A Cause That's To Die For

A review of Cutting the Fuse by Robert Pape and James K. Feldman

By David Benson

The University of Chicago's Professor Robert Pape, PhD '88, has weighed in yet again on the causes of suicide terrorism with his newest book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, co-authored with James K. Feldman. Pape and Feldman continue to contend that the primary cause of suicide terrorism is foreign occupation. This assertion contradicts the prevailing logic that suicide terrorism is a product of radical Islamic theology. Unsurprisingly, this contention has both advocates and detractors.

Obviously not all occupations produce suicide attacks, and Pape and Feldman introduce three conditions that make suicide attacks more likely. The first, of course, is occupation by a foreign power. The second is the failure of previous efforts at coercion, usually in the form of previous uprisings. Finally, social distance, usually in the form of religious difference between the occupied region and the occupying force, plays a role. To defend this position, Pape and Feldman cite evidence from the nearly exhaustive database of incidences of suicide terrorism around the world that they have compiled with the help of several students here at the University of Chicago.

Pape and Feldman contend that the high correlation between suicide attacks and occupation makes a grand strategy of off-shore balancing advisable. Off-shore balancing is a strategy which a nation might engage in when it is not located within the region of a threat. A state can rely on non-invasive measures including Naval and Air Forces, as well as economic measures, to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon.

Empirically, it is very difficult to challenge the assertions that Pape and Feldman make. It is manifestly true that almost all of the cases of suicide terrorism occur within areas of occupation. One troubling case is of course Al Qaeda, where few people other than members of Al Qaeda recognize the presence of American troops on the Arabian Peninsula as an occupying force. Even more troubling is the case of Pakistan—Pape and Feldman have created what seems to be an ad hoc explanation called "Indirect Occupation" to explain the incidences of suicide attacks within Pakistan, which is not occupied in any meaningful way. Even putting aside these relatively few cases, the number of cases which relate to some form of occupation is striking and significant.

However, in the conclusions, Pape and Feldman run into some trouble. Ashworth et al. have already pointed out that Pape's methodology selects on the dependent variable and therefore is not actually able to establish causality. It is therefore problematic that Pape and Feldman seem to suggest that occupation "causes" terrorism. In the book, they are very careful to state that it merely triggers it, which implies a necessary but insufficient condition rather than a causal relationship.

Given that the data as it exists cannot speak conclusively about motivations, it seems likely that Logic of Suicide Terrorism (LST) imposes costs on powerful actors and constraints on weak ones. LST imposes a cost on powerful actors because even when they are acting against overwhelmingly weaker actors, those weaker actors can almost assuredly extract blood and treasure when there is a military occupation. This means that while powerful actors remain powerful and have a relatively free hand when dealing with weak actors, there is a relatively high cost associated with occupation.

On the other hand, LST imposes a fairly strong constraint on weak groups, in that it seems they are only able to muster individuals for suicide attacks in the presence of an ongoing occupation. Altruistic suicide appears actually fairly difficult to get someone to do. It is further possible that something like an occupation makes people feel that opportunity costs related to suicide are dramatically lower, increasing willingness for suicide attacks. It is also possible that most potential suicide attackers must be tightly controlled in a way possible only in areas where terrorist groups are located, and therefore generally near occupied areas. For any, all, or potentially none of these reasons, suicide attacks only occur (in any great number) when there is an ongoing occupation.

Notice that this point of view, and indeed the entire line of argument, does not absolve groups like Al Qaeda of malign intentions. It is possible that Osama bin Laden, and many of his ilk, really do "hate us for who we are," and would willingly send thousands of pedestrian suicide bombers into the streets of the United States, but cannot. What this logic does support is the idea that, even if parts of the Muslim world do "hate us for who we are," they are apparently not willing to kill themselves over it until we are in their neighborhood. After all, the United State has had combat troops on the Arabian Peninsula since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It is not an unreasonable leap to see that as an occupying force, especially for those who are on the receiving end of Saudi politics. Even then the number of suicide attacks against the U.S. were few and far between, until we openly and actively occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the policy prescription front, several people have dissented from Prof. Pape's recommendations, most notably Kori Schake. Once we understand that this data does not represent a causal relationship, we are much better equipped to advance the discussion of strategy usefully.

Fortunately we actually have a pretty good analog in WWII Japan. During WWII, cave fighting was very effective in killing Americans and slowing the Allies advance. By definition cave fighting can only occur where there are caves, which in the Pacific means on islands. Of course, the U.S. had to take some islands, like Iwo Jima, it did—at extraordinary price. However, if the objective was not necessary, then the better option was to simply bypass the island, which the Allies did with great frequency.

Armed with the knowledge of LST, we should treat occupations and objectives in much the same way. It is likely that from time to time we will need to occupy territory, but occupation always carries the risk of suicide attacks. However, if the interest is great enough, then we must bear the cost. However, we can also rest assured that while actions besides occupation may motivate other forms of terrorism, such terrorism will likely take more manageable forms. In other words, while the terrorists might continue to attack us, they will be more easily contained, deterred, and defended against because they will not have set out to kill themselves in the first place.

This oblique critique notwithstanding, Cutting the Fuse is a very important attempt to deal with a problem with all due scholarly rigor. Unfortunately, this is a finding that people who are traditionally conservative seem to want to reject out of hand. While there are problems with the methodology, facts are not subject to ideology. It is important to consider the world in which we live carefully. The United States should assess its interests, its capabilities and the capabilities of its adversaries, and determine strategy on those lines alone, not on emotional reactions to events nor on a desire to complete missions that seemed expedient in the past, but have outlived their usefulness. It is a bad idea to hang on to a policy because someone 'on our side' started it. It is even worse to do so if that policy is counterproductive and expensive.