Thursday, March 11, 2010

Terror Metrics

A few months ago, the Chicago Project On Security and Terrorism (CPOST), affiliated with the University of Chicago, launched a new website. I checked it out at the time, but found it lacking. They've had some time now to make available their substantial terrorism-related archives, and the result is worth checking out.

CPOST is headed by Robert Pape, author of the much quoted Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. I've read parts of it. In my brief recollection, driven by data sets that he has compiled, Pape frames modern suicide terrorism (I prefer homicide terrorism) as a tool of national liberation, used exclusively against democratic regimes seen to be in occupation of territory. A brief recollection, mind you. Interesting to note that Pape's analysis excludes transnational jihadist organizations like al Qaeda, which do not have traditional nationalist aspirations, and which have executed homicide bombing operations in non-democratic regimes, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Yemen. However, I believe many of these attacks postdate the book's publication date. To my knowledge, he has not updated his conclusions to conform to this reality.

In any case, one can now conduct extensive searches by a range of dates (1981-2001), campaigns, groups, targets, weapons, etc. So, in a cursory examination of the Palestinian war against Israel, between 1994 and the end of 2001 (the period for which data is currently available), 70.4% of all terrorist acts were perpetrated against civilian Israeli targets.

Digging into this data, one finds that 67.9% of all Palestinian terrorist acts were committed on sovereign Israeli soil, while the rest occurred on territories liberated by Israel in 1967 and held under Israeli administration and (post-Oslo) Palestinian Authority rule.

If you are so inclined, you can even examine the murder weapons of choice.

One day soon, CPOST will post access to available martyrdom videos for homicide operations. The final message to the world of dozens, perhaps hundreds of mass murderers - to be fair, some of them mere attempted mass murderers - will be eternally preserved, for posterity and hand wringing.

Aside from the historical and human interest value, it's hard to see what purpose all this information serves. Can statistical analysis derive coherent policy solutions from decades old metrics? Perhaps, but it seems to me, only in the broadest sense. Yes, terrorism and, in particular, homicide bombings, are a favorite tool of modern (almost exclusively Muslim-identified) non-state actors seeking to exert political coercion against nation-states with policies structurally responsive to popular pressure. However, to the extent this data offers answers, they appear largely academic and purely superficial to real world needs. To glean anything of substance, we must either drill down into terrorist tradecraft, to identify specific operational patterns that can be exploited for quite localized defensive or pre-emptive operations, or expand the focus outright to encompass general trends that enable future policy analysis and planning.

The real questions policy makers need answered are not so easily quantifiable - do terrorism and homicide bombing achieve political objectives? If so, how? What are the military, political and propagandistic strengths and weaknesses of various terrorist strategies, and how can they be exploited to mitigate or eliminate such threats to states and their civilian populations? It is here that cold metrics bog down in the cauldron of ideologies, biases and literary flare, but perhaps not without useful insight.

The basis of science, as I understand it, is the notion that, with sufficient information, everything is knowable, understandable, predictable. Yet, to what extent can the social sciences - and terrorist studies are at the ragged frontier of humanities - be subject to such enlightened, rosy optimism? Is CPOST an incubator of studied, "science-based" policy, or an aggregator of interesting history with dubious future applications?

Pape, along with James K. Feldman, is releasing a new book this fall: "After Iraq: Stopping the Rise of Anti-American Suicide Terrorism Around the World". Well, that could be useful, unless it's not.


  1. From having heard Pape on book tour years ago I seem to remember that the most energetic suicidal murderers are the Tamil Tigers - also I think it was he who suggested the US get out of Iraq and do it all from aircraft carriers.
    I think the Silicon Valley Billionaire crowd has been dreaming about aircraftcarrier islands also.
    After having been through years and years of these smart guys it boils all down for me to "they are great on analysis and weak to outright stupid on solutions"

  2. Yes, that's the guy, Silke. However, those are arbitrary figures Pape was using. I read a counter to his book that basically said, if you start counting in 1980, something like 95% of homicide bombings are committed by Muslims, against non-Muslims.

    Even that, of course, is now outdated, because we've had 7 years of Muslims blowing up other Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere.

    This is why I am so skeptical of these "science-based" approaches to humanities. The data sets are so complex, without a specific focus, you can take the research anywhere you want.

    After all, what does it tell us that Muslims are today responsible for the majority of homicide bombing, when Tamil Tigers were responsible for the majority 40 years ago? Is one of them bad and the other good? Is the tactic of murdering civilians more legitimate if it is used more widely than by one religious-ethnic group?

    It's all meaningless, but it sounds good and sells books.

  3. just for the record
    - I must have heard Pape in late 2006 early 2007 and then the Tamil Tigers still held the world record per I don't know what - number of killers, numbers of deaths, amount of explosives used

    - as you have been reading him up, does he still promote "do not occupy control it all from aircraft carriers?" - btw the guy I trust on military action in Falluja said a main reason the Sheiks came around because they started to respect the Marines slugging it out - from what I know of malehood that sounds plausible ...
    PS: have been visiting fake Ibrahim by "order" of Yaacov - he still wants my picture - what an immature silly crank that is

  4. I visited his site as well. I think he is very capable at moral equivalency. I don't mean that as an insult - he's very good at challenging conventional pro-Israel thinking by drawing moral parallels to Palestinians misdeeds. He does it in a dishonest way, but it is still impressive. Really, that's what 90% of his blog is about - drawing moral equivalence between the two sides.


1) Save us the melodrama.
2) Use HTML for links. Learn how.
3) I *heart* trolls... for lunch.

On My Bookshelf