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A Scholarly Look at Terror Sees Bootprints In the Sand

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

Washington was its summer muggiest as Robert A. Pape made his rounds. He was on his second trip to the capital in a week. The first time, he had briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On this day, there was a breakfast discussion with 50 people at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then a visit to Voice of America. By the time he arrived for an interview, lugging a huge plastic binder with his cherished statistics on suicide terrorists, Pape was perspiring profusely.

He was too polite, however, to remove his jacket until a reporter suggested he do so. And he laughed self-consciously as a photographer coaxed him into unfamiliar poses for a portrait. "You can tell that faculty at the University of Chicago don't have this happen every day!" he joked.

Pape's world is a little topsy-turvy right now because the loquacious associate professor of political science is hollering "No!" to some of the conventional wisdom underpinning U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, Pape contends in his controversial new book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," that U.S. policymakers misread why suicide terrorists do what they do.

"Suicide terrorism is not so much committed by religious fanatics looking for a quick trip to paradise as it is by a variety of secular and religious individuals who fear that their societies will be unalterably transformed by a religiously motivated occupier," says Pape, who was sought out last week by CNN and Fox in the wake of the London terrorist attacks.

The "presumed connection" between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism has fueled the U.S. foreign policy project of transforming Muslim societies into secular democracies, sometimes militarily, Pape notes. But "the sustained presence of heavy American combat forces in Muslim countries," he warns in the book, "is likely to increase the odds of the next 9/11."

As for the suicide terrorist magnet of the day, Iraq is heading toward a "disastrous defeat" for the United States because U.S. policies are "unworkable," Pape says. Unless the Iraqi government quickly gets direct control of its own military, he says, "this isn't gonna work. I'm sorry. . . . They've had two years to straighten this out."

The journey that brought Pape, 45, to his against-the-grain theories began Sept. 11, 2001.

Until then, his career had been all about modern military air power. The Erie, Pa., native got his doctorate in international security affairs from the University of Chicago in 1988. He did his dissertation on "coercive air power" because "I was curious why we lost the Vietnam War [with] such a huge advantage in air power."

He was recruited to teach at the Air Force's elite School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and in 1996 published his first book, "Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War."

Pape moved next to Dartmouth College, where he taught for five years until he was lured back to his alma mater. When the 2001 terror attacks took place, Pape was sought out by reporters because of his knowledge of airplanes. But when talk turned to the hijackers, he realized that he knew little about suicide as a terrorist weapon.

So Pape set about gathering facts. He counted 462 suicide terrorists worldwide -- including 71 from al Qaeda -- between 1980 and 2003. He studied their lives. He read documents put out by the groups they joined. He compiled lists. He plotted numbers on graphs.

Pape accumulated a trove of hard data -- the stuff you want at your fingertips when you have to make tough calls, decide what to do about Iraq or fight the Global War on Terror.

This information did not lead Pape to where he thought he was going.

"The prevailing wisdom is that suicide terrorism is largely a function of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, myself, right after 9/11, I went and grabbed the Koran because I wanted to know what's wrong with Islam that this is driving people to do suicide terrorism," he says in the recent interview.

"Well, I was actually surprised" to discover that "what over 95 percent of all suicide attacks around the world since 1980 until today have in common is not religion, but a clear, strategic objective: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland."

So we weren't attacked on 9/11 by Islamic radicals because they hate our freedom?

Negative, says Pape: Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, where nearly 5,000 U.S. combat troops were stationed at the time, with 7,000 more billeted elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.

Although the largest U.S. military presence is now in Iraq, these troops are seen as a threat by some Muslims because of the Americans' overwhelming superiority and ability to quickly redeploy. Osama bin Laden, who has often spoken of the "American occupation of the Arabian Peninsula," said in 1996 that American troops are "going to conquer Iraq," says Pape. "Now fast-forward to 2005. How are you going to persuade somebody that bin Laden's wrong?"

Religion did play a role in 9/11 and other suicide attacks, he says, but not as great a one as many Americans believe.

When Pape looked at the beliefs of 384 of the 462 suicide attackers, he found that 43 percent were religious and 57 percent secular. If those whose ideology he could not determine are all assumed to be religiously motivated, it brings the religious group to 52 percent. Also, 301 of the 315 suicide terrorist attacks perpetrated in the years studied were part of what Pape calls strategic campaigns designed "for specific political, mainly secular goals."

