Poisonous Misinterpretations

“This is not an isolated criminal act we are dealing with, it is an extreme and evil ideology whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam.”
Tony Blair

Listen to Scott’s interview with Robert Pape


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Why do they hate us? Does Islam, or a “poisonous misinterpretation” of it, create terrorism? Often we’re told by politicians that a corrupt version of Islam is the cause of the al-Qaeda movement and its most deadly tactic, suicide terrorism. In his book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, University of Chicago associate professor of political science Robert A. Pape wrestles with these questions and more. His conclusions surprised even him. On my July 16 radio show [stream] [download mp3], he said that after 9/11 he assumed the Koran might contain clues toward understanding what motivates a person to commit a suicide bombing. For his book, however, Pape started with the bombings themselves – every documented case between 1980 and 2004 – and noticed some suggestive common threads. Foreign occupation, it seems – not religion – is the core motivating factor behind suicide terrorism. From Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank to Sikhs in India, from the jihadists of 9/11 to the secular Marxist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka – for all of these, it is “a nationalistic response.”

Professor Pape says that while al-Qaeda terrorists are twice as likely to be from a country where radical Salafist/Wahhabist Islam is widely practiced, they are 10 times more likely to have come from a country that has U.S. troops stationed in it. In most cases, this foreign military presence is not hostile in a traditional sense, since the local governments have agreed to their stay. But according to a Saudi poll after 9/11, 95 percent of educated Saudi males between the ages of 25 and 41 agreed with bin Laden’s goal of driving Americans off their holy land.

No suicide bombers have ever come from Iran, where there are no foreign troops. Iraq had never seen a suicide bombing on its soil before U.S. troops arrived in 2003. While Ayatollah Khomeini spent the 1980s criticizing American culture, many people agreed, but none resorted to suicide bombing. When bin Laden cited U.S. forces in the land of Mecca and Medina, men hopped on planes with knives.

The root cause of suicide terrorism is occupation, not Islam, and not the other way around, as the War Party and its ill-informed adherents so righteously claim.

“Don’t you remember Sept. 11? We were attacked!

As Harry Browne has pointed out, history does not begin on 9/11. In fact, American intervention in the Middle East dates back to 1919, when U.S. participation in World War I helped turn the entire region over to the British and the French, who then drew borders to their own liking for the states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, what was Palestine, etc.

Since the Second World War, the U.S. government has dominated each of the Middle Eastern states at one time or another, and consistently a majority of them. It has supported bloody coups; backed fascist monsters like Shah Reza Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak; armed and financed both sides of wars; propped up puppet kings, sultans, and emirs; and helped the Israeli government kill, steal, and destroy with our money. To top it off, it has now waged a bloody war and a terrible blockade of Iraq – all from bases in the “land of two Holy Places,” the Arabian Peninsula.

Surprised that revenge was taken? We’re lucky it took so long.

Michael Scheuer, the formerly anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror and ex-head analyst at the CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, seems to concur. In his book, he lists six policies that have fueled al-Qaeda’s fire:

  • First and foremost are the U.S. forces that spent 13 years in Saudi Arabia and have now been moved to other bases on the Arabian Peninsula. This is a distinction, Pape says, without a difference to bin Laden or his followers, for whom the entire Peninsula is Holy Land. Think of it as a Middle Eastern Monroe Doctrine. It was not American tourists and businessmen that pissed him off either. It was the soldiers.

  • Second is America’s unconditional support for Israel, which occupies Jerusalem.

  • Third are the long-term blockade of Iraq and the bombing of the “no-fly” zone, which, on average, happened once every three days for over a decade. These have now been replaced by the wars against, and ongoing occupations of, Afghanistan and Iraq – even more valuable recruiting tools.

  • Fourth on Scheuer’s list of bin Laden’s motivations is American support for Russia, China, and India in their suppression of Muslims. Seems he spoke too soon on Russia, as the American neoconservatives curiously favor the Chechens in that fight, despite the U.S. government’s rhetorical and financial support of “the fight against Islamist extremism everywhere.”

  • Fifth and sixth are U.S. government support for corrupt governments in the Middle East, none of which are democratic (among these are Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Egypt, and now Iraq), and pressure (that is, threats of violence) to keep oil prices set where American mercantilists want them. Is it a surprise that all of the 9/11 hijackers – at least the one’s whose identities aren’t in dispute – were from countries (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) with governments friendly to our own, and that none of them were from Iran, Iraq, or Syria?

Pape has researched the strategic, social, and individual logic of suicide terrorism. He explains that when occupying forces are culturally and/or religiously alien, they are more vulnerable to demonization. It’s the same with the American soldier who wrote to tell me that Iraqis are “animals” who “all look alike” and are all “guilty of something” as his excuse for taking life.

A major problem with the “fringe religion” theory is that it ignores the fact that supermajorities in Islamic nations agree with bin Laden’s view of American foreign policy, though not necessarily with his tactics. It denies the slightest possibility of a single legitimate grievance that might deserve to be addressed. It also enables our government to maintain its state of war indefinitely.

