The Politics of Suicide Terrorism

Article excerpt

The Politics of Suicide Terrorism

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by Robert Pape. New York: Random House, 2005. 250 pages. Acknowledgments to p. 252. Appends, to p. 277. Notes to p. 316. Index to p. 335. $25.95.

Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism, by Mia Bloom. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. xvii + 192 pages. Appendix to p. 201. Notes to p. 238. Index to p. 251. $24.95.

There is ongoing controversy about how to understand Islamist terrorism against the West. In Dying to Win, Robert Pape argues that Islamic terrorists target the United States and other Western countries in response to Western policies toward Islamic countries, especially stationing Western troops in Islamic countries. His critics, such as Olivier Roy,1 believe that Islamic terrorists are fundamentalists at war with modernity, globalization, and Western culture. In brief, Pape says they hate us for what we do; his critics say they hate us for what we are.

This controversy is associated with important practical implications. If Pape is right, removing US troops from Islamic countries will go far toward decreasing terrorism; if his critics are right, compromise will only encourage the fundamentalists in their culture war. In general, liberals like Pape's argument while conservatives don't. The political stakes have brought Pape's book considerable attention, both among scholars and in the mass media, but the data have perhaps not been scrutinized as carefully as the conclusions.

Pape makes his argument on the basis of what he believes to be a complete listing of all suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 1994 - a worldwide total of 315 attacks. In general, the perpetrators are not crazy, not particularly deprived, not particularly frustrated in their personal lives. Often they are idealists with above-average prospects, fighting for a cause they see as desperate. Pape argues that the cause is usually to push foreign forces from a homeland, in other words, that it is nationalism that motivates suicide terrorism. In this view, even al-Qa'ida is not really fighting about religion but about pushing the United States and its allies from Muslim countries.

Pape believes that suicide terrorism is increasing because it works. In his accounting, 301 of the 315 suicide attacks can be fitted into 18 campaigns. Of the 13 of these campaigns he assesses as completed, seven were associated with significant gains for the terrorist side (Hizbullah versus US/France 1983, Hizbullah versus Israel 1983-85, Hamas versus Israel 1994, Hamas versus Israel 1994-95, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE versus Sri Lanka 1993-94, LTTE versus Sri Lanka 2001, Hamas versus Israel 1997). Six of the 13 produced no obvious gains for the terrorists. So terrorism works in the sense that it is associated with gains of the weak against the strong in over half of completed campaigns (7/13).

Two questions can be raised about the data. First, why not include attempted but unsuccessful examples of suicide terrorism? Sometimes the perpetrators lose their nerve, sometimes there is technical failure of an explosive device, and sometimes state authorities intervene in time to kill or arrest a perpetrator. Would our picture of suicide terrorism change if attempts were counted as well as successes?

Second, how are suicide terrorist attacks attributed to groups and campaigns? Among the 14 attacks not attributed to any campaign ("Isolated Attacks," p. 264) are five 1998-1999 attacks by Hizbullah against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Southern Lebanon. It is not clear why these attacks do not constitute a campaign, which might be counted as successful after the IDF withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000 (although Joshua Sinai believes that conventional attacks rather than suicide attacks forced IDF withdrawal).2

Attributions to al-Qa'ida can also be questioned. Pape groups 21 attacks, between November 1995 and December 2003, as Campaign #14: al-Qa'ida vs. …