Expert Assesses National Intelligence Estimate

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Author Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on suicide terrorism and expert on suicide bombers, examines the newly released National Intelligence Estimate.


Over the weekend, a classified assessment of terrorism trends by U.S. intelligence agencies called the National Intelligence Estimate was leaked to the news media. In response, the Bush administration released additional material.

As more and more of the document has become unclassified, it has become clear that the intelligence community in this country has a stark assessment of the war in Iraq; namely, that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has spawned a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001.

Since the reports have surfaced, experts in the field have been weighing in with their reactions. Professor Robert Pape, professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism joins us now to talk about how the findings correspond to his research. He joins us by phone from North Carolina.

Professor, thank you so much for joining us.

Professor ROBERT PAPE (University of Chicago): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us what you thought when you read the leaked or released portions of the report.

Prof. PAPE: Well, I was quite delighted because, you see, over the last 12 months I have given numerous presentations to many of the intelligence agencies that contributed to the NIE, and the presentations have been all about the data on the global patterns of suicide terrorism over the last 25 years and how those patterns have been fundamentally changing, especially as a result of the war in Iraq. And the fact of the matter is, since 9/11 suicide terrorism and especially anti-American suicide terrorism - that is, by al-Qaida in Iraq - have been surging, and the war on terrorism has been heading south, and the threat has been growing. And I'm just quite delighted that the consensus view of the intelligence community is saying this rather loudly.

MARTIN: You feel vindicated.

Prof. PAPE: Well, vindicated, or I think it's just important because I think the data really strongly suggests that the threat is growing, and I think it's terribly important for policy makers on both sides of the aisle to have a clear-eyed view of the direction the threat is heading.

MARTIN: Could you just take a moment to summarize your findings? You said that over the past 25 years the pattern of global terrorism has changed profoundly. Can you just summarize what those patterns were and what they are now?

Prof. PAPE: Well, yes. You see, many people believe that suicide terrorism is mainly a product of Islamic fundamentalism, wholly, and that it's not connected to any circumstance. Well, I studied 462 suicide terrorists from around the world since 1980 who've actually done the mission. Only half are - over half are secular. The world leader is, in fact, not an Islamic fundamentalist group at all. They're the Tamal Tigers in Sri Lanka.

You see, what over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 1980 have in common is not a religion but a specific strategic goal: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces. I don't mean advisors with (unintelligible) tanks and fighter aircraft and armored vehicles from territory that the terrorists prize.

From Chechnya to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Kashmir to Lebanon, every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 has been waged by terrorist groups whose central goal has been to achieve self-determination for territory the terrorists prize.

So going into Iraq was one of the worst things that we could do strategically in the war on terrorism, because, you see, if suicide terrorism and the threat coming at us really were mainly the product of Islamic fundamentalism, then going into Iraq in order to democratize - that is, transform the region - should've dramatically reduced the threat.

Well, the fact is, suicide terrorism is mainly a response to the threat of foreign occupation, and as a result, when we went into Iraq, we've inadvertently made the matter worse. And that's why in the last five years, anti-American suicide terrorism, both by al-Qaida and in Iraq, is really off the charts compared to the last 20 years.

MARTIN: If you have a question for Professor Pape, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and you can e-mail us at Professor, if that's so, why is it that most of the victims in Iraq are other Iraqis?

Prof. PAPE: Well, you see, we are widely viewed in Iraq - that is, American military forces - as the power behind the throne. That doesn't mean that American forces and military forces are the easiest targets to hit with suicide attacks in Iraq. In fact, when they can be hit, they often are hit. What's often hit instead - in fact, over 75 percent of the suicide terrorist attacks in Iraq are directed against Iraqi government, political and military targets in order to weaken the Iraqi government, because that Iraqi government is viewed as a puppet government of the United States.

And why is that? Well, terrorist leaders, from Zarqawi and others across the board, have long made just one point: it's the American military that directs all use of force inside of Iraq, and as the democratization of Iraq has continued, it still remains to this day a fact that it's the American military that directs all military force by the Iraqi government. And as a result, when they hit the Iraqi government and political targets and other targets associated with the Iraqi government, they are in fact hitting an American-related target.

MARTIN: Why do you believe that suicide bombing is becoming a preferred tactic? And I take it you believe that it is increasing in its desirability as a tactic?

Prof. PAPE: It's becoming a preferred tactic by national liberation movements over the last (unintelligible) years. National liberation movements have learned that at least for the defensive goal of ejecting foreign combat forces from territory the terrorists prize, suicide terrorism produces quite a few benefits.

In the early 1980s, suicide terrorism got its start in Lebanon when Hezbollah began to experiment with suicide attacks in order to knock out American forces and French forces and Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. Well, the very fourth suicide attack by Hezbollah was the famous attack against the American Marine barracks in Beirut in October, 1983, killing 241 Americans, (unintelligible) Ronald Reagan, no pacifist, to withdraw all American combat forces from southern Lebanon.

