Suicide by Bomb, cont.

The Weekly Standard


Ezra Schricker writes this letter to the editor in response to Max Boot’s review “Suicide by Bomb: Misunderstanding a weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal,” which appeared in a recent issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD (Boot’s own rejoinder follows): 

It is rumored that U.S. General George S. Patton kept a picture of his adversary, German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, on his desk during World War II as a reminder to learn as much as he could about his enemy. “Know your enemy” has long been a central tenet of warfare. Yet, in his recent book review of Cutting the Fuse: The Global Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, Max Boot scoffs at the link between suicide terrorism and foreign occupation because it “adopt[s] Osama bin Laden’s perspective as reality.” For Boot, bin Laden’s worldview is not worth taking seriously. “Is the United States actually trying to “control” Muslim countries?” Boot asks, “Isn’t it more accurate to say that we are helping to defend Muslim nations at their own invitation?” No doubt it is a mystery to Boot why General Patton bothered to understand Rommel when he did not share the German’s worldview. Regardless of whether Max Boot agrees, Osama bin Laden’s perspective of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is a ‘reality’ for some individuals, most troublingly, suicide terrorists.As one of the contributors to Cutting the Fuse, I was disappointed that Boot, a polemical yet sharp thinker, was not only unprepared to take the stated motivations of suicide terrorists seriously, but that he appeared to have read only the acknowledgment section and a handful of pages in our book. This resulted in understandable confusion about our arguments. Yet I was heartened to see that Boot’s analysis of suicide terrorism came very close to arriving at one of the book’s principal findings: Suicide terrorism is a deadly weapon which is used strategically by terrorist groups to compel the withdrawal of military forces from territory that terrorists consider to be their homeland.

Cutting the Fuse makes this point in detailed case studies of the eight largest suicide terrorist campaigns. These case studies draw upon a comprehensive database of suicide attacks that span from the 1980s, when the first suicide bombing campaigns began, to the present. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism—lead by Cutting the Fuse co-author, Robert Pape—compiled the database which contains a wide-range of information on suicide attacks including targeting patterns, group affiliation, and the demographic make-up of attackers. The database is available online.

The Chicago Project also translated scores of ‘Martyr’ videos made by the suicide attackers themselves, in which they explain in detail their rationales for carrying out these attacks. The suicide attackers in these testimonials are both men and women, young and old, religious and secular. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the attackers share a common purpose: to end foreign military occupation in a territory they consider their homeland. This same motivation is present in the testimonials of transnational suicide attackers such as Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 7/7/2005 London bombers, who plainly states his rationale in English: “You will never experience peace until our children in Palestine, our mothers and sisters in Kashmir, our brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq feel peace.” Mohammad Sidique Khan, another London bomber, warns: “Until we feel security, you will be our targets, and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment, and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight.”

Foreign military occupation is a powerful motivator for suicide terrorism because it triggers three key conditions on the ground. First, segments of the local population perceive a loss of control over the future of a country’s political and social institutions. In Afghanistan, for example, the United States drafted and ensured passage of the new Afghan constitution in 2004. This document gave near absolute authority to the central government, without any checks and balances to executive power. This top-down power structure was a radical shift from the weak central government and dominant tribal organization that had constituted Afghanistan’s past political systems. Entire Pashtun tribes were stripped of political power, and unsurprisingly, many of them joined up with the Taliban. Second, military occupation unavoidably results in collateral damage, no matter how well trained the occupying force. Personal motivations of revenge for dead family members and friends feature prominently in the testimonials of suicide terrorists. Third, military occupation fosters the belief that a government is illegitimate, a puppet regime controlled by the occupying force. These conditions taken together create an environment that is ripe for recruiting suicide terrorists. 

Because Boot does not agree with this ‘reality’ of military occupation, he chooses to ignore the testimonials of suicide attackers. Instead, Boot is convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is the cause. In Boot’s view, there is something special about Islamic fundamentalism, some magical elixir that its followers drink that inspires them to sacrifice their lives for Allah. I am surprised that Boot, a student of military history, thinks that Islamic fundamentalist groups are somehow unique in this regard. History is littered with causes, some religious, some secular, that inspire men and women to sacrifice their lives. For example: When Imperial Japan faced an increasingly unwinnable war in the Pacific during World War II, they filled the skies with Kamikaze pilots who crashed into U.S. ships in a last ditch attempt to stave off defeat.

Fundamentalist Islam has been around for hundreds of years and is a poor predictor of suicide terrorism. This point is clearly evident when reading Boot, who first credits the Islamic fervor of Hezbollah as the cause of suicide terrorism in the 1980s but then realizes that Hezbollah neglected to use suicide terrorism during the Israeli attack into Lebanon in 2006. Here, Boot tacitly acknowledges our own findings, which is that suicide terrorism is a weapon used strategically by terrorist groups, not one that is blindly triggered by the presence of Islamic fundamentalism. Other fundamentalist Shiite militia groups like Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq have never used suicide terrorism for the same reason that Hezbollah saw no need in 2006: they have very powerful guerrilla armies. Back in the 1980s, Hezbollah was a fledgling newly formed insurgent group that used suicide terrorism in a desperate attempt to end Israeli occupation. In Iraq, it is especially telling that only Sunnis militant groups use suicide terrorism. Sunnis lost a huge amount of political power when Saddam’s minority Sunni government was replaced by Shiite majority rule. Sunni militant groups in Iraq—outnumbered politically and outgunned militarily—turned to suicide terrorism in a desperate attempt to even the odds and coerce more favorable political concessions. 

It is correct that foreign occupations prior to the 1980s did not generate the suicide campaigns we see today. Boot questions why suicide terrorism was not used in Vietnam, Algeria, or other colonial conflicts. Yet a student of military technology like Boot should be aware that plastic explosives, in the same manner as tanks, machine guns, and airplanes, were all invented years before their full military potential was realized. Successful use of military technology precipitates its popularity. The Wehrmacht’s innovative use of tanks in World War II revolutionized modern warfare, and in the same vein, suicide terrorism took off in the 1980s because Hezbollah successfully used the weapon to end Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon. Religious as well as secular terrorist groups like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka took notice of Hezbollah’s successful suicide campaign. Another factor was the availability of military technology. Stable high explosives and microelectronics for detonators had become cheap and readily available by the 1980s. Explosive suicide vests became a deadly low-cost weapon for insurgent groups.

Boot makes several claims in his article that are patently false. The most egregious is when he asserts that only a third of all suicide bombers in Iraq were Iraqis, while the rest were foreigners.  The truth is that our database has reliable country of origin information on only 74 of the 1000-plus suicide attackers in Iraq; the rest are unknown. Our data collection methodology insures that the information we have is of the highest quality by requiring double-verification from reputable news organizations, government agencies, or the suicide terrorist groups themselves, and not relying on unverifiable or anonymous speculation, such as Internet chat rooms. The lack of data available on suicide attackers is fairly common; many terrorist groups delay the release of identities to protect the attacker’s family and community from reprisals. Boot has extrapolated from our data to posit that these ‘unknown’ attackers were foreigners without any evidence to substantiate his claim. The dangers of extrapolation from limited data are well-known in social science, yet embarrassingly, his guess totally reverses the direction of the demographic break-down from the known sample. Of the identified attackers in our database, 47 percent were Iraqi and 83 percent were from the Arabian Peninsula. Only 7 percent of the known attackers originated from outside the Persian Gulf region. Boot simply fabricates data to fit his own conclusions. Across all eight suicide campaigns, homegrown recruits account for the overwhelming number of suicide bombers. In Afghanistan, over 90 percent of identified suicide bombers were Afghani. These data refute the claim that “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Instead, they are fighting us over there because that is where they live.

What is most revealing is that, in Boot’s attempts to think through the motivations of terrorists, he arrives at conclusions that closely resemble ours. Although disparaging of social science, he praises the work of Princeton economist, Alan Krueger, who argues in What Makes a Terrorist that terrorism, in general, is caused by “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.” Our argument is that foreign occupation creates those same conditions on the ground, specifically, a loss of political liberties, disfranchisement, and a government that is perceived as illegitimate. But we add that foreign occupation involves more than a loss of civil liberties, it is a violent conflict that unfortunately results in the deaths of civilians through collateral damage. Thus, we believe that the caustic environment bred by foreign occupation, in particular, is the most powerful motivator of suicide terrorists.

