Air strikes and terror attacks examined

An interview with Harrison Akins

Harrison Akins is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, conducting research within the fields of intra-state conflict, terrorism, Islamic culture and politics and US foreign policy with a particular focus on tribal groups in Pakistan. As part of his research, he is analysing how US counterterrorism policy influences the domestic security policies of partner states. Akins was previously an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service, working with the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed. There, he served as a researcher for two of Ambassador Ahmed’s major research projects: “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” and “Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.”

Based on your experience studying insurgents, what would you say is the main driving force behind suicide attacks? How heavily do you think that the revenge narrative features in Pakistani militants’ motivations behind suicide attacks?
There are different factors that motivate this. Robert Pape argued in the early 2000s that suicide bombing is an extreme form of national liberation and that the clearest driving factor is therefore whether or not there is a US military presence in that country. I am not arguing against that – I just think there are more factors to it. First of all, there is a tendency towards the spill-over of tactics, so the more one very popular group like al-Qaida uses a tactic, the more we will see other groups adopting the same tactic, even though there may not be any affiliation or connection between the groups. This tendency to copy tactics is, by and large, attributable to the media. As you see, in many of these groups, the more gruesome and reprehensible their acts are, the more media attention they get. That is the phenomenon of the Islamic State which perpetrates these horrific acts that are not justified by any moral code. Look at how much media attention they get based upon these actions.

Secondly, if you look at conflict environments, as violence increases, you see retaliation, especially in cases of violence that occurs domestically. It is not like one group suddenly decides to heat things up. What you typically see is a stepped process that local governments and insurgent groups are both locked into. And so, unfortunately, a lot of these groups, especially in Pakistan, are not able to directly match when the military goes in with F-16s and helicopters. What would a tribe do against that? There has been a shift, where violence is moving outside of the conflict zone, and militant groups are beginning to target the weak spots of the state, including through reliance on suicide attacks.

This brings tension and it stokes fear. It is one thing to go to a market and start shooting, but it is a very different psychological pressure to have an individual walk into a market and blow himself up. The idea of striking at the state and invoking psychological fear and pressure is, therefore, one reason for suicide attacks.

There is also another reason. There is a divide between the groups’ leaders, who decide to use suicide attacks, versus the individuals who actually carry them out. In Pakistan, many of those who commit suicide attacks are very young, and many of them have had family members who were killed in drone strikes, airstrikes or Pakistani military operations. Many are therefore motivated by these kinds of actions. Journalists have found evidence in the tribal areas that group leaders exploit people with terminal diseases or those that have some kind of handicap. They use these people because their imminent death is inevitable.

Do you think the resort to suicide attacks is a sign of frustration, given the uneven nature of the fight that they’re not able to match?
I guess in the tribal areas there are two motivational factors for this. First, how people traditionally view warfare, which frustrates them. There is this idea of a “manly” fight. I have interviewed generals, and this is a big criticism that comes from both insurgents and people living in the area, that it is an unfair way to conduct warfare. Traditionally there is this idea that if you want to fight, then you have to go in and put yourself at risk. Tradition relating to warfare is tied to tribal custom and ideas of how to conduct fighting, and [aerial warfare] destroys all that. Air combat seems to be unhonourable. Even the Pakistanis, especially with drones, know that some air force commander sitting in Nevada will blow them up and then go home to his family. This seems to be a violation of the local codes of honour and ideas of how you’re supposed to fight.

Secondly, the big challenge is the frustration emerging from mass destruction caused by the use of aerial warfare. In one sense, the use of aerial warfare in itself is not the issue. The issue is the high level of collateral damage and civilian casualties which frustrates and angers people and leads them to seek revenge. This is very much a part of tribal tradition – the code of honour contains elements of maintaining law and order and the idea of revenge. You know that if you do something to someone, he will take revenge against you.

