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Israel, Sri Lanka, and the War on Terror

With guests like VP Cheney and Senator McCain in the last week it was easy to miss this one, but Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, has just been on a working visit to Israel. There he signed an agreement establishing cooperative relations between Israel and Sri Lanka in the areas of culture, science and education.

In a meeting between Wickremanayake and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the two discussed, what else, terrorism and the common threats they both face. Olmert had this unsurprising advice for his Sri Lankan guest: "Do not give in to terrorism because it will only bring destruction to your country. Terrorism must be fought; one must not capitulate to it." OK, no big deal – except that in these days of the dumbed-down war on terror, when the Republican Presidential nominee (intentionally or mistakenly) confuses Iran, their Iraqi Shia allies and Al-Qaeda, the Israeli and Sri Lankan examples can actually be rather informative and worth taking another look at.

The Israeli-Sri Lankan leaders’ tête-à-tête was probably not too illuminating, with lots of platitudes, mutual expressions of support and some kwetching and gewalts and whatever the Sri Lankan equivalents of those are. But the respective challenges posed to Israel and Sri Lanka, especially in the realm of suicide bombings can teach us a great deal— especially when it comes to the tendency here in the US to view terror through the prism of Islamo-fascism and peculiar and perverse shortcomings of Islam.

Since their formation in 1972, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, have waged a relentless insurgency against the Sri Lankan state in order to fulfill their ambitions of an independent state for the ethnic Tamils (the Eelam in the group’s name means homeland).  Suicide attacks—which they have carried out over 200 of in the last 3 decades—have been a prominent tactic in their participation in a civil war which has claimed some 60,000 lives in the last two decades.  In recent weeks, the situation in Sri Lanka has continued to deteriorate, seeing the assassination of two members of parliament by the Tigers and a concurrent abrogation—by the Sri Lankan government—of the official cease-fire that had lasted between the parties (however tenuously) since 2006.

So are the Tamil Tigers an aberration to the otherwise Muslim monopoly on suicide attacks – or do they perhaps hint at the underlying issues that need to be addressed in successfully confronting the phenomenon?  That question really gets to the heart of the critique of the current Global War on Terror that is still insufficiently heard in the US and elsewhere too – that it can after all be about what we do, the policies we pursue (we America, we Israel, we Sri Lanka) rather than about who we are – freedom loving nations merrily going about our freedom-loving business.  The GWOT policy cannot be effectively countered without challenging its basic assumptions and narrative, and US foreign policy cannot turn the corner without over-turning GWOT.

So, that Sri Lankan PM visit to Israel had me reaching for my copy of Robert Pape’s book of a couple of years back - ''Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.'' It is a study that needs to be read and re-read and injected into the national debate – not least as bombings are on the rise again in Iraq and as Presidential candidates on Middle East visits are determined to mis-lead the public again.

To re-cap, Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and Director of Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, gathered the facts on 462 suicide terrorists worldwide between 1980 and 2003. He studied their lives. He read documents put out by the groups they joined. He compiled lists. He plotted numbers on graphs. The project collected data on conflicts in Lebanon, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Israel, among others. Pape calls it "the most reliable and comprehensive survey on suicide terrorists that I'm aware of."  His bottom line when it came to attacks involving American targets - "No matter how you slice it," he says, "it's American policy that's underneath this, not Islamic fundamentalism."

When Pape looked at the beliefs of 384 of the 462 suicide attackers, he found that 43 percent were religious and 57 percent secular. If those whose ideology he could not determine are all assumed to be religiously motivated, it brings the religious group to 52 percent.

In a New York Times op-ed in 2005 entitled "Blowing Up an Assumption” Pape writes that “one has to understand the strategic logic of suicide terrorism.”  Here is a rather lengthy quote from that op-ed, but one well worth reading:

 
“…Since Muslim terrorists professing religious motives have perpetrated many of the attacks, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause, and thus the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, is the obvious solution…

Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003—315 in all…The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.

The leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades (Fatah affiliated, DL) account for more than a third of suicide attacks.

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

Three general patterns in the data support these conclusions. First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks -- 301 of the 315 in the period I studied -- took place as part of organized political or military campaigns. Second, democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists; America, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decades. Third, suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective: from Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign -- 18 organizations in all -- are seeking to establish or maintain political self-determination.

…Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into the Tamil homelands of the island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the huge increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980's, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism.

And, true to form, there had never been a documented suicide attack in Iraq until after the American invasion in 2003. 

Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism.”

 
Bottom line then – it’s the occupation stupid.

Many of Pape’s findings are backed up by another useful resource on suicide bombers, Mia Bloom’s “Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror”.  Bloom, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, also pays special attention to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and further debunks the myth of this being an Islamic or Middle Eastern phenomenon. Bloom actually presents a history of suicide attackers that includes the early Jewish zealots and Sicarii of the First century and the Ismaili Assassins of the Twelfth Century. That reminds me of a slightly cheeky aside from former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami during one of the talks he gave in New York last week as a guest of the TCF and NAF, when Ben-Ami suggested that biblical Sampson may have been the first perpetrator of a suicide attack. He made that comment by the way in the context of outlining his own plan to bring Hamas into the political process, to achieve a ceasefire and support a new Palestinian National Dialogue aimed at re-constituting a Unity Government. Hamas itself began deploying suicide missions after the killing of Muslim worshipers at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs by a settler Baruch Goldstein, in Hebron in 1994…And it goes on.

The most shocking thing perhaps is the extent to which suicide bombings have increased exponentially in the years since Pape’s book.  Robert Fisk has a piece on the sheer scale of suicide bombings in Iraq in the UK Independent newspaper:

“…a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq.  This is a very conservative figure and—given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people—the true estimate may be double this number.  On several days, six—even nine—suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability.  If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper…Never before has the Arab world witnessed a phenomenon of suicide-death on this scale.  During Israel’s remarkable occupation of Lebanon after 1982, one Hizbollah suicide-bombing a month was considered remarkable.  During the Palestinian intifada of the 1980s and 1990s, four per month was regarded as unprecedented.  But suicide bombers in Iraq have been attacking at the average rate of two every three days since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.”

Ending the US occupation in Iraq may not be sufficient at this stage to end that suicide bombing phenomenon immediately but it would likely have a very significant impact and in its absence the trend shows no sign of really changing.  As for our Israeli and Sri Lankan friends – ever thought that maybe the military solutions ain’t really workin’ and that root causes might be worth addressing…anyone for serious, concerted political dialogue?

 

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Daniel Levy

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 26, 2008 6:18 PM.

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