Boot levels his sharpest critique at the Pakistani suicide terrorist campaign, especially of our admittedly awkward term “indirect occupation.” Cutting the Fuse offers an extensive examination of the link between foreign occupation and suicide terrorism in Pakistan, but I will summarize in brief. Boot is correct that Pakistan is part of the terrorism problem and has chronically worked against U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the region. However, the United States successfully pressured the Pakistani Army to invade the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Northwest Pakistan eight times from 2005 to the present. Despite its confusing name, FATA is not “Federally Administered” at all, and has been ruled by an autonomous local governing structure of tribal elders since the British controlled the region in the 1800s. This tribal system still survives today, which means that the Pakistani government, and its rule of law, but is totally absent within FATA. The local population in FATA was outraged over these Pakistani military incursions and considered them an unjust occupation of their tribal homeland. This collective anger created the groundswell Pakistani Taliban movement, which in 2007, coalesced into one organization, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Pakistani Taliban renamed the entire region, “The Islamic Emirate of Waziristan,” and targeted Pakistan’s security forces with suicide bombs to punish the Pakistani government for supporting the United States and invading their homeland. There is no question who the insurgents blamed for the Pakistani Army incursions. Before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2009, TTP leader, Baitullah Mehsud, put it bluntly: “We do not want to fight Pakistan or the [Pakistani] army. But if they continue to be slaves to U.S. demands, then our hands will be forced.”

Suicide campaigns from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Iraq are driven by a strategic logic that seeks to remove foreign threats to local culture. At a personal level, suicide terrorists firmly believe they are sacrificing their life to defend their homeland and their way of life from foreign threats. Unfortunately this means that U.S. occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan risk unintentionally motivating an entire generation of men and women to take up arms against America using the deadliest weapon in the terrorists arsenal—suicide bombs. The troubling reality is that foreign occupation creates suicide terrorists. Consider that there were no suicide campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan before U.S. military forces moved into the Middle East and Central Asia, just as there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003 and no Pakistani Taliban before the U.S. pressured the Pakistani Army to invade the tribal regions of Northwest Pakistan. Today, the ranks of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have increased not decreased. Winning over “hearts and minds” is incredibly difficult in a country that does not speak your language or share your cultural, political, or ethical mores. And the most frustrating thing is that the U.S. military is fighting against an enemy that cannot be defeated militarily. When U.S. forces move in, the Taliban simply picks up and moves somewhere else. It is the oldest guerrilla strategy in the book, the same elementary strategy used by the Polish resistance during World War II, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam in the 1960s, and the Taliban against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Given the close association between foreign occupation and suicide terrorism, the goal of thwarting the rise of the next wave of suicide attacks against the United States requires a major shift in military strategy. Since 2004, 92 percent of all suicide terrorism has taken place in countries with U.S. combat operations. Cutting the Fuse advocates a strategy of “offshore” balancing, which seeks to achieve U.S. foreign policy interests in key regions of the world by relying on military alliances and offshore air, naval, and rapidly deployable ground forces rather than heavy onshore combat power. Off-shore balancing proposes that the U.S. must be prudent about when and where we sacrifice American blood and treasure. In essence, off-shore balancing resembles America’s military commitment to the Persian Gulf from the end of World War II in 1945 to the period before the first Iraq War up to 1990, when the United States successfully pursued its interest and obligations in the region despite local instabilities and wars and without stationing tank, armor, or fighter aircraft units there.

Behind all his insults to social science, collaborative research, and our database (which he uses extensively in his own article), Max Boot’s real problem with Cutting the Fuse is that we advocate for an off-shore balancing strategy to fight suicide terrorism that he does not support. Instead, Boot wants the United States to pursue an imperialist foreign policy and he has never been afraid to say so publicly. Boot brazenly advocates for America to spend taxpayers dollars in wars all over the world without so much as a simple cost-benefit analysis. Our analysis of suicide terrorism points out the high costs associated with such a misguided strategy. Yet, at a time when our country is already fighting two costly wars, Boot remains ever eager to invade other countries; in fact, an occupation of Libya is next on his list. By choosing to ignore how foreign occupation is linked to suicide terrorism, Boot’s perspective is not only clueless, but costly and dangerous for America.  