From the government’s perspective, they do not know that area. First of all, it is a Punjabi- dominated military. They are not familiar with the language, terrain, local customs and generally they view the local Pashtun people negatively. It is a very difficult environment to operate in on the ground and the terrain is very difficult. You do not really know where the fire is coming from. And when you see insurgents, you do not know if they are local tribesmen or members of the Taliban. There is no Taliban uniform and they carry AK47s like everyone else in this region. Because of the ineffectiveness of counter-insurgency operations, there has therefore been an overreliance on aerial power, which also becomes a military frustration. Because of the limitations of human intelligence and knowledge of the region, airstrikes will too often lead to civilian casualties and you may end up, for example, bombing a terror compound that turns out to be a village. The greater the distance, the worse this becomes. Drone operators don’t seem to know what they are doing. They see mud huts and people walking around with AK47s. So that’s really the point of frustration that people have.

Also, if you look at the language of many of them, including al-Qaida, which emerged from a tribal context with the Yemenis (especially the Yemenis from south-western Saudi Arabia in the Asir province), a lot of their rhetoric comes from tribal customs and the ideas of revenge.

Is this explicit or something you read between the lines?
100% explicit, you see it. If you look at Osama bin Laden’s videos, you see clear references. In chapter 3 of the book that I conducted research for, The Thistle and the Drone, we did a study of al-Qaida and tribal references. Bin Laden is very explicit, saying that the tribe of Asir will take revenge against the US.
In terms of how they use Islam, it is looked at through a tribal framework. They interpret Islam through their social context and are very much informed by tribal customs. In the West, we get so focused on the Islam part of it and want to read it into this narrative of religious arguments. But in fact, they often only cite the Quran in the first paragraph, while in the following pages they claim to take revenge, using a very explicit tribal rhetoric and the Quran has nothing to do with it. The US has had an inability to grasp the cultural arguments.

Is there a reason to think that airstrikes in particular fuel a need for revenge, compared to other means of fighting terrorism? (I have, for example, come across texts where ISIS explicitly “complains” about the Coalition’s lack of boots on the ground.)
If we take ISIS in Syria, for example, what really drives their desire for increased US military intervention is that they have global ambitions. The idea that ISIS has come out of al-Qaida in Iraq, where al-Zarqawi [al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq] was using the presence of US soldiers as a recruitment tactic, gives them better local standing and more people are more likely to – maybe not support ISIS and al-Qaida – but at least oppose US presence. It also gives them better global standing. The US used al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq to justify their intervention, but al-Qaida can use US presence for their own strategic purposes. What I think in terms of pushing for retaliation, it is not necessarily airstrikes as such, but it is any sort of military operation that leads to this. One outside intervention in itself is very unpopular and something that Pakistan sees as a red line. But civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes also lead to retaliation. One specific example is the huge spike in suicide bombers in 2007-2008. This was a response to Pakistani Special Forces during the “Red Mosque Raid” in Islamabad in the summer of 2007, where the Special Forces, in response to a Taliban takeover of the madrasa connected to the mosque, killed many people, including children and women. Around 80% of the students were Pashtun with strong connections to the tribal area, which generated an immediate response from many of these terrorist groups saying that the Special Forces had not only killed innocent tribesmen, but they had also killed women – something which is the ultimate no-go in these societies. I think there was a total of around 4 or 5 suicide bombings from 2001-2007, while in 2007-2008 there were over 80. So, you saw a huge increase as a response to the raid. One suicide bomber was the brother of a girl who was killed during the raid and he went on to commit a suicide attack against the very commandos who were responsible for the Red Mosque raid. It is therefore not necessarily the airstrikes themselves, but airstrikes that are emblematic of larger problems, such as civilian casualties and collateral damage. In addition, a lot of the recruitment material from the Taliban focuses on civilian casualties in military operations being caused by airstrikes, artillery etc.

