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7/24/2005

It's not who we are, it's what we do

That's the title of a Slate story about the increasingly obvious fact that Islamic terrorists aren't non-rational zombies killing infidels just for the sake of it, but rather that they are acting in response to specific actions by Western powers.
Three new studies, by very different authors taking very different tacks, reach much the same conclusion about modern terrorism: that its practitioners, especially its foot soldiers, are motivated not so much by Islamic fantasies of the caliphate's restoration and the snuffing of freedom, but rather by resistance to foreign occupation of Arab lands.

...The most provocative and widely read study is Robert Pape's book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape, a military historian and professor at the University of Chicago, catalogued every terrorist suicide bombing from 1983 to 2003—in all, 315 attacks carried out by 462 bombers. He concludes that, except for a couple of dozen random incidents, these bombings were elements of various coordinated campaigns—involving 18 different organizations over a 20-year period—all of which had in common "a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from the terrorists' national homeland."

A narrower, but in some ways more revealing, study was published in March by the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center. The study's author, Reuven Paz, researched the backgrounds of 154 foreign Arabs who had died in Iraq during the previous six months, including 33 who had died in suicide bombings.

Paz's key finding: "The vast majority of Arabs killed in Iraq have never taken part in any terrorist activities prior to their arrival in Iraq."

This is consistent with a study commissioned by the Saudi government and set to be published next month by the conservative Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Its author, Nawaf Obaid, a consultant in London, researched the backgrounds of about 250 Saudis who went to fight in Iraq ... Obaid had access to official Saudi interrogations; he and his assistant also interviewed many of the fighters' families.

Nearly all these Saudis, Obaid told me in a phone interview, were 16- to 25-year-olds, many from prominent families. They watched the destructive images of the war on Arabic satellite TV, and they read the jihadist Web sites' urgings to go repel the infidel's occupation. ("Abu Ghraib was just a disaster," Obaid said, "a resounding call to these kids.")

President George W. Bush frequently depicts the foreign Arabs in Iraq as comrades of the 9/11 hijackers, enemies of freedom who might be wreaking havoc here if they weren't fighting over there. Yet if the Arabs in Paz's and Obaid's studies are typical, Bush's portrait is off the mark. Their calls to arms may be drenched in Pan-Islamic rhetoric. Those doing the calling—Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—may have more cataclysmic ambitions. But the young fanatics on the ground, those streaming across the Iraqi border, seem motivated more by the classic goals of national liberation movements.

It's worth noting, in this regard, that Bin Laden himself issued his jihad against all Americans and infidels—which led to the 9/11 attacks—as a response to the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil during and after the 1991 Gulf War. Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the 2003 Iraq war, recognized this. One rationale he gave for invading Baghdad was that for its own security, the United States needed to withdraw from Saudi Arabia but that doing so would destabilize the region if Saddam Hussein were left in power. (He didn't stop to think that the invasion might sink us in a much deeper occupation, which would lure more terrorists still.)

Again, none of this is to condone al-Qaida's atrocities or to mitigate their monstrousness. But it does fit with the theory that the alarmingly widespread fury against the United States these days is directed—as Pape puts it in his book—not so much at who we are but at what we do.
That it is the actions of the US which motivate most of the anti-American sentiment in the world, rather than American "freedoms" or whatever such nonsense they're telling the children today, is beyond dispute at this point. It's time to get serious about terrorism, and that means getting smart about terrorism. It is a very predictable phenomenon, and as such it is easy to avoid. It is also a phenomenon that, while morally reprehensible, tends to emerge in response to real injustices, the wrongness of which is not mitigated by that of the reaction; therefore avoiding terrorism is not only in the interest of the US, Britain and other Western states, the steps necessary for this avoidance are also morally obligatory in their own right.

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