Well, that sent a powerful message, which is if you want to get foreign occupiers off your soil, suicide terrorism pays. What's quite striking is that although suicide terrorism has been spreading as a defensive weapon for the last 25 years, it has never yet been used in an offensive mode to actually take territory. So when the Americans left Lebanon in the 1980s, Hezbollah suicide attackers didn't follow the Americans to New York. When the French left, didn't follow the French to Paris. And when the Israelis left southern Lebanon, Hezbollah suicide attackers did not follow the Israelis to Tel Aviv.

MARTIN: And you believe that the National Intelligence Estimate accommodates your - do you think that the administration, or members of the administration - or I'm sorry - members of the intelligence agencies came to these conclusions on their own, or do you think that your presentations finally influenced their thinking?

Prof. PAPE: It's very hard to say. You see, when I give - I've given presentations to the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, our National Counterterrorism Center, and many other government organizations. These presentations are always with the counterterrorism people (unintelligible) two or three hours, where we really digest the data on the patterns of suicide terrorism for a long period of time. And they're really quite encouraging. Because when there's no cameras in the room, people are not involved in political battles here. It's just about what the data shows.

And the fact is, I really don't get feedback, and most people who not members - I'm an academic - most people who are not government - work for the government - don't get feedback of these presentations. The main reason I'm encouraged is because of simply the number of invitations I continue to get, and tomorrow morning I'm going to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to speak to our Special Forces command, where I'm sure it'll be another two, three, four hour session, where we'll go over the global patterns in quite a great detail.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to a caller. Let's go to Neal at Shaw Air Force Base. Neal?

NEAL (Caller): Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: What's your question? Do you have a question for Professor Pape?

NEAL: My question was, if he was to be in power or responsible for decisions over in Iraq, what the solution might be.

Prof. PAPE: Really two things. I would not simply cut and run, because we do - a precipitous withdrawal would have negative consequences. Nor would I simply stay and die, because the longer our combat forces remain in Iraq and on the Arabian Peninsula, the greater the risk of another 9/11 at home.

Instead, I suggest a third approach, a multi-phased withdrawal toward a new military strategy for the Persian Gulf, which I call offshore balancing, which the core is having military forces not stationed onshore, but offshore, mainly naval and air forces, so that they can rapidly respond to a military crisis.

And as we do this over, say, a two or three year time, I also suggest that we re-deploy our ground forces in Iraq in the interim to have (unintelligible) we did with Bosnia in 1995. So that (unintelligible) trying to sit on Anbar Province and stop terrorists from emerging, where we're actually creating more terrorists than we're killing. What we should do (unintelligible) our ground (unintelligible) the next few years along the lines of contact of the three (unintelligible), and I think that would produce a much better outcome than we have now.

MARTIN: Neal, thank you for your call.

NEAL: You're welcome. Thank you.

MARTIN: And Professor Pape, I have to tell you that you're dropping in and out. So if you're using a cell phone, if you could perhaps get yourself to a better location, that would be helpful.

Prof. PAPE: I apologize for that very much. I'm afraid it's here in North Carolina.

MARTIN: Oh, dear, the entire state. Oh dear. Okay, well, let's go to Austin.

Prof. PAPE: I'm sorry about that.

MARTIN: Okay, well, let's go to Austin, Texas, and go to J.B. J.B., do you have a question?

J.B. (Caller): Yes. I just wanted to know what yourself and the professor thought about - I hear less and less that we took out Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator, who had a very big vested interest in keeping this kind of fringe, suicide bomber element out of his country, and I was wondering also what the both of you would think about changing to more of a dispassionate, less Judeo-Christian, moralistic foreign policy and abandoning words like evil and just what's - you know, what's in it for us, basically, for lack of a better word.

MARTIN: J.B., that is a tall order. I'm going to let Professor Pape address the first part of your question, if you would.

J.B.: Okay.

Prof. PAPE: Well, several years ago, many people believed that because Saddam was so secular, we could invade Iraq and not produce much terrorism, certainly not religious terrorism. And the fact of the matter is, I was one of the people on the other side of this, and I was suggesting that given the nature of the causes of suicide terrorism, the invasion of Iraq was especially likely to produce suicide terrorism, even if there weren't religious fanatics sitting in the country.

And so I think that unfortunately this idea that suicide terrorism's a product of religion has caused us to make a number of mistakes and to wage the war on terrorism on a faulty premise.

MARTIN: Do you believe, professor, that the agencies are adjusting their assumption on that score?

Prof. PAPE: I think they are moving rather considerably, and I'm actually quite encouraged, because you have to remember, these 16 agencies, many of the people in these agencies have been waging the war on terrorism according to an alternative premise. Well, it's really quite important to give them credit, because these are people who are willing to look at new data and take a different view, even though you might think they should be wedded to the old view they had since they (unintelligible) executed.

