Professor Robert Pape

University of Chicago political scientist Professor Robert Pape has a message for Australians and “the folks in the Australian government”: Australia’s participation in the US-led coalition in Syria and Iraq has been not gone unnoticed. We are on Islamic State’s list.

Speaking at Deakin University’s conference on “Addressing the New Landscape of Terrorism”, Pape outlined the background to his research. In the aftermath of the horrific suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, Pape set about compiling the first database of all suicide attacks to have taken place around the world from the early 1980s until 2003. This research formed the basis of his influential 2005 book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Bombing.

The book debunked much of the received wisdom about the motives underlying suicide attacks — most notably the role of religion. As he told Crikey: “The world leader from the early 1980s to 2003 was not an Islamic group. They’re the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. They’re a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers did more suicide attacks from the 1980s to 2003 than Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

“Further, a third of all Muslim suicide attacks were carried out by purely secular groups such as the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] in Turkey, which is another Marxist — and you can consider that an anti-religious — suicide terrorist group. So in the first database that I did, from 1980 to 2003, over 50% of the suicide attacks were not associated with Islamic fundamentalism. What over 95% of the suicide attacks had in common was not religion but a specific, strategic political objective: to repel a military intervention against territory that the terrorists prize.”

In that sense, suicide attacks are not the product of mindless fanaticism. As Pape notes, their use is highly strategic and intended to achieve particular outcomes on the ground.

Pape continues to collate data on suicide attacks via his Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. He is now undertaking a similar project by collating data about the infamous propaganda videos released by IS (also called ISIS) over the past few years. He suggests that like suicide attacks, these video campaigns should be seen as serving a strategic purpose rather than just as an expression of mindless violence. And the content of the videos has implications for Australia.

“Australia is in an awkward position because they’ve donated just enough military equipment and military support to be in ISIS’s cross-hairs, but it won’t really be enough to have any real effect. So the position of the Australians here is: so the American government wants as many governments from around the world to contribute little bits and so Australia has contributed little bits to the coalition of whatever it is — 40 to 55 actors that are involved. But they are not a major player internationally so they’re not actually influencing the course of any of the events on the ground in Iraq and Syria. But they are enough of an issue that ISIS is — well, I don’t say that they’re going to be as interested in attacking Australia as they are France, as they are the actual core members of the military coalition. But I’m afraid that ISIS has in their videos clearly outlined Australia — it’s just not high on their list,” he said.

“One of the things that’s very striking about ISIS videos is they have videos that are directed against particular members of the military coalition against them. They have videos directed against France, they have videos directed against Russia, they have videos directed against Israel even though Israel is not a formal member of the coalition … There are no videos that we know of that are directed towards Australia, specifically, that we know of.”

Pape is not just talking about any old recruitment videos: “When ISIS wants to intimidate a country, they pick a country and they do not one video but a whole series of videos focused on that country and they are often picking spies from that country, other people associated with that country, and they are saying, ‘look, government of Saudi Arabia, this is what we do to your spies’ and that is when they cut somebody’s head off right in front of everybody in a gruesome way.”

He says that although Australia has been singled out in IS propaganda videos, it has not been targeted in that specific way. “What I’m telling you — and really talking directly to folks in the Australian government — it’s helpful for them to hear that Australia is sort of being mentioned in ISIS videos. But it has not yet been, so far as we can tell — and we collect every video that ISIS has put out in the last six months — a target in the way of a targeted media campaign to organise specific attacks against the country.”

Pape distinguishes between co-ordinated mass attacks directed from above and small-scale individual attacks such as the shooting of Curtis Chang in Sydney last year. “Now it’s sad whenever people are killed but that’s very different to 130, 244, 100 on a routine basis. So in terms of the level of threat, there’s a threat that comes from essentially lone wolves who are independent, who are self-radicalising but who are trying to co-ordinate the attacks themselves, versus real military-level co-ordination, which often is very much put together by the group itself. And that level of effort and co-ordination can lead to hundreds dead, so that’s the element that we have to really worry about.”

I suggested to Pape that his observation about Australia’s “awkward position” in Iraq and Syria could imply either that we should increase our level of commitment to the point where it might make a meaningful difference on the ground or pull out altogether so as to remove ourselves from IS’ radar.

“No, I’m not implying that. The fundamental problem that Australia has is that the reason to try to shrink the sanctuary of ISIS is because ISIS gained control of parts of Iraq in the summer of 2014 that it could threaten the oil in Iraq. Well, Australia is a net importer of oil. So that No. 1 issue that Australia faces — and this is true of many Western countries — is that they don’t really have the luxury of ignoring a situation which could lead to the loss of their oil imports. That’s something that you don’t hear as cleanly, but it’s the reality. So the reason to worry about ISIS when it takes Mosul in Iraq is because it is threatening the oil in the Persian Gulf. The oil in the Persian Gulf is still 25% or more of the world’s supply of oil. So ISIS, just like any state would take the oil off the market, if ISIS took that oil off the market, the Australian economy would be hurt rather badly.”

If Australia can’t pull out of the coalition in Iraq, what can we do?

“What I think is that Australia should play a bigger role in pushing for a political alternative for the Sunnis in Iraq and in Syria,” Pape said. “I think that this would be in line with the thinking in the United States, and by the Obama administration in trying to solve political grievances, but it would be important to point out that it would be important to create a real alternative for the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, a political alternative to ISIS. At the moment, those areas are ungoverned space, the Shia governments are doing an abysmal job of providing services and resources to the Sunni communities, and they’re denying Sunnis reasonable amounts of their own autonomous political control. Under those circumstances, you’re going to get support for — call them terrorists, but a group that is offering Sunni governance. And it’s because there’s no alternative. So a more reasonable alternative where there’s a real program in Iraq to create autonomous political institutions in the Sunni parts of Iraq — like the Bosnia model — would be a tremendously important future. And Australia could play a role in trying to develop that idea.”

Peter Fray

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