What can terrorists teach us?

What can terrorists teach us?

What can terrorists teach us?

Military analysis.
July 20 2005 6:49 PM

It's Not Who We Are, It's What We Do

What can terrorists teach us?

Book cover

Three new studies, by very different authors taking very different tacks, reach much the same conclusion about modern terrorism: that its practitioners, especially its foot soldiers, are motivated not so much by Islamic fantasies of the caliphate's restoration and the snuffing of freedom, but rather by resistance to foreign occupation of Arab lands.

Nothing about this conclusion makes terrorist acts more justified, or less abhorrent, or a slighter assault on the bonds of civilization. Understanding is not the same as excusing. Still, understanding can be a useful tool for devising a cogent response and an effective policy.

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The most provocative and widely read study is Robert Pape's book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape, a military historian and professor at the University of Chicago, catalogued every terrorist suicide bombing from 1983 to 2003—in all, 315 attacks carried out by 462 bombers. He concludes that, except for a couple of dozen random incidents, these bombings were elements of various coordinated campaigns—involving 18 different organizations over a 20-year period—all of which had in common "a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from the terrorists' national homeland."

A narrower, but in some ways more revealing, study was published in March by the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center. (As far as I know, it has received no U.S. press coverage besides Bryan Bender's story in the July 17 Boston Globe.) The study's author, Reuven Paz, researched the backgrounds of 154 foreign Arabs who had died in Iraq during the previous six months, including 33 who had died in suicide bombings. (Their names were listed on an Islamist Web site.)

Paz's key finding: "The vast majority of Arabs killed in Iraq have never taken part in any terrorist activities prior to their arrival in Iraq."

This is consistent with a study commissioned by the Saudi government and set to be published next month by the conservative Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. (This study is also described in Bender's Globe piece.) Its author, Nawaf Obaid, a consultant in London, researched the backgrounds of about 250 Saudis who went to fight in Iraq. They included 42 who died, 30 who were turned back at the border by Syrian authorities, about 150 who are still in Iraq (fighting, captured, or possibly dead), and another 70 or 80 who are on Pentagon lists of foreign combatants. Obaid had access to official Saudi interrogations; he and his assistant also interviewed many of the fighters' families.

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Nearly all these Saudis, Obaid told me in a phone interview, were 16- to 25-year-olds, many from prominent families. They watched the destructive images of the war on Arabic satellite TV, and they read the jihadist Web sites' urgings to go repel the infidel's occupation. ("Abu Ghraib was just a disaster," Obaid said, "a resounding call to these kids.")

President George W. Bush frequently depicts the foreign Arabs in Iraq as comrades of the 9/11 hijackers, enemies of freedom who might be wreaking havoc here if they weren't fighting over there. Yet if the Arabs in Paz's and Obaid's studies are typical, Bush's portrait is off the mark. Their calls to arms may be drenched in Pan-Islamic rhetoric. Those doing the calling—Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—may have more cataclysmic ambitions. But the young fanatics on the ground, those streaming across the Iraqi border, seem motivated more by the classic goals of national liberation movements.

It's worth noting, in this regard, that Bin Laden himself issued his jihad against all Americans and infidels—which led to the 9/11 attacks—as a response to the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil during and after the 1991 Gulf War. Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the 2003 Iraq war, recognized this. One rationale he gave for invading Baghdad was that for its own security, the United States needed to withdraw from Saudi Arabia but that doing so would destabilize the region if Saddam Hussein were left in power. (He didn't stop to think that the invasion might sink us in a much deeper occupation, which would lure more terrorists still.)

Again, none of this is to condone al-Qaida's atrocities or to mitigate their monstrousness. But it does fit with the theory that the alarmingly widespread fury against the United States these days is directed—as Pape puts it in his book—not so much at who we are but at what we do.

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If that's the case, then what should we do to soften the fury and reduce the danger? One tempting option might be to end the occupation and pull out of Iraq as quickly as possible. But this would be unwise, even counterproductive, on two levels. First, the Iraqi government cannot yet defend itself from rebellion or invasion; chaotic as the place is now, it would likely explode and disintegrate without a military presence—and, for lack of an alternative, that means a U.S. military presence.

Second, though a swift exit might undermine one plank of al-Qaida's recruitment drive, it would only stiffen another. Bin Laden made clear, in several declarations and interviews in the '90s, that he was emboldened by how quickly American presidents withdrew troops from abroad once their blood began to flow—not just Bill Clinton from Somalia and Haiti (as many Republicans like to point out) but, more pivotally, Ronald Reagan from Lebanon.

Those withdrawals were not unreasonable. After a truck-bomber killed 241 Marines in Lebanon, Reagan decided that the U.S. mission simply wasn't worth further loss of life—and he was right. The problem was that some observers—including future foes—saw a different lesson in the move, a lesson that caused us much greater damage two decades later.

The most vital lesson Americans can draw from this sorry saga, in retrospect, is that we shouldn't initiate foreign adventures unless they involve interests worth considerable sacrifice. But a more immediate—and regrettable—lesson is that, having blundered our way into Iraq, we can't hand these bastards a victory (which is what it would be) by giving in to their demands. It would only embolden them further the next time our interests clash.

What we can do, though, is help create a situation that allows us to leave. A hint of what this might involve is suggested in Reuven Paz's study. Paz notes that the Arabs who died in Iraq were motivated to fight not just the Western occupiers but, perhaps more critically, their own sectarian rivals. Many of the fighters on Paz's list came from the Najd region of Saudi Arabia, the heart of Wahhabism. Wahhabite Muslims view Shiite Muslims as infidels. As the majority in Iraq, Shiites are primed to control the new Baghdad government. As a result, Paz writes, many Saudis have joined the insurgency to support Iraq's Sunni minority, whom they view "as a community under attack."

In recent months, it has become a common view—even within the Bush administration, which once waved off sectarian issues—that Iraq's Sunnis must be given a share of Iraq's resources and governance, must have a stake in the new system's future. These three new studies strengthen this view. They suggest that, until this is accomplished, the insurgency won't be quelled, political legitimacy won't be established, and Iraq won't be a sustainable state.