The West Needs to Avoid Falling into ISIS’s Trap: A Conversation with Robert Pape

On January 14, 2016, Indonesia became the latest country to fall victim to ISIS’s terror attacks, killing four people and wounding at least 25 others in the heart of Jakarta. Similar deadly ISIS attacks took place only months ago in Ankara, Paris, and Beirut. These attacks, according to Robert Pape, signify a critical shift in ISIS’s strategy. In our last interview with Pape, the Chicago Policy Review investigated the motivations behind suicide terrorism, particularly within ISIS. The group’s shift in strategy warrants another close look at what Pape considers a trap that ISIS hopes Western nations will not only fall into—but one that it can exploit to increase its influence.

Robert Pape is a 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 Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, as well as on Nightline, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NPR. Before coming to Chicago in 1999, he taught international relations at Dartmouth College, and air power strategy for the United States Air Force’s School of Advanced Airpower Studies. Pape received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1988.


In your last interview, you discussed your findings from Dying to Win and how the primary motivations of the vast majority of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003 were driven by secular motivations. Specifically, suicide attacks that were in response to military occupation. Is this still the case with ISIS?

Yes, it is. This past year, the international coalition succeeded in rolling back ISIS’s territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS feels this military pressure and is lashing out in response. The international coalition is now part of a combined strategy to weaken ISIS. It includes Western air pressure, economic support, and local ground forces maneuvered by the local Kurds in Iraq and Syria, as well as by the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. As a result, ISIS has lost 10 percent of its territory this past year.

You argue that there was a noticeable change in ISIS’s strategy between 2014 and 2015. Prior to this, ISIS attacks were concentrated in Syria. Now, they have occurred in Paris, Ankara, and Jakarta. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger jet. How do these attacks signify a shift in strategy?

ISIS’s primary goal is to obtain de facto sovereignty over the Arab, Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria—the western part of Iraq and eastern parts of Syria, which are comprised of about 10 to 12 million Arab Sunnis. From 2013 to 2014, for the first year and a half that ISIS came together, it was gaining territorial control. In 2014, its control spread to Mosul, western Iraq. In the summer of the same year, ISIS gained territorial control and threatened to take territory near Baghdad and the Kurdish areas of Irbil. These are important areas to ISIS because they are the oil rich regions of Iraq. However, the group lost 10 percent of its net territory due to the international coalition and other regional, on-ground forces. The international coalition is made up of the US, Great Britain, France, a number of European countries, but also Turkey.

To the best of our knowledge, ISIS began planning the Paris attacks following the losses it suffered at the hands of the international coalition. Up until August 2015, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks had been working independently. When the idea of attacking particular targets in Paris materialized, he was able to coordinate with three teams of attackers in a very organized fashion. It was around a month earlier when their sophisticated attacks began: the first was on October 10, when suicide bombers struck one of the major military players against ISIS—the Turkish capital, Ankara. Internally, Turkey is divided, as Turkish officials are as concerned about the Kurds as they are about ISIS. ISIS is in a position where it might be able to push Turkey out of a coalition against it. The second attack occurred on October 31 against Russia. That occurred just three weeks after the Russian military intervened in Syria to support the key enemies of ISIS—the Assad regime. Three weeks later, ISIS successfully downed a Russian airliner in Sharm el-Sheikh. Finally, the attack in Paris occurred on November 13, which was again a strategic attack against a member of the international coalition.


Is ISIS becoming desperate? Do you think we are witnessing its unraveling?

Yes. ISIS is acting out of desperation and looking for a game changer. It seeks to coerce members of the coalition to back off, that is, knock Turkey, France, or Russia out of the equation. Alternatively, ISIS would like to provoke an overreaction by causing members of the coalition to deploy large ground combat forces into Iraq and Syria; this would give ISIS a strategic mobilization advantage. This type of provocation will help stimulate more recruits for ISIS in the long term.

The attacks in Paris and Beirut were both devastating, but the response that the world, particularly Western countries, had towards both were starkly different—people noticed. Do you think the polarity of such reactions empowers groups like ISIS in that it implies that Western lives are more valuable than Middle Eastern or Muslim lives when they are lost to acts of terror?

I think it is a polarity that ISIS can exploit. It is certainly going to be the case that Americans care more about American lives than others—the same logic applies to the French. That being said, one of the things that the West has been very weak in articulating is the extent to which it has gone to support Muslims who are under threat. In the 1990s, the US and other Western powers intervened to support the Bosnians against the Serbs. The support for Syrian refugees is rarely discussed as support for mostly Muslim refugees. We are not fully describing the extent to which American and Western policy has been trying to help ordinary Muslims deal with the ravages of war. This is as true now in Syria as it was historically in Bosnia. By failing to discuss it in this way, we are handing ISIS a propaganda tool. This discursive failure makes it easy for ISIS to paint an image of Western double standards, and feeds into the ‘us versus them’ mentality that ISIS is so adept at playing up in social media. We should be talking more about the efforts we have taken to help ordinary Muslims. To be clear, more should be done, and more can be done.

Can you describe what ISIS calls the “gray zone” and whether you think Western, particularly American, political rhetoric feeds into ISIS’s larger strategy of creating a clash of civilizations?

The rhetoric that our politicians and journalists use, and how quick we are to worry about all Muslims in the US or all Muslims in Europe as being potential terrorists, is incredibly damaging. It creates the idea that the majority of Muslims in Europe or America can be radicalized, based on a fractional minority. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in that people who believe themselves to be labeled as enemies may defend themselves violently. It is up to us to focus on the relatively small number of people taking on violent acts; otherwise, we will feed into ISIS’s ability to recruit from disaffected populations.

Isn’t focusing on ISIS alone a problem? So much of the discourse surrounding ISIS occurs in a vacuum, when the factors that gave the group life are neither new nor shocking, according to your database research. Is ISIS the Frankenstein of American Foreign Policy?

ISIS is definitely the Frankenstein of American foreign policy. It is a product of the misguided war on terror that we pursued 10 years ago. In 2003, the US believed it was crucial to topple Saddam Hussein, to invade Iraq, to change the government, and to rid the Middle East of ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’ We produced many more terrorists than we ever killed. We pursued a policy that spawned Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS. The invasion of Iraq resulted in an anarchical vacuum that was exacerbated by the Arab Spring. The resulting instability in the region created ungoverned space in Syria.

ISIS might appear to the public as having sprung up out of nowhere, but it is really the manifestation of the misguided policies of the war on terror. Those policies have long-term consequences: If we were to send ground forces into Iraq and Syria, we could create a ripple effect that may start to destabilize Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and create even more ungoverned space in the Persian Gulf.

So, what is the way forward?

The current policy is the best policy we can pursue. The need for a military intervention in the Persian Gulf is a result of America’s and the world’s interest in access to oil. If terrorists were to control oil in the Persian Gulf, this would threaten the world’s economy—which is why we cannot walk away from the problem altogether. The big risk is that the American election cycle might incentivize the American public to demand a provocative and overreactive policy. However, we must bear in mind that a major intervention did not work in the past, and it likely will not work again.

Featured Photo: cc/(LorenzoT81, photo ID: 70281079, from iStock by Getty Images)

Salwa Shameem
Salwa is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is interested in international development, peace and conflict, and national security. She is currently a producer at Seftel Productions and a media consultant.

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