Killer instincts

What inspires young men and women to become suicide bombers? Religious fanaticism? Nationalism? Alienation? Or some toxic mix of all three?

Topics: Terrorism, Books,

Killer instincts

The announcement that four British citizens set off the July 7 explosions that killed 52 people on London’s transport system sent a shiver down the collective spine of the Western world. It was followed by another, when we learned that the attacks were suicide missions. Those two tremors were distant relatives of the earlier one, after Sept. 11, when it was revealed that the 19 hijackers had spent quite some time living in the U.S. before the attacks, shopping at Wal-Mart and eating takeout pizzas.

Back then, some of us clung to the belief that America’s consumer culture was so darn seductive that no one exposed to it for any duration could resist, especially if the alternative was not only puritanical but literally life-denying. Later, we blamed the oppression, hopelessness and political frustration in the terrorists’ homelands for their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their cause. But the bombers who blew up three tube trains and one bus in London on July 7 were not only the first suicide bombers to strike London, they were the first Western-born suicide bombers ever. The deadliest terrorist tactic has spread to the West, and now the ideology that champions it has infected the West’s citizens, too.

Historians, journalists and social scientists have been trying to explain suicide bombings for years, and the job just got a lot harder. The latest expert to make the media rounds is Robert A. Pape, author of “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” and he’s been in great demand — despite the fact that the London attacks could have been custom-made to invalidate his argument.

The constant refrain of “Dying to Win” blames “the root cause of suicide terrorism” on “foreign occupation and the threat that foreign military presence poses to the local community’s way of life.” As someone who agrees with Pape that stationing American troops in Muslim countries is a really bad idea, even I can see some pretty big holes in this theory. The book’s success among vigorous critics of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq isn’t surprising, but its flaws make it a wobbly prop for their arguments.



Pape is keen to advance the idea that “suicide campaigns are primarily nationalistic, not religious, nor are they particularly Islamic.” To demonstrate this, he presents many charts and diagrams, produced by collecting and manipulating the demographic information pertaining to the 315 suicide terrorist attacks carried out worldwide between 1980 and 2003. The numbers, and the crunching of them, look impressive, but the statistical sample is far too small to merit the kind of certainty Pape indulges in. When you’re trying to milk significance out of ratios like two suicide attackers per 2 million in population (in the case of citizens of the United Arab Emirates), you’re using the wrong tools.

It’s obvious even before you look at Pape’s figures that nationalist struggles are a major — probably the major — cause of suicide terrorism campaigns around the world. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, as he points out, are responsible for more suicide attacks than any other group, and they are largely secular. The Palestinians’ call for the return of their homeland primarily tapped into nationalist yearnings when the movement began — it was only later that religious ones became more compelling.

But those conflicts, and the pieces of land they are fought over, seem far away to most Americans. It is the suicide attacks of al-Qaida and al-Qaida-related groups that most scare and baffle us and about which we have the most questions. And in their case, Pape’s formula is an awkward fit. Although he tries mightily to squeeze al-Qaida into the Procrustean bed of his theory about nationalism being the real cause of all suicide terrorism, he has to bend and stretch the truth to do it.

Here’s an example: Pape would have us believe that al-Qaida is primarily an organization trying to end the “occupation” of Saudi Arabia by U.S. troops. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether the U.S. can really be said to be occupying that nation, he supports this belief about al-Qaida’s motivations by pointing out that the majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. Because that single day accounts for nearly half of all the suicide attackers used by al-Qaida, Saudis also make up the majority of the total number of “martyrs” the group has deployed. These figures, Pape maintains, support his claim that al-Qaida fits his formula; it’s at heart a movement of Saudis trying to get U.S. troops out of their country.

Terry McDermott’s “Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It,” an impressive work of reporting originating in a series of articles for the Los Angeles Times, offers an interesting corrective to this interpretation. “At least half a dozen men selected for the mission never made it into the United States,” McDermott writes of the Sept. 11 conspiracy. Several would-be hijackers couldn’t get visas because they were suspected of being economically motivated immigrants, a particular problem for those from Yemen. Yemen, a backward, political mess of a country in which the U.S. has little oil interest and no troops, has a history of contributing many enthusiastic jihadists to the cause. McDermott notes that Osama bin Laden, whose father was born there, has “demonstrated a tendency to use Yemenis in his plots.”

