Terror, Terror Everywhere: Games in the Time of Al-Qaeda

Yesterday marked the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and while the event invited criticism of Russia’s draconian mass surveillance and poor human rights record, there was also plenty of pot-stirring over the possibility of the games being marred by a terrorist attack. Some credence was given to that fear when an individual attempted to hijack a plane and divert to Sochi, but whether this was part of a coordinated terrorist operation is not yet known. In doing some reading for my international relations class, however, the academic literature seems to suggest that an attack at the Games is fairly unlikely, regardless of its location or the militancy of the groups involved. From the perspective of the terrorists, they are better off attacking a less prominent target than one which will unquestionably be heavily monitored and controlled.

Yes, believe it or not, terrorists are rational. I will be the first to acknowledge the limits of rationality to explain everything; no doubt that many people, perhaps especially terrorists, are motivated by things not grounded in cold logic, like political ideals and religious zeal. That does not mean, however, that in picking their goals and developing their plans that they are blind to reality. Their target is generally what is directly offending them, and if they hope to obtain and retain public support, they are better off keeping their targets near and immediate.

Robert Pape’s work on the logic of suicide bombings is particularly illustrative of this. In his research, he found that what drove political violence was not religious or ethnic differences but the immediate presence of foreign forces occupying another nation’s land. Terrorists tended to pick targets that had operational rather than normative value. Accordingly, it makes more sense that, if terrorist groups in the North Caucasus want to lash out at Russia, they would likely do so whether Chechnya or Dagestan rather than expending their resources on a relatively far-off location, regardless of how embarrassing it might be for the Russian government.

Does this sound counter-intuitive? In the years since 9/11, how many attacks did al-Qaeda make on big events in the U.S., like the Super Bowl or New Year’s Eve gatherings in Time Square? To our knowledge, zero. Yes, the Boston Marathon was bombed, but that was not so much an attack orchestrated by a terrorist network than two brothers acting independent of a larger movement. By and large, al-Qaeda has kept its operations focused on U.S. forces overseas, in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. You might point to the attacks of 9/11 as another exception, but as Pape points out, those two were premised on widespread resentment in the Arabian Peninsula to the forces we had stationed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere.

It has become popular as of late to assume that religious fundamentalists, specifically Islamic fundamentalists, are simply hard-wired to blow themselves up. That is why people who react with alarm and suspicion when they see men and women in “Muslim dress” on their airplanes, and why such individuals can be kicked off flights for other reason than their overt religiosity. But as Pape explains, what is remarkable is how the most Islamic fundamentalist states in the world fail to produce any terrorists at all:

“If Islamic fundamentalism were the pivotal factor, then we should see some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world, like Iran, which has 70 million people—three times the population of Iraq and three times the population of Saudi Arabia—with some of the most active groups in suicide terrorism against the United States.

However, there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Iran, and we have no evidence that there are any suicide terrorists in Iraq from Iran.

Sudan is a country of 21 million people. Its government is extremely Islamic fundamentalist. The ideology of Sudan was so congenial to Osama bin Laden that he spent three years in Sudan in the 1990s. Yet there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Sudan.

I have the first complete set of data on every al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from 1995 to early 2004, and they are not from some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world. Two thirds are from the countries where the United States has stationed heavy combat troops since 1990.”

In our popular discourse, “religious” and especially “religious Muslim” has become shorthand for “crazy.” Yet, in our irrational fear that a crazed terrorist lurks behind every counter and within every major event, perhaps it is us who have become bedeviled by paranoia.

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