Ezra Schricker is a PhD student in International Relations at Ohio State University. 

Max Boot responds:

I wrote a critical review of a book by Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, so I am puzzled to see a response coming not from the authors but from a grad student at Ohio State named Ezra Schricker. According to an email from Pape to THE WEEKLY STANDARD: “As the author of the Afghanistan and Pakistan chapters that Boot particularly challenges and one of the group of authors that Boot generally disparages, Schricker is a terrific person for this response and a fine representative of the new wave of scholars that Boot is criticizing.”

This is typical of Pape’s slippery tactics, as if my review constituted a criticism of a “new wave of scholars” rather than of Pape himself. Pape’s email does contain an interesting new piece of information: two chapters in his book were written by someone other than him or his co-author. Having read the entire book (not, as Schricker would have it, “only the acknowledgement section and a handful of pages”), I was surprised to learn this. On closer examination I do see a paragraph in the acknowledgments which credits Schricker along with nine other people as “major contributors” but to my mind there is still a major difference between being a “contributor” and an “author.” By eliding that difference, Pape adds another item to his numerous offenses against scholarly standards.

Perhaps because he is not the author of most of the book—or perhaps because the book is simply indefensible—Schricker does little to defend it. I criticized Pape for claiming that most suicide bombers are motivated not by Islamic fundamentalism but by an aversion to foreign military occupation—specifically, to American occupation. As I pointed out, this argument is rather hard to square with the fact that such major producers of suicide bombers as Pakistan and Egypt have not been occupied by the United States or anyone else, at least not since the British Empire left many decades ago. It is also hard to square with statistics readily obtainable on Pape’s own web site but not cited in his own book: namely that since 1981, Muslim groups have accounted for 93.7 percent of all deaths caused by suicide bombers—24,631 out of 26,277.

Rather than seriously address these points, Schricker merely restates the book’s tendentious arguments at higher volume, while adding a few non-sequiturs and insults. For instance, he claims that I actually agree with the book because I acknowledge that suicide terrorism is used “strategically” by terrorist groups. But whoever argued otherwise? The point is that it is used mainly by Islamic groups, which Pape et al. deny for their own polemical purposes. (They want the U.S. military to withdraw from the Middle East.)

Schricker has the gall to accuse me of ignoring Osama bin Laden’s stated grievances. He might take a look at bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war: The first four paragraphs are composed entirely of tributes to Allah and Mohammad and quotations from Islamic law. So perhaps bin Laden was something other than the secular nationalist that Pape et al. imagine him to have been.

I do thank Schricker for pointing out one error in my review which was based on a poorly labeled table that appears on page 104 of Cutting the Fuse: “Nationality of suicide attackers in Iraq.” The first column shows that almost 35 were Iraqis; the second column shows that approximately twelve were Saudis; the third, that five were Kuwaitis; and so on. I had assumed the figures (which were unlabeled) were percentages; turns out they are actual figures. As Schricker notes: “The truth is that our database has reliable country of origin information on only 74 of the 1000-plus suicide attackers in Iraq; the rest are unknown.” That makes these figures, like many others in their book, of dubious value.

For what it’s worth, of these 74 suicide bombers, 47 percent were from Iraq, which means that most were not Iraqis-and hence hardly likely to be motivated by Iraqi nationalism. This is broadly in line with what I found during numerous research trips to Iraq (a country that Pape and his co-authors give no evidence of having visited): Suicide bombing was dominated by radical Salafists from abroad (such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq), while homegrown terrorists, motivated by money or nationalism, preferred to plant IEDs or fire rockets. The book tries to disguise this finding. It doesn’t include the 47 percent figure, which can be found in Schricker’s letter. The book only notes that 83 percent came “from Iraq and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula,” neatly erasing the substantial difference between an Iraqi suicide bomber and a Saudi or Kuwaiti. Note, once again, the slipperiness of Pape’s arguments.

I am hardly alone in pointing out that Pape’s contentions are at odds with reality. He has been subject to withering criticism by fellow social scientists. Interested readers should check out articles in the American Political Science Review (2008) by Scott Ashworth et al., and in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (2007) by Assaf Moghadam. They argue that Pape’s books and articles are marred by serious methodological errors. So if anything my critical review was too kind to his work.