That doesn't mean that, you know, that we should, you know, think that the problem is solved, because after all, I'm afraid political leaders have often ignored some of the best advice by their intelligence agencies, but it does mean that we should have some confidence that, in fact, there are folks in government who are willing to put some politics aside to actually look at the hard data with fresh eyes.

MARTIN: Robert Pape, professor at the University of Chicago and director at Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. He joined us by phone from North Carolina. Thank you, professor.

Prof. PAPE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

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National Intelligence Estimate: Key Findings

'Trends in Global Terrrorism'

The declassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate, released on Sept. 26, 2006, by Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte:

Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" dated April 2006

Key Judgments

United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa'ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa'ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement — which includes al-Qa'ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells — is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.

• Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.

• If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.

• Greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in Muslim majority nations would alleviate some of the grievances jihadists exploit. Over time, such progress, together with sustained, multifaceted programs targeting the vulnerabilities of the jihadist movement and continued pressure on al-Qa'ida, could erode support for the jihadists.

We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse. New jihadist networks and cells, with anti- American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge. The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups.

• We assess that the operational threat from self-radicalized cells will grow in importance to US counterterrorism efforts, particularly abroad but also in the Homeland.

• The jihadists regard Europe as an important venue for attacking Western interests. Extremist networks inside the extensive Muslim diasporas in Europe facilitate recruitment and staging for urban attacks, as illustrated by the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings.

We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.

• The Iraq conflict has become the "cause celebre" for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.

We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate.

• Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: (1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq "jihad;" (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims — all of which jihadists exploit.

Concomitant vulnerabilities in the jihadist movement have emerged that, if fully exposed and exploited, could begin to slow the spread of the movement. They include dependence on the continuation of Muslim-related conflicts, the limited appeal of the jihadists' radical ideology, the emergence of respected voices of moderation, and criticism of the violent tactics employed against mostly Muslim citizens.

• The jihadists' greatest vulnerability is that their ultimate political solution — an ultra-conservative interpretation of shari'a-based governance spanning the Muslim world — is unpopular with the vast majority of Muslims. Exposing the religious and political straitjacket that is implied by the jihadists' propaganda would help to divide them from the audiences they seek to persuade.

• Recent condemnations of violence and extremist religious interpretations by a few notable Muslim clerics signal a trend that could facilitate the growth of a constructive alternative to jihadist ideology: peaceful political activism. This also could lead to the consistent and dynamic participation of broader Muslim communities in rejecting violence, reducing the ability of radicals to capitalize on passive community support. In this way, the Muslim mainstream emerges as the most powerful weapon in the war on terror.

• Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders.

If democratic reform efforts in Muslim majority nations progress over the next five years, political participation probably would drive a wedge between intransigent extremists and groups willing to use the political process to achieve their local objectives. Nonetheless, attendant reforms and potentially destabilizing transitions will create new opportunities for jihadists to exploit.

Al-Qa'ida, now merged with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's network, is exploiting the situation in Iraq to attract new recruits and donors and to maintain its leadership role.

• The loss of key leaders, particularly Usama Bin Ladin, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi, in rapid succession, probably would cause the group to fracture into smaller groups. Although like-minded individuals would endeavor to carry on the mission, the loss of these key leaders would exacerbate strains and disagreements. We assess that the resulting splinter groups would, at least for a time, pose a less serious threat to US interests than does al-Qa'ida.

• Should al-Zarqawi continue to evade capture and scale back attacks against Muslims, we assess he could broaden his popular appeal and present a global threat.

• The increased role of Iraqis in managing the operations of al-Qa'ida in Iraq might lead veteran foreign jihadists to focus their efforts on external operations.

Other affiliated Sunni extremist organizations, such as Jemaah Islamiya, Ansar al-Sunnah, and several North African groups, unless countered, are likely to expand their reach and become more capable of multiple and/or mass-casualty attacks outside their traditional areas of operation.

We assess that such groups pose less of a danger to the Homeland than does al-Qa'ida but will pose varying degrees of threat to our allies and to US interests abroad. The focus of their attacks is likely to ebb and flow between local regime targets and regional or global ones.

We judge that most jihadist groups — both well-known and newly formed — will use improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks focused primarily on soft targets to implement their asymmetric warfare strategy, and that they will attempt to conduct sustained terrorist attacks in urban environments. Fighters with experience in Iraq are a potential source of leadership for jihadists pursuing these tactics.

• CBRN capabilities will continue to be sought by jihadist groups.

While Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria, remain the most active state sponsors of terrorism, many other states will be unable to prevent territory or resources from being exploited by terrorists.

Anti-US and anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests. The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint.

• We judge that groups of all stripes will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, propagandize, recruit, train, and obtain logistical and financial support.



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