In October 2015, two suicide bombers killed more than 100 people outside a railway station in the Turkish capital of Ankara. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s modern history, but it was also something more, something not fully appreciated at the time, according to Robert Pape, a terrorism expert at the University of Chicago: The U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State—a mixture of air strikes and support for local ground forces—had turned ISIS into a “cornered animal.” And the animal was lashing out.
The group’s suicide attacks in its sanctuaries of Syria and Iraq declined, displaced by complex acts of terrorism abroad: the Ankara attacks, followed by the October 2015 downing of a Russian plane over Egypt, the November 2015 Paris attacks, more explosions in Turkey, and most recently triple bombings, at least two of them suicide blasts, in Brussels. All have appeared meticulously designed to kill as many people as possible in countries that are all, to differing degrees, fighting the Islamic State. The question is: Why is the animal suddenly flailing about? Why are bombs going off in Brussels now?
On display in Belgium this week, Pape argues, is what he calls the “strategic logic of suicide terrorism.” Deciphering the logic of terrorists is maddeningly difficult, which is why the study of terrorism is an exercise in competing theories, all circling The Truth at varying distances.
Pape’s theory is that suicide terrorism is fundamentally a response to military intervention—in the form of a rival occupying territory that the terrorists prize. For “nationalist” reasons, the terrorists want to control that territory, as any state would, through a monopoly on force and exclusive political authority. The argument here isn’t that all territorial occupations produce suicide terrorism, or that every individual terrorist is chiefly concerned with contested land, but rather that terrorist groups that today practice suicide terrorism tend to be grappling with dynamic losses of territory. Drawing on a database of suicide attacks around the world since 1982, Pape claims that his geopolitical paradigm has more predictive power than, say, explanations for terrorism that focus on religious fanaticism.
The idea that ISIS is primarily driven by extreme Islamist ideology suggests that “the targeting logic of a group comes right from its [religious] doctrine,” Pape told me. “Given that ISIS’s doctrine has not changed—that is, it’s still a religious group—then there should never have been a shift of its targeting tactics.” And yet a shift in who it targets seems to have occurred. Why?
In Pape’s view, ISIS has trained its sights on countries like Belgium, France, Russia, and Turkey because the U.S. coalition’s air and ground campaign, along with military operations by Russia and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have significantly eroded ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq in recent months (Belgium has participated in air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, but not Syria).
According to one recent estimate by IHS Jane’s 360, the Islamic State lost control of 14 percent of its territory between January and mid-December 2015, and an additional 8 percent in the last three months (in the map below, red represents losses, green gains, gray no change).
In other words: In response to Ted Cruz’s statement on Tuesday, following the bloodshed in Brussels, that “radical Islam is at war with us,” Pape might agree that ISIS is a radical Islamist group. But he likely wouldn’t agree that the precepts of radical Islam are determining the course of the war that ISIS is waging.
“The ebbs and flows of territory are predictive of the group’s targeting logic,” Pape told me, and the evolution of that logic over the last six months might be the key lesson from the Brussels attacks, even if the violence may have more proximate causes as well, such as the arrest last week in Brussels of one of the plotters of the Paris attacks. “ISIS is now losing in Iraq and Syria—they’re losing actually quite badly—and so they’re now in a position where they’re trying to change a losing game,” he said. The less in control the organization is at home, the more it strikes at targets abroad.
Pape argues that interpreting incidents like the Brussels attacks as a sign of weakness rather than strength is critical. He worries that if people conclude from the Belgium bombings that ISIS is stronger than ever, they’ll be more likely to support a major American or European ground offensive against the group. Such an offensive, he believes, will greatly increase the risk of suicide terrorism against Western targets beyond what's likely to result from the current air campaign, without offering a higher probability of success in the fight against ISIS.
In defending the link between fierce struggles for territory and the use of suicide bombing as a strategy, Pape cites historical examples ranging from Chechen terrorists in Russia to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. In 2010, he applied the theory to America’s occupations of Afghanistan starting in 2001 and Iraq starting in 2003. “From 1980 to 2003, there were 343 suicide attacks around the world, and at most 10 percent were anti-American inspired,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. “Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000, over 91 percent against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.” The invasion of Iraq, he has argued in the past, “produced the largest suicide campaign in history.”
But if the occupation of territory spurs terrorism, why does it take the form of suicide terrorism specifically? Suicide attacks, Pape explained, are particularly well-suited to accomplishing two goals. One is “to coerce the target government to pull back its military forces, and suicide attacks kill more people—it’s the lung cancer of terrorism—than non-suicide attacks by a factor of ten.” The public will be terrorized by the scale of the carnage and the sinister nature of the suicidal act itself, the logic goes. Under pressure, their government will be forced to retreat from the territory that the terrorists desire.
Second, in the regions where terrorist groups operate, “suicide attacks are excellent against security targets to hold territory.” Those security forces—be they American or Iraqi or Sinhalese—are usually better armed and equipped than the terrorists. “Suicide attacks are a way to level that tactical advantage,” Pape explained.
“If you’re just going to go up against a tank with a handgun, it’s a lot less effective than some coordinated suicide attacks,” he continued. “That’s why, when there was a pitched battle for [the Iraqi city of] Ramadi last May, there were complex suicide attacks [by ISIS] used in coordination with other non-suicide attacks to basically seize and hold territory against an opposing force. That’s not something that we see in El Salvador with the [guerrilla group] FMLN [during the Salvadoran Civil War]. We don’t see that with the [Viet Cong] in South Vietnam [during the Vietnam War]. They’re not holding territory in a pitched way. … Suicide attack allows for more aggressive, coercive punishment and it allows for more aggressive territorial strategies.” While these strategic considerations have remained fairly constant across time and place, he says, what’s changed in the last 10 or 15 years is that in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, suicide bombing has increasingly been used as a tactic to take and hold territory.
On Tuesday, ISIS justified its suicide attacks as retaliation against “the Crusader states” for “their aggression against the Islamic State,” adding that it had targeted “Crusader Belgium” in particular because it would “not stop targeting Islam and its people.” The statement had all the trappings of a religious message, but its essential argument echoed Pape’s secular thesis: Brussels was being targeted for the participation of Belgium, and European countries more broadly, in the anti-ISIS coalition. What if we take the jihadists at their word?