Was the Peshawar school massacre in 2014 also motivated by calls for retaliation?
The Peshawar school massacre represents the idea of retaliation explicitly against the military. The idea is: you killed our family, so we’ll kill your family. The school was a public army school. In 2011, there was also a terrorist attack targeting a military-use mosque in the city of Rawalpindi, just down the road from Army Headquarters. The perpetrators said specifically, “now you know how it feels when your families are killed.” In both cases, the idea was very clear that “our families were killed by the military, so we are going to kill the families of the military as well.”

To what extent do you believe that drone campaigns fuel radicalisation or at least generate sympathy for the insurgents on the ground?
In the long run, they absolutely fuel radicalisation. In the early years of drone strikes [in Pakistan], they definitely pushed radicalisation, because before 2011 people on the ground did not know what was happening. The Pakistani government took credit for the drone strikes. This was problematic because the US engaged according to its own rules without appreciating what was going on on the ground. At the same time, there were peace talks taking place on the ground and then suddenly a drone strike would scrap the whole peace agreement. People thought it was the Pakistani government that was carrying out these strikes, which created a lot of distrust of the government. The Pakistani government took credit because they did not want the people to know that they had allowed the US to carry out drone strikes. Basically, it was a cost-benefit analysis for the Pakistani government; they could either take credit for the bombing or they would have to expose the fact that they gave the US permission to conduct these airstrikes on their country. But there was almost no coordination. I did an interview with a commander in Waziristan who said when he was on the ground, he would find out about a nearby drone strike after the fact, of which he had no idea, no coordination. The US targeted according to their own Rules of Engagement, making things difficult for the militaries on the ground, especially when civilians were being killed.

Studies have shown that drone strikes are highly effective in the very short term, are able to limit the operational capabilities of various groups, and that there is a decrease in terrorist attacks. But everyone I have talked to, from US commanders to the Pakistani military, all agree that there is a decrease in attacks in the short term, but that you will also see an uptick in recruitment. There is so much anger and fear created among the population that, while they may not embrace the Taliban, there is more sympathy for them. Plus, the Taliban can use the drone narrative in their own recruitment.

In recruitment material, they mention drone strikes and how the Pakistani government is working with the US government. For example, there are so-called “night letters”, where the Taliban threaten people using these letters, which are dropped into villages overnight. In these letters they explicitly mention the need to kill Pakistani soldiers, claiming they are infidels, working together with the US who is using drones to kill people. Plus, the letters call for the need to act against the idea that the US is always superior and that since they are killing innocent people there is a need to strike back.

Additional comments?
The big takeaway when looking at airstrikes is to look at what they are doing, not at the airstrikes themselves. This is the civilian casualty aspect, which is the case in Yemen, Somalia and so on. They have a tribal culture that emphasises revenge and motivates fighters but is also exploited in the recruitment materials. Al-Qaida has been quite explicit in using this as a strategy as well; you hear them talk about how they are motivated to fight against the US and its partners because they know that airstrikes are going to kill them. The threat of airstrikes is therefore used in their own campaigns as a deliberate tactic.

Moreover, the use of military operations to carry out domestic counterterrorism operations leads to a huge increase in domestic terrorism, showing a very clear cause and effect. My argument is that you cannot use the military for domestic counterterrorism; it is proven in every instance to be counter-productive. However, if you look at alternative counterterrorism measures, such as defensive counterterrorism, for example, by building up police forces, this is more effective. You simply see fewer terrorist attacks when using these kinds of counterterrorism measures, compared to military operations, where you see a huge increase. When you actually look at the numbers relating to domestic terrorism, you see this increase in 2004. In 2004 there was a shift in US counterterrorism policy, where we began to become aware of the high cost of unilateral actions. We, therefore, began to depend on partner states to conduct counterterrorism operations within their own borders. After that, the number of domestic terrorist attacks tripled in the world, and all these attacks were confined to countries that used their militaries for domestic counterterrorism operations. You saw no increase in any other countries.