’t at all obvious that al Qaeda, the group we are really concerned about, qualifies. The United States did station thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, but it is hard to argue the Saudis needed American troops to maintain internal order: soldiers were explicitly required not to leave their bases and forbidden from receiving pornography, hardly the footprint of a triumphant colonial army. Pape resolves this incongruity with a little sleight of hand, adding that “the perspective of the resistance” is what matters and that “owing to the United States’ strong economic interests in maintaining the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, the troops might well be used to prop up” Saudi Arabia if necessary.
The definition, however, is too broad to be useful. Policymakers need to be able to make distinctions between risks. If a risk can only be calculated by taking into account a potential enemy’s subjective experience, especially without the predictable institutional guideposts that ease relations between nation-states, then one either has to act as if the threat didn’t exist, or not act at all for fear of provoking another unfortunate subjective experiences. Pape’s definition of occupation describes all cases where non-Christians feel the United States is an occupation force, however others define it, and where the United States has interests that might force it to occupy another country. As this includes the entire Middle East, Asia and Africa, and maybe even Catholic South America, perhaps we really ought to just fold up the entire army and spend the money on public schools and universal health care instead.
Policymakers should not be misled by Pape’s graphs and appendices. The truth is, despite a flood of books and articles since September 11, we still don’t know very much about terrorists, let alone suicide ones. They strike infrequently, especially in comparison to the total number of insurgencies and revolutionary movements worldwide. The historical set is a muddle of poor Palestinians, fundamentalist Saudis, disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis and yes, a good-sized number of Tamils. But the only thing we can be sure of is that there are now, presently, perhaps thousands of Muslim men actively threatening and preparing to commit suicide attacks against American interests. Some may be from countries where the United States is stationing troops. Others may not be. Despite what Pape claims, we will never know exactly where, and we will never know — could never know — exactly why.