Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Suicidal Roots

Dan Drezner links to a provocative New York Times editorial by Robert Pape arguing that suicide bombing is not, as commonly assumed, as linked to religious fundamentalism as it is to resistance to (perceived) foreign occupation.
Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 - 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.

The leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually 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. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

Interesting. This dovetails with stories I've read that the typical Palestinian suicide bomber is not an ultra-religious, poor, depressed slum-dweller, but rather an educated, secular, middle-class professional.

Stygius has a strong critique of Pape's argument.
The whole piece is a collection of specious correlation-as-cause fallacies. Mostly its economics' deflated sense of agent rationality claiming to "understand" political calculation and motivation. Necessity claims implicit in Paper's explanation are dead wrong, mainly because there is no force to the assumption that there must be some singular foundational explanation of suicide terrorism.

Suicide bombing was a tactical innovation in the territories that had immense terror and propaganda dividend. Palestinian export of their terrorism led to decades of concessions by the West and increased the political legitimacy of the PLO. Suicide bombing, in its incomprehensibility and captivating hold on the media, brilliantly took islamist terrorism to another level. Pape, however, correlates increase Jewish settlement population with suicide bombing, and assumes cause. A nice case of empirical elegance, but ultimately uninformative, mainly because of its inability to consider Palestinian terrorist leaders as innovative, experimenting agents--not a set of dependent variables.

If I'm understanding Stygius correctly, he's not claiming that Pape is necessarily wrong in that religious fundamentalism is not the root cause of suicide attacks, but rather indicting the broader assumption that we can reduce suicide bombing to a singular root cause. This I would agree with, but that doesn't make Pape's contribution less valuable--it is important to disassociate suicide bombings from a false cause (religious fanaticism) if we're going to think of effective defenses. If Pape is interpreted narrowly--that if we'd only withdraw the troops, then suicide bombings would end--then yes, Stygius is right that he has dangerous implications (ask Israelis how well that theory worked when they got out of Lebanon).

Ultimately, I think that suicide bombing occurs because it works, and works well. It is extremely difficult to defend against, almost impossible to retaliate against, and is very effective at undermining the morale and willpower of the target nation--especially if undertaken over a large period. Insurgent leaders thus have an incentive to encourage whatever mindset necessary in order to gain suicide volunteers, be it religious fanaticism or a willingness to die for the motherland. But these "causes" are window-dressing for the movers and shakers, they are not intrinsic to the event itself.

Personally, I want to know what American Future has to say on the matter.

1 comment:

Stygius said...

Yes. That is basically the way I read and responded to Pape's argument.

To me, it represents the worst kind of pseudo-political science; a reductionist and dogmatic empiricism that the reality of 9/11 should have immediately trashed. Instead, it is being repackaged to pass off horrible reasoning as evidentially supported.