In the decade since 9/11, the United States has:
• conquered and occupied two large Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq)
• compelled a huge Muslim army to root out a terrorist sanctuary (Pakistan)
• deployed thousands of special forces to numerous Muslim countries (Yemen, Somalia, Sudan etc.)
• imprisoned hundreds of Muslims without recourse
• waged a massive war of ideas involving Muslim clerics to denounce violence and new institutions to bring Western norms to Muslim countries
• killed Osama bin Laden, the inspirational leader of Al Qaeda who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Have these actions – which some have called, “World War IV” – made America safe?
In a narrow sense, America is safer and justice has been served. There has not been another attack on the scale of 9/11. Our defenses regarding immigration controls, airport security, and the disruption of potentially devastating domestic plots have all improved. This is the positive side of the ledger.
In a broader sense, however, America is not safe enough. Anti-American suicide terrorism rose rapidly around the world in the decade since September 11, 2001. In 2003, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously asked, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” As even a casual glance at the facts shows, the answer is a disappointing no. The negative side of the balance sheet is daunting.
September 11, 2001 was so devastating largely because it was a suicide attack in which 19 hijackers killed themselves in the course of killing 3,000 innocent people. So the key to tracking the threat is to focus on suicide terrorism, especially those inspired against Americans.
Look at the numbers. In 2000 – the year before 9/11 – there were 20 suicide attacks around the world and one – against the US Cole in Yemen – was anti-American inspired. By contrast, in 2010, there were well over 200 suicide attacks and about 90 percent were anti-American inspired – against US troops or those working with America – a ten-fold increase over the past decade.
Each month, there are more suicide terrorists trying to kill Americans and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Muslim countries than in all the years before 2001 combined. Yes, these attacks are mostly (although not exclusively) focused on military and diplomatic targets. However, so too were the anti-American suicide attacks before 2001. It is important to remember that the 1995 and 1996 bombings of US troops in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and (as mentioned) bombing of the US Cole in Yemen in 2000 were the crucial dots that showed the threat was rising prior to 9/11. Today, such dots are occurring by the dozens every month.
American military policies have not stopped the rising wave of extremism in the Muslim world. The reason has not been lack of effort, lack of will among the American people, lack of bipartisan support for aggressive military policies, lack of funding, or lack of genuine patriotism.
No. American military policies are not failing for the standard excuses. Something else is creating the mismatch between America’s effort and the results.
What went wrong
America has been waging a long war against terrorism, but without much serious public debate about what is truly motivating terrorists to kill us. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, this was perfectly understandable. If toppling the Taliban was necessary to take out Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan, so be it.
But, in an instant, there was also a great need to know, or perhaps better to say, to “understand” the events of that terrible day. A simple narrative was readily available and a powerful conventional wisdom began to exert its grip. Since the 9/11 hijackers were all Muslims, it was easy to presume that Islamic fundamentalism was the central motivating force driving the 19 hijackers to kill themselves in order to kill us. Within weeks after the attack, surveys of American attitudes show that this presumption was fast congealing into a hard reality in the public mind. Americans immediately wondered, “Why do they hate us?” and almost as immediately came to the conclusion that it was because of who we are, not what we do.
The narrative of Islamic fundamentalism did more than explain why America was attacked. It also pointed toward a simple, grand solution – one whose ambition only made it seem all the more worthy in light of the trauma of that terrible day. If Islamic fundamentalism was driving the threat and if its roots grew from the culture of the Arab world, then America had a clear mission: to transform Arab societies – with Western political institutions and social norms as the ultimate antidote to the virus of Islamic extremism.
The only problem: Islamic fundamentalism is not the main driver of suicide terrorism. What drives this phenomenon more than any other single factor is foreign military presence – which inspires wave after wave of individuals to join terrorist groups in order to carry out suicide attacks in the hope that these would end the foreign presence in their lands.
On September 11, 2001, the United States had deployed over 12,000 combat forces to countries on the Persian Gulf (5,000 in Saudi Arabia and 7,000 in other countries along the rim). We now know that these troops were the principle rallying cry of Osama bin Laden in his efforts to mobilize volunteers for suicide attacks against the United States and that the martyr videos of the 9/11 hijackers – their last video will testimonials – prominently justify their actions as in response to Western military control of the governments on the Arabian peninsula. Further, escalation of American combat forces in the region for the Iraq war directly fueled still further anti-American suicide terrorism.
Hence, the grand solution became the grand catalyst for more anti-American inspired suicide terrorism than ever before.
What we know
Vast new research on suicide terrorism has produced important new knowledge. Here is a summary of what we know:
• Occupation causes suicide terrorism
Over 95% of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation
• The more occupation, the more suicide terrorism
As America has occupied two large Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq with a total population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically – from about 300 from 1980 to 2003 to 2000+ from 2004 to 2010. Further, 90% of all suicide attacks are now anti-American.
• Indirect occupation is the equivalent of direct occupation
The US compelled Pakistan to deploy 100,000 troops against the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Pakistani suicide attacks escalated dramatically.
• Ending occupation can end suicide terrorism even without transforming Muslim countries
Since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza and large parts of the West Bank, Palestinian suicide attacks are down over 90%. Since America and its allies began withdrawing from Iraq, suicide attacks are also falling fast.
• Empowering local groups can reduce suicide terrorism
In Iraq, the surge’s apparent success was not the result of increased US military control of Anbar Province, but rather quite the reverse – the empowerment of Sunni tribal leaders for their own security, commonly called the Anbar Awakening.
• Taking power away from local groups can escalate suicide terrorism
In Afghanistan the ISAF’s expansion strategy, designed to exert more central government control over the Pashtun tribes in the Western and Southern provinces, caused a resurgence in the Taliban and an increase in the number of suicide attacks.
The tide is turning
The oxygen for America’s strategy is, fundamentally, how we understand the root cause of the terrorist threat we face. In recent years, the intellectual climate has begun to change. In January 2010, a Zogby poll found that 27% of Americans now believe that the “most important factor” motivating terrorists to attack the United States is that they “resent Western power and influence” compared to 33% who still think the main motive is “make Islam the world’s dominant religion.”
American military policies are also changing. The United States started to draw down military forces from Iraq in 2008, has already removed 100,000 troops, and is on schedule to end its commitment of heavy combat forces there next year. Since their peak in 2007, suicide attacks in the country have fallen by over 80 percent and the country is more stable today than at any point since America conquered the country in 2003.
In Afghanistan, President Obama announced in July his plan to remove about a third of US forces from the country over the next year and to continue drawing down thereafter. If so, there is good reason to expect that suicide attacks will soon begin to decline significantly there as well.
Fortunately the US does not need to station large ground forces in either Iraq or Afghanistan to keep them from being a significant safe haven for Al Qaeda or any other anti-American terrorists. This can be achieved by a strategy called “Off-Shore Balancing” that relies on over-the-horizon air and naval forces and rapidly deployable ground forces, combined with empowering local groups to oppose the terrorist groups. No matter what happens in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US will maintain a significant air and naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean for many years, and those forces are well-suited to striking terrorist leaders and camps in conjunction with local militias – just as they did so successfully against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001.
Above all, to truly move beyond the war on terror, it is important for scholars, policy intellectuals, government leaders, and the public at large to continue to educate themselves about the factors that lead to suicide attacks like 9/11. The more we know, the fewer mistakes and the better our policies – and the more we can all live our lives in peace.
Robert A. Pape is Professor and Director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and author of Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (2010).