Pape enters the public eye

By Anna Vinnik

Since the August publication of his article on suicide terrorism in the American Political Science Review and a recent op-ed in The New York Times on the same subject, Robert Pape, associate professor in political science, has become the object of much attention.

Pape’s conclusion—that the organizations that back suicide bombings have a clear political agenda—dispels the myth that Islamic fundamentalism is the phenomenon behind the escalating popularity of suicide bombing as an agent of terror.

“Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel liberal democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider their homeland,” Pape wrote in The New York Times on September 22, 2003.

A few months ago, Pape received a call from a CIA agent interested in his research, which he has been conducting for approximately one year. Impressed by the originality and the relevance of Pape’s work, the agent then related it to Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, during a morning meeting.

Pape’s ideas have also piqued international notice. Recently, a representative of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan requested 10 copies of the report for U.N. officials.

In addition, Pape is regularly informed of stories written about his work in other part of the world, and foreign publications have contacted him for interviews. For example, the magazine Focus, the German equivalent of Newsweek, plans to feature his study.

Pape’s work exemplifies how academic research can influence decision-makers. He said that he is pleased to see people interested in the actual research, in addition to the policy lessons which may be drawn from the work. “They are seeing for the first time a systematic collection of data on suicide attacks,” Pape said.

When he started work on the topic over a year ago, Pape was surprised to find that no database existed on the suicide terrorism in governmental circles. From the database he created, which lists all suicide attacks over the last two decades, he made several deductions: that the attacks are always part of organized campaigns, that the targeted areas are always democracies, and that the ultimate goal of the attacks is to force democratic governments to withdraw from occupied territories.

“You see the individual attacks, you see the concessions made by democracies, but you do not think of it as strategic thinking,” said third-year in the College Bryan Gallagher. “I always assumed that there were periods of violence followed by concessions, but I didn’t think these things were related.”

Against the backdrop of this research, some authorities and academics have begun questioning the policy of removing Islamic dictators and then occupying their countries. Furthermore, to apply this view to current events is to say that Pape believes that the occupation of Iraq will breed more terrorism.

But he cautions that he has bad news for both liberals and conservatives. If going into Iraq made it easier for terrorist campaigns to recruit suicide bombers, withdrawing from Iraq will also strengthen their cause. According to Pape, the terrorists will see the concession as evidence that their strategies are working.

The long-term solution, in Pape’s view, is to ease our dependence on oil so that we no longer need to keep up a presence in the middle east. In the short term, the United States should avoid entertaining any imperial ambitions.

Pape does not believe his research will translate directly into policy because governments have domestic political constraints that would make it difficult to implement his suggestions. Nor does he believe that his work is the final report on terrorism, saying that the conclusions of the social sciences are almost never directly applicable. “We can tell when we are headed in the wrong direction and when we are headed in the right direction, but it doesn’t tell you what the full cocktail of variables is,” Pape said.