A number of bloggers, including Juan Cole and Kevin Drum, are talking about Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor who has been studying the phenomenon of suicide terrorism. Basically, Pape's findings indicate that, contra the GOP portrait of crazed religious zealots thirsty for infidel blood, most suicide bombers act based on quite tangible political goals, and that suicide terrorism is a more or less direct response to the presence of US troops in the Middle East, a response that ceases when this provocation is removed.
Drum links to this interview with Pape in The American Conservative:
Robert Pape: Over the past two years, I have collected the first complete database of every suicide-terrorist attack around the world from 1980 to early 2004.Note that last question again. Pape is saying that the chances of a WMD attack on the US rise as the occupation continues. That is, the presence of US forces in Iraq is making it more likely that Americans will be the victim of a catastrophic terrorist attack.
...This wealth of information creates a new picture about what is motivating suicide terrorism. Islamic fundamentalism is not as closely associated with suicide terrorism as many people think...
TAC: So if Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily a key variable behind these groups, what is?
RP: The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland ... every major suicide-terrorist campaign—over 95 percent of all the incidents—has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.
TAC: That would seem to run contrary to a view that one heard during the American election campaign, put forth by people who favor Bush’s policy. That is, we need to fight the terrorists over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.
RP: Since suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation and not Islamic fundamentalism, the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies over there, if you would, is only likely to increase the number of suicide terrorists coming at us.
Since 1990, the United States has stationed tens of thousands of ground troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and that is the main mobilization appeal of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. People who make the argument that it is a good thing to have them attacking us over there are missing that suicide terrorism is not a supply-limited phenomenon where there are just a few hundred around the world willing to do it because they are religious fanatics. It is a demand-driven phenomenon. That is, it is driven by the presence of foreign forces on the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. The operation in Iraq has stimulated suicide terrorism and has given suicide terrorism a new lease on life.
TAC: If you were to break down causal factors, how much weight would you put on a cultural rejection of the West and how much weight on the presence of American troops on Muslim territory?
RP: The evidence shows that the presence of American troops is clearly the pivotal factor driving suicide terrorism.
TAC: Has the next generation of anti-American suicide terrorists already been created? Is it too late to wind this down, even assuming your analysis is correct and we could de-occupy Iraq?
RP: Many people worry that once a large number of suicide terrorists have acted that it is impossible to wind it down. The history of the last 20 years, however, shows the opposite. Once the occupying forces withdraw from the homeland territory of the terrorists, they often stop—and often on a dime.
That doesn’t mean that the existing suicide terrorists will not want to keep going. I am not saying that Osama bin Laden would turn over a new leaf and suddenly vote for George Bush. There will be a tiny number of people who are still committed to the cause, but the real issue is not whether Osama bin Laden exists. It is whether anybody listens to him. That is what needs to come to an end for Americans to be safe from suicide terrorism.
TAC: What do you think the chances are of a weapon of mass destruction being used in an American city?
RP: I think it depends not exclusively, but heavily, on how long our combat forces remain in the Persian Gulf. The central motive for anti-American terrorism, suicide terrorism, and catastrophic terrorism is response to foreign occupation, the presence of our troops. The longer our forces stay on the ground in the Arabian Peninsula, the greater the risk of the next 9/11, whether that is a suicide attack, a nuclear attack, or a biological attack.
Of course, some have been saying this for years, but whatever it takes to get people to listen to reason is fine by me.
What I'm about to say is completely speculative; I have absolutely no evidence for it. But I have a strange feeling that the London bombings might have quietly marked a sea change in the approach to the issue of terrorism in the political arena and the media. For some reason, after London, it seemed more 'okay' for even mainstream, corporate media figures to question the wisdom of Bush's 'war on terror'. Like it's finally dawning on everybody that just because the Bush administration says something is true doesn't mean it is. That it's perfectly legitimate, and not treasonous, to ask whether the foreign policy of Bush and Blair is making things worse with regard to terrorism, is making citizens of the US and the UK less safe. That maybe Bush isn't infallible after all.
We'll see, I guess. I'm probably wrong; there's really no rational reason to believe this. It's possible, but it's also possible that we'll just keep going on as before, and Zell Miller, Jr. will be giving a speech at the 2028 Republican convention warning us that if Chelsea Clinton is elected president, she'll immediately institute an all-spitball national defense and the forced Koran lessons will begin before the end of her first term.
But somehow, in a way I can't explain or prove, it just feels like people are, just maybe, starting to come to their senses. We can only hope.