According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida’s “Martyr’s Battalion” had more eager suicide volunteers than it knew what to do with. But, McDermott writes, “on a purely pragmatic level, it was easier for Saudis than almost anyone else to get American visas.” An INS officer told the 9/11 commission that when he had the temerity to turn back a particularly suspicious Saudi at immigration in Orlando, Fla., in August 2001, his co-workers warned him he could get in trouble for not showing the customary “extraordinary deference” accorded to visitors from that country. (Mohammed Atta, the leader of the hijackers, waited in vain for the man in the terminal.)

Because the total number of men who have killed themselves executing al-Qaida attacks is only 43, a difference in the nationality of even six of those (who might have been Yemeni or Moroccan instead, if the original candidates could have gotten visas) is a difference of a whopping 14 percent. With a sample so small, wouldn’t we learn a lot more by looking at individual cases in depth? If so, we’d realize that Pape’s observation that “al Qaida suicide terrorists are ten times more likely to come from a Sunni country with American military presence than from another Sunni country” is misleading. Many of the Sept. 11 conspirators only became radicalized after moving to Hamburg, Germany, to go to school, and many did not care much about the politics of their homelands.

In fact, to judge from the life stories in “Perfect Soldiers,” one typical path to al-Qaida membership involves a not very religious young man leaving a Muslim home country for the first time to attend college in the West, suffering the alienation of culture shock and seeking the familiarity of a local mosque that happens to specialize in cultivating jihadists. (A Muslim from a nation with which the West has friendly relations is more likely to be able to embark on such a path.) Many of the families of the Sept. 11 hijackers were completely blindsided by their sons’ involvement in the plot; at home the boys had shown no anti-Americanism or interest in politics.

To be fair, Pape is trying to counteract a dumb view of what provokes the suicide terrorism of groups like al-Qaida. This is the “They hate our freedoms” line of propaganda, advanced by such apparatchiks as David Frum and Richard Perle, whose book “An End to Evil” Pape quotes in his conclusion. According to these two Iraq war boosters, “The roots of Muslim rage are to be found in Islam itself,” which they characterize as a toxic faith embraced by backward societies.

Pape seems to think his book can persuade the kind of people who actually believe that al-Qaida members are demented fanatics whose only goal in killing Americans is to revel in their own Christian-hating craziness. I don’t doubt that such people do exist, but they’re not reading books full of numbered tables and references to Emile Durkheim; they’re not reading anything much at all (and if we were lucky, they wouldn’t be voting, either).

For anyone with a more sophisticated view of world politics, the bright line Pape tries to draw between religious and political motivations seems a pointless exercise. It’s hard to conceive of any terrorist group that doesn’t offer a political reason for its actions; even white supremacist cranks claim that a federal government run by blacks and Jews is mistreating European-Americans.

Pape insists that the rationality of a terrorist’s grievance is irrelevant; if bin Laden believes that the U.S. is running Saudi Arabia, that makes his agenda one of national liberation, not religious animosity. But if you apply this standard — the target must be a population that even the attacker agrees was simply minding its own business and not bothering anyone — there’s probably never been a campaign of pure religious hatred. Even the most monstrous leaders purport to be correcting a wrong or fending off a threat when they urge their followers to go out and kill total strangers.

What’s more significant about the various activities of al-Qaida — which has included sending fighters from all over the world to defend Muslims being brutalized in Kosovo and Chechnya — is that for these militants, the political and the religious cannot be separated. It’s true that Islamists would not likely be moved to strike against Western powers if they didn’t believe those powers to be harming Muslims. On the other hand, they wouldn’t feel moved to defend many of those victims if they weren’t Muslims. According to McDermott, when Mohammed Atta railed against the crimes of Americans and Jews to his Hamburg crowd, he didn’t denounce the government of his home country, Egypt, for agreeing to tolerate Israel in exchange for U.S. aid. He talked of the Muslims dying in Palestine and the Balkans.

Perhaps Pape can devise some pretzel twist of a rationale to explain how the four British-born men of Pakistani and Jamaican descent who decided to kill themselves over the war in Iraq were actually engaged in a struggle of national liberation. But those men weren’t Iraqis. They weren’t even Arabs. What made them care about what happens to Iraqis is the fact that Iraqis are (mostly) fellow Muslims. What made Atta willing to die to punish the U.S. for its policies is that the victims of those policies were Muslims. The government that Osama bin Laden dreams of setting up in Saudi Arabia (and eventually elsewhere, if like Pape you give him credit for meaning everything he says) is one that is indistinguishable from his own religious sect. So to say that what drives him is primarily political and not religious just doesn’t wash.

