I recently attended a fascinating presentation put on by the Atlantic Institute and Emory’s Halle Center. The speaker was Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and the title was the Strategic Logic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – commonly known as ISIS or IS.
Dr. Pape’s academic career did not begin with terrorism. He was an expert in air power strategy and its coercive force and had built such a considerable reputation in that area that, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11/01 attack on the NY World Trade Center, he was sought after on national news programs to provide insight into the likely number of casualties. But on the shows, where he sat alongside prominent politicians, he found himself being called upon to express academic opinions on terrorism. He researched the area and began to extend his knowledge in that direction. He has subsequently performed a large body of research and published extensively on the topic. In doing so he has developed a particular interest in the peculiar and particular dynamics of suicide terrorism and founded the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, CPOST.
I found Dr Pape’s work really interesting and his arguments powerful, and I want to put this forward to readers of this blog, not because I believe I have heard the definitive argument about the matter, but because I don’t think either the behavior of ISIS or suicide terrorism are as simple or binary as it is often convenient to believe, and because I think that the kneejerk response of military action on foreign soil is a potentially dangerous one. I have previously written about terrorism in “We’re Fueling Terrorism“. Dr Pape’s evidence and arguments to me call for a deeper national examination of the matter.
CPOST, which Pape now directs, includes a publicly searchable Suicide Attack Database of over 4,000 transnational suicide attacks reported from 1982 through. From the data, which you can examine at your leisure at the CPOST site, Pape came to the conclusion that the primary motivation for suicide terrorism is not poverty, extremist politics, or Islamist fundamentalism, but a desire to force democratic countries to abandon occupation of what terrorists’ consider to be their homeland.
It is an argument that I had not heard before, but Pape creates a powerful case. He really got my attention when he recounted the emergence of Hezbollah after Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982. They quickly started to experiment with suicide attacks and, after a mission that led to the deaths of 29 French and American servicemen, President Ronald Reagan announced the withdrawal American combat forces from Lebanon, This, Pape observed, taught the world that suicide terrorism works and can be used to cause invaders from democratic nations to withdraw.
This is a countercultural argument, but I encourage you to look at this body of work and read the lecture notes. Whether you agree with Pape or not, I hope you emerge from reading with a sense that perhaps this phenomenon is not as simple as it seems, and that perhaps our instinctive, politically populist responses might be counterproductive.
While the main thrust of the arguments and the presentation was suicide terrorism, Pape extended his thinking into ISIS, and his arguments have weight there, too.
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