Myth Busting: Robert Pape on ISIS, suicide terrorism, and U.S. Foreign Policy


Robert Pape, University of Chicago

Robert Pape is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. He is the Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and his current work focuses on the causes of suicide terrorism and the politics of unipolarity. Recent publications include Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It and Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. His commentary on international security policy has appeared in The New York TimesWashington PostNew RepublicBoston GlobeLos Angeles Times, as well as on NightlineABC NewsCBS News, CNNFox News, and NPR. Before coming to Chicago in 1999, he taught international relations at Dartmouth College and air power strategy for the USAF’s School of Advanced Airpower Studies. Pape received his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago in 1988.

Your 2005 book, Dying to Win, documents a number of remarkable findings about suicide terrorism. Who are suicide terrorists, and what are they after?

For the most part they’re responding to the military occupation of a community that they care a lot about.

I put together the first complete data set of suicide attacks after 9/11. I did that because, like many people who come into suicide terrorism, I thought I was going to figure out when an Islamic fundamentalist goes from being a devout, observant Muslim to somebody who then is suicidally violent. But there was no data available, so I put together this complete database of suicide attacks around the world from the early 1980s to 2003.

I was really struck that half the suicide attacks were secular. I began to look at the patterns and I noticed that they were tightly clustered, both in where they occurred and the timing, and that 95 percent of the suicide attacks were in response to a military occupation.

And military occupation matters because it represents not exactly how many soldiers are on a piece of soil, but rather control of the local government, the local economic system, and the local social system. It’s the military occupation of the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan that allows us to inform and impose change in women’s rights. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; what I’m saying is that when you impose women’s rights at the point of a gun, then that creates a sense in the local community that they’ve lost their self-determination. What you’re seeing with not all, but most, suicide terrorists is a response to loss of self-determination for their local community.

Are these tactics effective?

They’re more effective than we’d like — not in the sense that the attacks work 100 percent of the time, but they work well for groups that have few alternatives. The average suicide attack kills 10 people, whereas the average non-suicide attack, even in the very same countries, typically kills one person. So they’re tactically effective.

They’re also more effective at the political level. Because the idea that where there’s one suicide attacker, there might be many more suicide attackers, can create the threat that one attack will represent future attacks to come. That has caused big governments to withdraw militarily. In Lebanon in the 1980s, Hezbollah used suicide attacks to cause the United States to abandon its military commitment to Lebanon. In October 1983, 241 Marines were killed with the loss of one suicide attacker. Four months later Ronald Reagan pulled out all the American combat troops there, rather than face another suicide attack.

Suicide attack has created major political and strategic benefits for groups that don’t have other alternatives. It’s not like they’re choosing a suicide attack over using an army.

What’s the mechanism for suicide terrorism to be politically effective? Is it that people in democracies are responding?

They don’t want to pay the costs. In Lebanon, Reagan sent the troops in on actually more of a humanitarian mission, to cause stability. We weren’t after oil. But we were viewed by the local population as essentially the handmaiden of Israel, because Israel had invaded southern Lebanon before. So we were just viewed as another occupier, because we’re Israel’s chief ally. We didn’t have a lot of interests at stake, so with just a small number of attacks — although 241 people dying is pretty big; that’s more than died in the first Gulf War — Reagan decided that the cost-benefit just didn’t add up.

The Persian Gulf is a little bit different, because oil is at stake. The Persian Gulf has one-third of the world’s oil; access to that oil matters for the health of our economies. This is why we’ve paid really quite an expensive price with the war in Iraq and so forth, without leaving.

Perhaps that answers the question of who really drives counterterrorism policy. Is it a democratic reaction of the people to risks, or something else?

The purpose of terrorism is to cause fear and terror. And what you see after 9/11 is really quite an inordinate amount of fear and terror in the United States with the population, and then also among elites.

I think that we now live in a calmer political environment. With ISIS, I’m not saying there are no elements of fear or terror that exist — the beheadings and the burning of the Jordanian pilot certainly evoke that — but if you look at the range of serious debate about strategy for how to deal with ISIS, it’s operating within a very narrow band. Obama is using a strategy that is called “offshore balancing,” where you use over-the-horizon air power and naval power and empower local groups to support that policy. His critics — like Lindsey Graham and John McCain — argue for a slight variance of that, but not for a deployment of 100,000 ground troops. We don’t live in a political world where Republicans are going to say they agree with Obama, but if you look at the substantive differences, they’re pretty narrow.

Speaking of ISIS and information, what is your reaction to The Atlantic’s March cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants”?