It also doesn’t explain how someone convinced the four British bombers (or the four bombers, whoever they are, who tried and failed to follow their example two weeks later) that it was their duty to kill and die on behalf of people they’ve never met in a country to which they have no personal connection. According to Pape, most suicide bombers in places like Sri Lanka and Palestine come from communities that support and valorize their choice; they see themselves, and are celebrated by those around them, as warriors who give their lives to defend their people.

The British bombers and to a lesser degree other takfiris (Islamist militants who adopt Western appearances and behavior as a cover) live surrounded by friends and family who are horrified to learn of their secret activities. (This was true, as well, of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.) These terrorists belong to small, underground cells and might make occasional trips to Pakistan for training or indoctrination but are, in their home country, opposed to the larger community. Their actions bring their families and friends grief, confusion and shame, not pride and honor. The fellow Muslims they sacrifice themselves for — Iraqis in this case — are strangers.

The members of al-Qaida and its affiliated groups are more alienated than Pape will allow; many of them have chosen an idealized, even abstract community over the real, flesh-and-blood neighborhood they live in. While it’s true that genuine political grievances against the West have won some sympathy for them in the Muslim world, their full political agenda isn’t widely supported in most Muslim nations. (When fundamentalists get a shot at participating in the electoral process, they rarely fare well.) And as long as they can’t succeed in installing Taliban-style governments in the Muslim world, they’re unlikely to give up their lethal tactics (even if the targets may change).

What makes Wahhabism and other fundamentalist sects so appealing to these men? The most insightful book on the subject is one that came out before Sept. 11: Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God.” Armstrong characterizes fundamentalist movements (Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim) as reactions to the vast societal transformations of modernism. The major “back to basics” religious movements of the West coincided with disorienting changes in economies and ways of life: from feudalism to capitalism (which fostered the Protestant Reformation) and from agrarianism to industrialization (coinciding with the birth of fundamentalism in the 19th century).

Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, a way of putting on the brakes in a world that seems to be rocketing forward at a pace beyond the control of any ordinary individual. McDermott relates an anecdote from a German roommate who lived with Atta during his early days in Hamburg. Atta went with the roommate and his friends to see the animated Disney film “The Jungle Book,” and Atta was so appalled by the unruliness of the crowd before the movie began that he “seethed in his seat, muttering over and over again in disgust, ‘Chaos, chaos’” and refused to utter a word on the way home. Militant Islam gave Atta the rigid structure he craved in a world whose disorder revolted and surely terrified him.

The other Sept. 11 hijackers weren’t such control freaks, but they were aimless young men unsure of their place. Journalists have marveled that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers and British bombers came from relatively secular homes. It shouldn’t surprise us that fundamentalism attracts Muslims from Westernized backgrounds, and even some Western Muslims, because its appeal is precisely the refuge it offers from the flux and the instability of modern existence. If you don’t know what to do with your life, fundamentalism tells you, and not only that, it tells you that you are important, a warrior and a hero.

The more mass media you’re exposed to, the greater your sense of how big the world is and how tiny and insignificant you are in comparison, especially when you come from a relatively powerless nation that is losing its own cultural identity to globalism. But even Americans know what it’s like to feel left behind by an economy so digitized and theoretical that you can make a fortune trading in derivatives but you can’t make a living in the manufacturing of actual things. We have our own homegrown fundamentalist movement that feels assaulted by being asked to accept behavior their grandparents considered decadent and immoral. Some of them are even willing to kill for their beliefs if they think it will save innocent victims. If Islamist terrorists “hate our freedom,” they’re not the only ones.

It’s easy to agree with Pape’s recommendations for alleviating the geopolitical tensions that contribute to suicide terrorism: drastically reduce and eventually eliminate the number of American troops stationed on the soil of Persian Gulf nations, reduce our dependence on the region’s oil. (He focuses less on another essential: brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.) But it’s a mistake to think this would end the violence. There are fundamentalists of many faiths fighting the convulsive changes happening all over the planet. They care about more than just one small piece of land; they want to “save” the world.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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