The profile of the individual suicide bomber is going to need some major revision as well. Pape explains the difference between egoistic and altruistic suicide – the former being the desperate killing of oneself during a period of hopelessness for their own situation, the latter a selfless and noble sacrifice for others, like a soldier jumping on a grenade for his buddies, or a Kamikaze Pilot trying to delay a land invasion of his country. Egoistic suicide has been the model used by westerners to explain suicide bombings. The bombers are losers, they say; young, poor, uneducated, hopeless and full of rage. Having nothing to live for, they murder innocent people because evil Wahhabists brainwash them and promise them virgins in heaven.

According to Pape, this model must be scrapped. Suicide bombers are typically upper-middle class, well-educated, successful, socially connected people who know exactly what they are doing. For their perception of a greater good, they give their lives to kill people as part of a strategic campaign aimed at the people of the West, to turn us against our governments, and to force them to end the occupations and protections.

The action is in the reaction. As we saw in the recent London attacks, suicide terrorism works, particularly against democracies. It is dependent on the ability of the targeted civilians to pressure their governments to end the occupations.

The Royal Institute for International Affairs, the center of the British foreign policy establishment, has concluded [.pdf]:

“There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. … Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and U.S. military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.”

But Jack Straw remains as stubborn as… well, as a Stalinist. According to DeHavilland:

"[F]oreign secretary Jack Straw said he was ‘astonished’ by the report.

"Mr. Straw said the war on terror had been sparked by September 11th, the ‘premeditated unprovoked attack’ on New York and Washington, and not vice versa.

"’The time for excuses for terrorism is over. The terrorists have struck across the world, in countries allied with the U.S., backing the war in Iraq and in countries which had nothing whatever to do with the war in Iraq,’ he said.

"’They struck in Kenya, in Tanzania, in Indonesia, in the Yemen. They struck this weekend in Turkey, which was not supporting our action in Iraq. It is the terrorists who will seek any excuse whatsoever for their action.’

"John Reid, defense secretary, dismissed the report, saying it had failed to proffer any alternatives.

"’The terrorists want to kill anyone who stands in the way of their perverse ideology,’ Mr. Reid said."

The terrorists struck Americans in Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Yemen. Locals who were also killed were collateral damage, so to speak. As for the attack in Turkey, it was committed by our allies the Kurds. Why didn’t Straw go ahead and mention the Mujahedin e-Khalq terrorist cult of Islamo-Marxists that the coalition of the willing sent into Iran to bomb civilians only a few weeks back?

As for 9/11 being unprovoked, I will again quote James Bamford‘s description of bin Laden and Zawahiri’s plan to provoke the U.S. into invading the greater Middle East:

“Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that al-Qaeda should bring the war to ‘the distant enemy’ in order to provoke the Americans to strike back and ‘personally wage the battle against Muslims.’ It was that battle that bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted to spark [with the 9/11 attacks]. As they made clear in their declaration of war ‘against Jews and Crusaders.’ They believed that the United States and Israel had been waging war against Muslims for decades. Now their hope was to draw Americans into a desert Vietnam, with bin Laden in the role of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh.”

The leaders of al-Qaeda believed that the U.S. was already at war against them through our proxies, so they decided to lure us into their desert swamp to “bleed us dry” economically, and to eventually force us out altogether, all the while expanding their own constituency on our dime. It’s working.

The people of England disagree with Jack Straw. Check out this article in the Guardian:

“Two-thirds of Britons believe there is a link between Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq and the London bombings despite government claims to the contrary, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. The poll makes it clear that voters believe further attacks in Britain by suicide bombers are also inevitable, with 75% of those responding saying there will be more attacks. The research suggests the government is losing the battle to persuade people that terrorist attacks on the UK have not been made more likely by the invasion of Iraq. According to the poll, 33% of Britons think the prime minister bears ‘a lot’ of responsibility for the London bombings and a further 31% ‘a little.’ Only 28% of voters agree with the government that Iraq and the London bombings are not connected.”

America’s policy is self-destructive. A “global democratic revolution” – in other words, the maintenance of Western-friendly governments in countries all over the world – can only make matters worse. The war in Iraq sure has.

According to the Boston Globe,

“New investigations by the Saudi Arabian government and an Israeli think tank – both of which painstakingly analyzed the backgrounds and motivations of hundreds of foreigners entering Iraq to fight the United States – have found that the vast majority of these foreign fighters are not former terrorists and became radicalized by the war itself.”

One could do worse than to read Pape’s book, or for that matter, to simply Google “Osama bin Laden” for a few hours. All of bin Laden’s threats are predicated on removing American troops from his backyard. He may want to rule all the world, but all available historical evidence shows that occupation is what galvanizes his followers. They’ll keep signing up until our governments bring the soldiers home from the Middle East and South Asia.

Defeat, in this case, means ending the empire. What right do we have to win?


Author: Scott Horton

Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He’s the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, and the editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,500 interviews since 2003. Scott’s articles have appeared at Antiwar.com, The American Conservative magazine, the History News Network, The Future of Freedom, The National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed a chapter to the 2019 book, The Impact of War. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna Horton. He is a fan of, but no relation to the lawyer from Harper’s. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon.