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April 8, 2016

Uncommon Interview: Professor Robert Pape Discusses Global Terrorism

Robert Pape, professor of political science and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), is frequently cited as an expert in news articles discussing the threat from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). He recently authored two op-eds, one in the Boston Globe and one in the Chicago Tribune, that explore the implications of the Brussels and Paris bombings for American foreign policy and the 2016 presidential election. The Maroon sat down with him to talk about the strategic rationale of terrorism, Ted Cruz, and his ongoing research at CPOST. 

Chicago Maroon: In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, you really emphasize how these recent bombings in Western countries should be read as a sign of ISIS’s growing weakness and not strength. Why is this perception so crucial?

Robert PapeIt’s important to understand what really motivates a terrorist group to attack us here at home. A lot of people have the idea that the terrorist groups abroad attack us here at home when they’re strong. They think that for logical reasons, because maybe they’re guessing, but the data doesn’t support that. The data I’ve been collecting on terrorism…is that terrorism groups tend to do spectacular attacks in the West in the last several decades when they’re going down, and specifically when they’re losing territory.

The Chechen rebels, they attacked Moscow, not as they were gaining strength and strong, but as they were going down.... The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had a similar pattern. Al-Qaeda Central, that is, Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, he was very weak and could not get strong and as he was basically dealing with this persistent weakness, that was what was driving him to lash out. Terrorist groups tend to lash out…to change a losing game, not a winning game and that’s what we saw with ISIS. I’ve been concerned about that, not just in the last few weeks after Brussels, but right after Paris I published the first op-ed in the Boston Globe essentially explaining why Paris. Paris was occurring because ISIS was losing in Iraq and Syria, and it was losing territory in a major way.

This all started a year ago…when the United States put together a coalition of countries to work local ground force allies in the region, the Kurds, the Shi’a, and government in Iraq, and some other Sunnis in Syria. Although there have been tons of problems and tons of issues, no doubt, the one thing that has happened in the last year is that ISIS has lost big chunks of territory. Forty percent of the populated territory in Iraq that ISIS controlled in the summer of 2014, no more. That is a big change. They’ve lost about 25 percent of their territory over all…they’ve actually lost territory just in the last week and a half so it’s kind of hard to count, but it’s almost every month they’ve lost another slice of territory, and, as they’re going down, they’re lashing out. That’s important for us to know because it tells us for the next year or so we need to be seriously concerned these attacks will continue.

CM: What are the possible reactions of Western countries to these attacks?

Pape: There are two bad responses and a good response. The West has a winning game. We are defeating the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria and dismantling its control over territory. If this keeps up, even at this rate, within about a year, this group will be in pieces. The problem would be changing a winning game. So if we backed out altogether so that would stop the group from losing territory, however, the reason we went in is because when the group gained the territory in the summer of 2014, it was threatening Iraq’s oil…

This is a delicate issue. Our political leaders don’t like to talk about oil because it sends the signal maybe they’re trying to line their own pockets or the pockets of their friends with oil money. That’s not really the problem here. The issue is, the Persian Gulf has a quarter of the world’s oil, even with all the fracking that has gone on…. It’s been American policy for many decades that no enemy of the United States should control a big hunk of that oil. When the Islamic State took a lot of territory in Iraq, it started to encroach upon the oil regions of Iraq—the Kurdish area and the area south of Baghdad. It’s just a bad idea for any enemy of the United States, not just a terrorist state, to have control over a big hunk of Iraq’s oil because that means they have a lever on our unemployment rate, on our economy.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to just back off, but that’s me judging the value of oil and oil to our economy. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to try to speed up the collapse by sending ground forces because ground forces are the best recruitment tool that terrorists have. Military intervention in general is what provokes terrorism and especially suicide terrorism. The presence of ground forces is like the absolute most virulent tool that could provoke them. Why is that? Because the ground forces send the signal of occupation against the will of the local community more than anything else. That’s why sending in ground forces would probably just recruit more terrorists than it would kill.

CM: In the Chicago Tribune, you talked about these strategies in the context of the 2016 election and cited Ted Cruz’s suggestion to patrol Muslim neighborhoods as an example of counterproductive overreacting. Are you worried about the 2016 election and how some politicians may not understand the dynamics involved in terrorism?

Pape: I am worried that our politicians are going to see electoral benefit to doubling down on the American Muslim communities. The reason I’m worried about the electoral benefit is because if you Google Arab-Americans, you’ll see there are about three million Arab-Americans and you’ll see that most of them live in states that could be thought of as swing states. Ohio, Florida, some states that are not so much swing states but have narrow Democratic victories in the last few elections, Michigan and California. Virginia is another. It could easily be attractive for politicians to want to stir up trouble and to polarize those now-Democratic leaning states because if they could swing just one…that’s a tremendous advantage on their side and the polarization might help them do that.