I think it’s just wrong. [The author Graeme] Wood is painting a picture of ISIS as all religious, all the time. Interestingly in the second section he is talking about how the main difference with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda is that ISIS really wants territory.

Wanting territory means there’s a community that wants a state. ISIS, and most suicide groups, are driven by an ideal of nationalism; they want to control their destiny with a state. ISIS is composed of a leadership of about 25 people, which is one-third very heavily religious, for sure; one-third former Saddam [Hussein] military officers who are Baathists, who are secular; and one-third who are Sunni militia, Sunni tribal leaders. That just conveniently is lost in the Wood piece.

It’s definitely the case that ISIS wants to kill people who are not part of its community. But this is normal in nationalist groups. (Hutu wanted to kill Tutsi; they also wanted to kill moderate Hutu who didn’t want to kill Tutsi.)

What is next for ISIS?

Obama is using a strategy called “offshore balancing,” which is this over-the-horizon strategy that I actually called for in Dying to Win, and then I called for again in Cutting the Fuse in 2010. It makes a lot of sense if what you’re dealing with are nationalist groups, like I’m claiming. Because then you can try to not make the matter worse by pouring in ground forces. Ground forces are going to make however much anger or terrorism there is worse, which is why when we invaded and conquered Iraq, we produced the largest suicide campaign in history.

ISIS took Mosul because Mosul is Sunni. ISIS is Sunni. You had the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad with military forces in Mosul. But those are controlled by Shia; even if the foot soldiers are Sunni, the command is Shia. The command wouldn’t fight and die for Mosul, because it’s not the territory of the Shia. So it was a piece of cake; there was no battle for Mosul. ISIS simply drove in, and the other people drove out.

Then there was a question of whether ISIS would threaten Erbil, which is populated by Kurds, or Baghdad, which are Shia. Those are much tougher for ISIS to take anyway, and what we did is use air power to contain that threat, and then roll back ISIS. We also worked with local allies —the Kurds and the Shia — to roll back ISIS.

Now we only can roll them back so far by working with Kurds and Shia, because ISIS is mainly a Sunni movement. So if it’s a Sunni revolt, then the real thing we need, if we want to roll it back further, is not have the Shia sit on top of the Sunnis, or the Kurds sit on top of the Sunnis, because that’s more occupation. We need to try and find some Sunni alternatives to ISIS like the Anbar Awakening that we used to have.

ISIS has a fearsome methodology. But what’s the actual threat?

It’s medium in the region. The threat to the United States is real, but it’s low. It’s more likely to be lone-wolf style attacks that look like the Boston Marathon bombing than 9/11. You can have sophisticated local attacks if the local population isn’t paying any attention. Before 9/11, Mohammed Atta and three other guys took flight lessons here, lessons where they didn’t want to learn how to land, and nobody thought that was weird because nobody could imagine anything. Well, if somebody wanted to do anything like that now, we would all know in a heartbeat that was weird, right?

In Iraq and Syria, in the Sunni areas, you do have some complicated attacks that are planned and carried out, where a suicide attack is combined with three or four other pieces. You can do that because the local Sunni populations are mostly supporting, in at least a passive way, what’s occurring.

We talk a lot about terrorism threats from the Middle East. What about the rest of the world?

We talk a lot about the Middle East because after the end of the Cold War, the United States stationed an army in the Persian Gulf, which we had not done going back to World War II. And there was no counterweight from the Soviet Union to prevent us from stationing the army there. So Saddam invaded Kuwait, and then we decided — and 35 other countries went along — to kick Saddam out of Kuwait. It was to protect access to oil.

When we did that in March 1991, we didn’t leave. That army stayed there, because we’re “hedging,” right? Well that hedging means we’re in control, or certainly viewed as in control. Al Qaeda, bin Laden, argued from the get-go that this would prevent there ever being a new regime to come in Riyadh. What he wanted was a much more Islamic regime, religious regime, but as he saw it a regime that reflected community self-determination. Well you can’t do that if the Americans have all these military troops stationed there to prevent exactly that kind of a change. You see what I mean?

The reason we’re talking about the Middle East isn’t because we’re just obsessing about Middle Eastern politics. It’s because with the end of the Cold War, that really was the new place we put forces where we hadn’t put them before.

Any general prescriptions for things the U.S. should be doing differently in foreign policy?

I think it’s really tragic that Obama can’t seem to come up with rhetoric to describe his policy. He is a great communicator. And even in the [White House’s February 2015] terrorism summit he did a good job with the rhetoric of talking about the political causes of terrorism.

