Out of sight, out of mind?

Is staying out of 'Islamic territory' enough to keep the peace?

January 12, 2006 09:22

jib.awards.298.vote. (photo credit: )


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Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism By Robert A. Pape Random House 335pp., $25.95 Even a cemetery can no longer provide sanctuary from the suicide bomber. In early January, a terrorist blew himself up at the funeral of a 14-year-old boy, splattering the tombstones with the blood of over 30 slain mourners. Once again, the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency attacked fellow Shiite citizens - or, as it sees them, uppity heretics. The specific target was Ahmed al-Bakka, the local head of Dawa, an Islamist party led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But the reach of terror boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi extends all the way back to his native Jordan. In November, three Iraqi suicide bombers killed dozens of locals in explosions that rocked three Amman hotels. Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed the bombings were a response to "the conspiracy against the Sunnis," that the hotels were festering pits of Western spies and decadent tourists and that Jordan served as a "buffer zone" between Israel and "the mujahedeen." Were the Iraqi terrorists fighting a war of national liberation against Anglo-American occupation, the aforementioned attacks would make little sense. Unfortunately, this is the model political scientist Robert A. Pape uses to explain suicide strikes in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Before dismissing him out of hand, Pape has analyzed every suicide attack from 1980 to 2003 and does seem to find some very interesting patterns. He argues that the bombings quite often come in waves, and the terrorists that employ them are fighting to win the independence of a homeland, be it Palestine, Tamil Ealam or Chechnya. Finally, these modern-day kamikazes target democracies, perhaps out of a belief that these governments will yield to coercion; about half the time, they do. To his credit, Pape does not fall for some of the more apologetic explanations of why a terrorist would want to take his own life. The suicide bomber need not be poor, depressed or have suffered all that much, he notes. So does that mean religious indoctrination is at play? Pape acknowledges that faith helps demonize the foreigner and sanctify the martyr, but he quickly adds that one should not blame radical Islam, per se, for suicide attacks - not even for 9/11. Doing so leads one to the conclusion that the West can only be safe by remaking Muslim societies when, in fact, it is foreign occupations, like the one in Iraq, that generate such bombings. This decidedly secular take on self-immolation may explain the acts of Kashmiri, Tamil and Kurdish separatists, but it fails with pan-Islamic militants. Indeed, watching Pape squeeze al-Qaeda into the national liberation mold is like watching a zoo keeper pack a gorilla into a cardboard box: You just know how it's going to end, but you have to admire the effort. Pape first needs to explain how Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, is occupied by the Americans. He does so by defining "occupation" as any situation in which foreign troops are stationed in (or near) a country (or territory) and could hijack the local government if they so wanted. Of course, by this elastic definition, Okinawa is also occupied. Next, Pape must ignore the Egyptian core of al-Qaeda and the fanatics who come from countries not even remotely occupied by the US, such as the 36-year-old Belgian convert to Islam and her Moroccan husband who sought martyrdom in Iraq. Finally, he must also explain why, unlike the Fatah-Hamas and Amal-Hizbullah dyads, there is no secular Saudi version of al-Qaeda. And this is the problem with models: Real life is never as neat as a graph in a book. Suicide terrorism, insists Pape, is a weapon of last resort. But if that's the case, Hizbullah should have made its debut in 1982 with conventional guerrilla warfare and then, only after years of frustration, shifted to speeding car bombs. However, the reverse is true. And why must suicide bombers only be the weapon of the weak? The Tamil Tigers - the inventors of the exploding belt - have kept the army out of many areas of Sri Lanka; that's hardly a sign of weakness. Likewise, when al-Qaeda used a suicide squad to assassinate Afghan warlord Shah Massoud, it was in a far stronger position than he. Pape's proof for the effectiveness of suicide bombing campaigns is also a little iffy. He notes that in 1994, Israel missed both deadlines for Gaza-Jericho because of disagreements with the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the size of its police force and the issue of hot-pursuit. After two suicide attacks, Israel accepted the Palestinian position. Similarly, a year later, Israel agreed to a belated West Bank withdrawal only after being hit by seven suicide attacks and gave up the notion of finishing its bypass roads after a little more of the same. The question, though, is this: Could this form of coercion have worked had not Yasser Arafat played good cop to the Islamists' bad cop? One need only look at the failure of the Aksa Intifada to see what happened when the PA ruse ended and Fatah also employed suicide attacks. Pape also overstates the effectiveness of Hizbullah's early suicide campaign against the IDF. Yes, shortly after being attacked, Israel withdrew to a self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon. However, one must remember that, by 1985, there was nothing left for Israel in Beirut: Arafat fled to Tunisia and the Maronite leader Bashir Gemayal was dead. In fact, the Party of God actually prolonged the IDF occupation of Lebanon! But suppose everything Pape said is right, what is the US to do? He argues the Americans should go back to the policy of "offshore balancing," that is, allying with Persian Gulf tyrants and maintaining critical infrastructure for a rapid return should the need arise. Osama bin Laden will continue to hate the West, but he will have a harder time recruiting human bombs if American troops are out of sight. In the Age of al-Jazeerah, that's a dubious proposition.

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