We see that in other countries, we don't see that in the United States, that is, using these foreign policy issues in the service of electoral advantage. It’s something we’ve even heard from some of our politicians. Donald Trump said directly…after Paris, he attacked Muslims verbally and his opinion polls shot up, and he held that out as an advantage, and he is saying he sees an electoral advantage to this policy.

Unfortunately, it comes at a pretty heavy price for our security because we need all Americans, including Arab-Americans and American Muslims, to provide tips, information to FBI, and the police if they see something going amiss. That’s a very important part of our security, and if we double down on those communities the way that we’re hearing from some of our politicians, that’s very likely to cause some of those communities to go to ground, to keep their heads down and keep quiet…. For me, I’m not saying this is civil liberties versus security, I’m saying this is a security problem.

CM: If we continue with our current strategy in fighting ISIS, will we continue to see terrorist attacks in the Western world?

Pape: For a short time yes, not forever, not for the rest of our lives. An important thing is…I’m not saying there will certainly be attacks, I’m saying there will be efforts at these attacks. And that’s an important distinction. For some time now, a lot of people have wanted to believe the terrorism problem was a fluke, a one-off. Even after Paris, it was a one-off. When ISIS brought down the Russian airliner, killing 224 people, it took over a week for governments and the news media to focus on this as terrorism. It was supposed to be a mechanical problem, anything but terrorism.

This is a problem because if you have governments and the news media downplaying terrorism…we’re not taking reasonable precautions. We’re not alert. We can blame our security forces for missing things but, if we are telling them ignore the problem because it’s not real, that is something that is in our control. The reason to call attention to the serious possibility of future attacks is not because there need necessarily be one, that’s the best way for us to be alert and to devote a little more resources smartly to domestic security…

One of the things just in the last few days there’s a story you can find about a couple in Missouri who have just been arrested, they were on their way to support ISIS in Syria. You’ll see that the FBI conducted a sting operation. This couple…they were going to get married to have that as cover, their honeymoon, so they could secret themselves into ISIS. And what happened though, the FBI has been learning a lot about the research of what motivates suicide attackers and attackers that are homegrown and many of them are radicalizing in these tiny cliques of people, just a couple, and they actually don’t talk to their families, their families are too moderate…but what they want to do is hook up with an overseas terrorist group…Our security forces, the FBI can pose as intermediaries, and they can stop one of these events in process with sting operations. These are not perfect…but this is better than trying to have heavy-duty surveillance or tanks going into communities, and it fits with the research we have on the sociology of how these homegrown terrorists are really mobilizing…

Over the last 10 years, since August 2006, I’ve given talks to our FBI at all different levels about the research we are conducting here at CPOST about suicide attackers and their policies are in line with those recommendations…. I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve been more secure.

CM: Is there any candidate in the 2016 election that you think has the right idea strategically in combating terrorism?

Pape: I’m not going to be in the business of endorsing candidates. I’m a professor. I’m going to point out the security risks in policies that have come forward. I have pointed out in that article the security risks with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s policies, but I’m not going to go forward and basically tell people who to vote for, what to think. The reason is because my job here is to explain the security consequences of policies articulated by our public candidates. I think that’s the best thing I can do.

Myself, I am basically someone who is in the middle, who has voted for Republicans sometimes and Democrats sometimes, so I’m not someone who is easy to say he’s just an X or he’s just a Y. And the truth is, that means I am just a professor.

CM: What are some things you’ve been working on recently at CPOST?

Pape: We have a big project…that’s funded by the Pentagon to try to figure out what inspires people about ISIS propaganda, and especially the online propaganda with their videos. This is a project that I have partnered with Jean Decety in our psychology department, he’s a neuroscientist, and I’m a terrorism expert, and what we have are two world leaders, one in terrorism, one in fMRI brain scans, to basically conduct qualitative and scientific evidence about what is inspiring individuals about these videos…

Over the next year we’re going to take advantage of the breakthrough we’ve already made to use fMRI technology to brain scan people, to see how parts of the brain do and don’t activate with these different stimuli. That will provide meaningful information about what is truly inspiring people with these videos. This is our big problem right now with understanding ISIS propaganda. We know they’ve been more successful than in the past, and we don’t know why.

It’s not just that they have access to the web. Lots of other groups have access to the web…ISIS isn’t the only terrorist group in the world, they’re just the most successful in recruiting. Why? And if it is just Internet technology, we would have 30 groups like ISIS. Boko Haram, al-Shabab, I could go on and on and list the names, but it’s ISIS. But it’s important because the other groups will figure it out. We can count on terrorists studying other terrorists. We’ve got to study the terrorists too.

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