After presenting preliminary data in the summer 2003 edition of the American Political Science Review, Pape got financing to set up the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, which he now directs. Funded by Carnegie Corp., the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory, the project collected data on conflicts in Lebanon, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Israel, among others. Pape calls it "the most reliable and comprehensive survey on suicide terrorists that I'm aware of."

Although terrorist attacks of all kinds are falling, suicide attacks, which Pape regards as the most lethal threat to this country, are climbing. For example, since 9/11 al Qaeda has carried out 15 suicide attacks, killing 439 people. Before 9/11, it had killed 262 people in five attacks.

Pape found out the nationalities of 67 of the 71 al Qaeda suicide attackers. Two-thirds came from countries (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates) that had a U.S. combat presence before the attackers became suicide terrorists. The other third came from countries whose governments are heavily backed by the United States (Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco), Pape found.

"No matter how you slice it," he says, "it's American policy that's underneath this, not Islamic fundamentalism."

Fearing someone might reveal Pape's unique data prior to publication, Random House did not release advance copies of his book before its May 24 sale date, which, Pape noted, "they usually only do for 'kiss-and-tell' kind of books." As would be expected in these polarized times, it is drawing mixed reviews. One slammed its "cockeyed statistics." Another praised its "solid and penetrating research."

Prominent experts on terrorism dish out both praise and criticism.

"In terms of al Qaeda, he's dead wrong," says Marc Sageman, author of the authoritative "Understanding Terror Networks."

Sageman faults Pape for putting al Qaeda in the same basket as such secular organizations as Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and Palestinian groups in Lebanon. "He may be right about the other two," which are a "more traditional form of insurgency," says Sageman, but "he misunderstands al Qaeda. . . . This is not about occupation; it's about [al Qaeda] establishing an Islamic state in a core Arab region."

Sageman also notes that the lead hijacker on 9/11, Mohamed Atta, was Egyptian -- and "to my knowledge, I don't think we are occupying Egypt."

Al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War Inc." and a fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy group, calls Pape's theory "kind of brilliant."

Pape "is part of a wave that includes Sageman who are looking at the data, and [as a result] all our conventional wisdom goes out the window," Bergen says. "It's comforting to think that a bunch of Islamic nut cases fresh out of madrassas are attacking us, but it turns out that a group of rational political actors who are as well educated as most Americans are attacking us."

Still, Bergen notes that Pape's ideas do not fit all cases. The Basques' fight against Spain, the Irish Republican Army's battle with Britain and, most notably, the Afghans' revolt against their Soviet occupiers never spawned suicide terrorists, though all involved perceived occupation. Also, says Bergen, martyrdom and the "powerful mythology around Islamic terrorism . . . can't be ignored."

Michael Scheuer, former CIA analyst and author of "Imperial Hubris," says Pape's statistics "definitively show that people are attacked by suicide car bombs not because of who they are or what they believe, as Presidents Clinton and Bush have been saying to the American people." Instead, "people use car bombs to attack occupying powers. . . . This war is about what we do in the world, not who we are." Several of the 18 legislators at Pape's Capitol Hill briefing last month found his ideas interesting. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) "was impressed with the analysis," his spokesman, Andy Fisher, says. And Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) says he found it plausible. "Apparently his findings are that these folks want to get everyone out of the Middle East who aren't native to it," Thomas says, and although he does not regard the U.S. military presence as an occupation, "I could see how they would use that" word.

Many of the legislators' questions were about Iraq, which had never experienced a suicide terrorist attack before the U.S. invasion. After it, there were 20 in 2003, 48 in 2004 and more than 50 in the first five months of this year, according to Pape's tally.

After two years and $10 billion, the United States can point to only 7,000 to 10,000 combat-ready Iraqi troops, Pape says. Even though "they are being controlled by American military officers all the way down to the brigade level . . . they're never going to be loyal to George Bush," says Pape. "What we need to solve is the loyalty problem of the Iraqi army, and the only way that's going to be solved is if they're loyal to their own government."

Pape recommends immediately putting these Iraqi army units under the direct, exclusive control of the Iraqi government. Otherwise, "we're heading toward a Vietnam-like outcome where the public throws up its hands in disgust, pulls the plug and . . . we withdraw hastily and a government comes to power in Iraq that is not only unstable but anti-American."

Pape says he is "gratified" by the attention his research is getting. "Knowledge alone will not win the war on terrorism," says the professor, "but solid, reliable knowledge is indispensable."

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