But in the New York Times, there was recently an op-ed by Tom Friedman where he sat down with Obama. And you’ll see, it’s all about his policy, and they’re not able to come up with a name. Apparently he just won’t take “offshore balancing,” but that’s what it is. You can call it “over the horizon,” but it’s really difficult if you sort of don’t have a name, or a set of concepts, that really explain your policy.

So I think the number one thing is that the President’s power comes in large part because of his ability to articulate a coherent policy. I think it’s quite coherent — he just hasn’t articulated it.

Back to democratic mechanisms, what is the role of the average person in influencing foreign policy?

It can actually be pretty big. It really is the case that grassroots organizing is listened to and paid attention to by politicians. What we have been missing are real efforts to try and have grassroots organizations around issues of foreign policy. I think that the Republicans, with the rise of Fox News and Republican talk radio, have done an amazing job of basically building some of those, and the Democratic side have not done as much.

So what can an ordinary person do? It’s basically looking for ways to participate in grassroots organizations. And one of the things to do is to talk about new arguments and new ideas. Within six degrees of separation, each of us knows everybody in the world. So if people who read your piece will just tell two or three other people, and then ask them to talk to two or three other people, that will do a lot more good than they might realize. It’s actually a lot more powerful than people think, and it is the way to go forward.

Feature Photo: cc/(wikipedia)'
Elliott Balch
Elliott Balch is a Pulse Staff Writer for the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in how people and communities come together to govern resources and each other. Also, in great food, great travel, and great furniture.

6 Responses to “Myth Busting: Robert Pape on ISIS, suicide terrorism, and U.S. Foreign Policy

    ago1 year

    There are suicide bombings by moslems against moslems and Pape STILL fantasizes about “they just defend against imperialism”?

    He happily talks about ISIS’s “nationalism” and fails to see that ISIS’s claim and aim is actually trans-nationalism based on the religious ideas of a Caliphate and the umma?

    Sorry, Mr. Pape. Your are dogmatic. By the year 2015 it should become evident even to you how wrong your claims of 2007 were.

  • Some suicide terrorism looks like “suicide-by-cop”. Even the San Bernardino killers and some of the knife attacks in Israel have this aspect.

  • The problem that I see with this analysis is:
    1. Distinguishing between ideological and secular motivations presupposes that they are orthagonal… in this case, Islamic dogma is precisely the same as the secular motivation (i.e. the mandate of Jihad to resist occupation is both secular and ideological)
    2. The discussion does not account for counter-examples.

    Why did you not see this phenomenon in occupied Europe, or Japan? Why did you not see the problem in Syria and Iraq under foreign/Muslim occupation (under the Turks, for example)? If self-determination were the secular motivation, then why did the Shia under Saddam Hussein not resort to these tactics? Likewise, why not the Sunni under the rule of Bashar al Assad or Hafez al Assad?

    I think there is a lot of merit to the viewpoint, but I think it is also a massive mistake to disregard ideological motivations of suicide bombing, because the solution to how to stop it can also be seen in examining that ideology. And, failing to look at ideology also brings up the biggest point missed by the discussion in this article – namely that suicide bombing is used in situations where there is a clearly achievable goal to be attained. Every one of the suicide bombings that Dr. Pape discussed shares that characteristic.

    I think that the strategy of the West must be such that it conveys the message that there are no achievable goals to be gained by suicide attack or other terrorist acts against the west. That plays into both addressing the secular and the ideological … as I understand it, Islamic dogma that encourages violent Jihad also has a built-in “out” when there is no reasonable chance of success.

    This approach would differ somewhat in that the offshore balancing approach still does provide both secular and ideological reason for ISIS to target the West (the recent Paris bombings were a strategic message to that effect, as France was not occupying Syria in any way). But, demonstrating that the West has the power and resolve to make the Islamic State’s goals completely unachievable would require a response with a magnitude that generally can’t be done from offshore.

  • Usually I don’t learn post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do it! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice article.|

    ago7 months

    ISIS’ use of suicide attacks has fundamentally discredited Pape, whose work was already under sharp criticism for its selective focus on suicide bombings and politicized definition of “occupation.”

    I consistently see Pape cited by people invested in absolving religions of responsibility for various human rights abuses and violence. Pape’s shocking characterization of ISIS as “nationalists” shows how profound his ideological bias is.

  • Very compelling and sound arguments backed by solid research. I hope policy makers would give it a read.