A theory self-destructs

Newspapers were still speculating why three suicide bombers hit the resort town of Dahab on April 24 when terrorists struck again in Sinai two days later.

Newspapers were still speculating why three suicide bombers hit the resort town of Dahab on April 24 when terrorists struck again in Sinai two days later. Since the initial attacks coincided with the Passover and Easter season, some suggested that Israeli tourists or local Coptic Christians were the target. The second set of bombings made it clear, however, that a home-grown insurgency was challenging the Mubarak government. Like other cases of Muslim-on-Muslim suicide bombings, the Sinai attacks challenge the influential thesis put forward by Robert Pape, a University of Chicago professor who argues that suicide bombing campaigns are aimed primarily at democracies in the hopes of ending a foreign occupation. Indeed, many scholars of terrorism have long suspected that the much-touted theory of suicide terror is dangerously simplistic. Now they have the proof. In Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert Pape contends that over 95 percent of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003 have been used "to cause democratic states to withdraw forces from land the terrorists perceive as their national homeland." In other words, nationalism, not Islamic extremism, drives the phenomenon. Are there Muslims who give their lives for the cause? Sure, says Pape, but they are not the only ones. Lebanon saw three Christian suicide attackers during the 1980s, and the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka invented the bomb belt in 1991. Four years later, a Sikh separatist in India killed himself and the chief minister of Punjab. In each case, the terrorists were fighting for independence. Even al-Qaida adheres to this secular model of violence, contends Pape. Religious pretensions aside, the organization is just a terror network that wants to rid Persian Gulf countries of their American troops, he says. Therefore, the enemy is not radical Islam, and the U.S. need not reform the Middle East to beat al-Qaida; in fact, doing so will just bring more attacks. Following the publication of his book last year, Pape was crowned the go-to man on suicide terrorism. He made the rounds on National Public Radio, Fox News and ABC News; the Council on Foreign Relations put Dying to Win on its shortlist for an Arthur Ross Book Award, given to "the best book published in the last two years on international affairs." By piling on the statistics, Pape seemed to bring order to the chaotic, often anecdotal study of suicide bombers. He moved beyond the clich s about 72 virgins awaiting the Muslim martyr in paradise, or about hopeless, brutalized victims going out like Samson. At the same time, his strategic theory appealed to a readership unfamiliar with the histories of the terrorist groups in question. "The book was popular with the Amazon.com crowd and the people who opposed the war in Iraq, because Pape is also against it," says Mia Bloom, author of the similarly titled Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, "but the book got more critical treatment by people on the 9/11 Commission and in the counter-terrorism community." Indeed, Michael Scheuer was one of the very few fans in the community. A retired CIA expert on al-Qaida (and a fierce critic of the war in Iraq), he praised Pape's work as "brilliant" despite the fact that its thesis was being outpaced by current events. Though many experts agree Iraq is a tinderbox, they also accuse Pape of cramming data into a one-size-fits-all model. "Believe me," says Yoram Schweitzer, a researcher at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, "after interviewing many dispatchers and failed suicide bombers in Israeli jails, I can say that there are several motives [behind the attacks] besides fighting occupiers." Pape must admit that occupation alone does not generate suicide bombings; otherwise, one would see the Basques or the Irish Republican Army using them. Therefore, he argues that religious differences between the occupied and occupier - not Islam alone - act as the fuse. Yet terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna points out that the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka have murdered fellow Hindus with relish. Likewise, Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey perpetrated 14 suicide attacks in the 1990s, though both sides in the conflict were Muslim. Pape did not respond to requests from The Jerusalem Post for an interview, but he concedes in his book that this case is problematic. Still, he dismisses these bombings as the "tail end of the Kurdish national rebellion." Since 2005, Kurdish suicide bombers have made a return. Despite all its statistics, Pape's anti-occupation model fails to explain the nature of al-Qaida. "It's like writing that 99 percent of all chemical weapons used were mustard gas in World War I," says Scott Atran, a University of Michigan anthropologist who has written extensively on suicide bombers. "That may be true, but it is not relevant in explaining the dangers we face today." Al-Qaida is a nexus of radical Islamic ideas and tight social groupings; members do not kill and die for secular causes. Aside from religious extremism, what other motive could be behind the attack on Australian tourists in Bali, Indonesia by Malaysian suicide bombers, asks Peter Bergen, author of two books on al-Qaida. Thinking in nationalist terms underestimates the threat poised by jihadis. Indeed, with every Western-born suicide bomber who goes off to Iraq and each Egyptian who kills himself at a Sinai hotel, Pape's theory of suicide bombings loses a little more currency. Who knows? Perhaps, it was inevitable that the thesis would sputter out. After all, it discusses people. "And there are no iron laws of people," says Bergen.