The strategic logic of suicide
Robert Pape asks why the deadly
tactic is on the rise and what can be done about it.
newspaper reports show bloody images of the damage wreaked
by suicide bombers, and we wonder how human beings could
choose to give up their lives that way, using their bodies
as weapons. Many believe religious motives, specifically
Islamic fundamentalism, play a part, but the world leader
in suicide terrorism actually is the Marxist-Leninist Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which recruits from the mostly
Hindu Tamil population in Sri Lanka. A certain demographic
profile was once thought prevalent, but recent attacks have
been committed by both the educated and uneducated, single
and married, male and female, young and middle-aged.
Viewed from the perspective of a terrorist
organization, the seemingly irrational act is a well-planned,
logical strategy to achieve specific political goals, says
Robert Pape, PhD'88, associate professor of political science.
And suicide attacks have increased over the past two decades,
Pape says, because terrorists have learned that they work.
"Suicide terrorism is basically
a punishment strategy used by terrorist organizations not
only to inflict immediate punishment against a target society,"
Pape argues, "but more important, to threaten more
punishment to come in the future." The suicide "sends
a powerful message that the attacker could not have been
deterred," he says. "Suicide also allows for the
art of martyrdom, which connects the attacker to the broader
At an October workshop in Pick Hall Pape,
who directs the U of C's Program on International Security
Policy and chairs the Committee on International Relations,
presented his working paper on suicide terrorism's rise.
More than 50 students and faculty crammed around thick wooden
tables, sat on the floor, or stood against the walls. They
listened to—and later grilled—their colleague, dark-haired
and solid in thick glasses and a three-piece suit.
Pape has taught national-security affairs
since 1991, at Chicago since 1999, but didn't study suicide
terrorism until 9/11. Because of his expertise on punishment
tactics—he wrote Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion
in War (Cornell University Press, 1996) and the article
"Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work" in a 1997
issue of International Security—media outlets including
National Public Radio and the — sought him out after the
terrorist attacks. "I noticed the big area I didn't
know about was suicide terrorism," he says. "We
just had random, ad hoc stories about suicide attacks, but
we needed systematic data."
So while the media continued to ask his
opinions on air power and economic sanctions, he began collecting
data. Using Lexis-Nexis, he culled 187 documented acts of
suicide terrorism (not including instances explicitly authorized
by a state) between 1983—when Hezbollah used car bombs or
grenades to kill 384 people in six separate attacks, including
241 Marines at the U.S. barracks in Lebanon—and 2001, when
Al Qaeda killed more than 3,000 people in the United States.
In that year Chechen rebels, Kashmir rebels, the LTTE, and
Palestinian groups also continued suicide missions.
Most of the 187 attacks—95 percent—were
part of "organized, coherent campaigns" by terrorist
groups. And when the groups' leaders announced an end to
the attacks, they ceased. Pape counted 16 separate campaigns
(for example, Hezbollah v. the U.S. and France, six attacks,
1983-84; Hezbollah v. Israel, six attacks, 1983-85; LTTE
v. Sri Lanka, 54 attacks, 1995-2000). Eleven had ended,
and five were ongoing at the end of 2001. In every campaign
the terrorist groups' goals were to gain control of their
perceived national homeland and to eject foreign military
forces from that territory. Occupation may not be sufficient
cause for suicide terrorism to occur, Pape notes, "but
military presence does appear to be a necessary condition."
Even Al Qaeda's goals for 9/11 included ridding Saudi Arabia
of U.S. troops.
Almost every modern suicide campaign
has targeted democracies, which are "especially vulnerable
to coercive punishment," Pape says. The Mujahideen
used other means against the authoritarian Soviet Union
in the 1980s, but the Chechen rebels employed suicide bombing
against democratic Russia in the 1990s. And although the
Kurds, he says, "are being repressed far more by [Iraqi
president] Saddam Hussein than they are by Turkey,"
they have only used suicide attacks against Turkey, which
moved toward democracy in 1983.
Both examples highlight the broader trend
of increased suicide attacks. Of Pape's 187 instances, 31
occurred in the 1980s, 104 in the 1990s, and 52 in 2000
and 2001 alone. By October 2002 there had been approximately
20 in Israel, three in Pakistan, and several others around
the world. "Suicide terrorism is growing," Pape
says, "because terrorists have learned that it pays."
In six of the 11 campaigns that have ended, the terrorists
achieved at least partial political gains. The target states
fully or partially withdrew from the territory, began negotiations,
or released a terrorist leader.
That 50 percent success rate is significant,
Pape believes. Other punishment tactics such as air raids
and economic sanctions work only 10 to 20 percent of the
time. And suicide missions have been effective "against
a variety of democratic governments—even hawkish leaders
like the Reagan administration or [former Prime Minister
Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel." They also succeeded
despite target states' military raids to kill or arrest
Democratic leaders have confirmed publicly
that the suicide attacks pushed them to make concessions.
In his memoirs, for example, Ronald Reagan said he withdrew
U.S. forces from Lebanon in 1983 because "we couldn't
stay there and run the risk of another suicide attack on
In April 1994 Prime Minister Yitzhak
Rabin accelerated Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip—as
the Oslo Accords had dictated but whose deadlines Israel
had missed—after Hamas began a series of suicide bombings
in retaliation for the Hebron Massacre, in which a Jewish
settler killed 29 Palestinians and wounded about 150 with
machine guns. Rabin told his parliament that Israel would
withdraw because "the current situation creates endless
possibilities for Hamas and the other organizations."
Hamas then suspended its campaign, Pape says, "seeing
that the suicide attacks had the surprising effect of accelerating
Although Pape's earlier work suggested
punishment tactics are ineffective, suicide attacks work
because their structure differs from economic sanctions
or air power. In ordinary military coercion a stronger state
pressures a weaker state. The targets rarely submit because
nationalist citizens are willing to endure high costs, and
because target governments can minimize the punishment,
for example by shooting down incoming aircraft. In the suicide-terrorism
model, however, the weaker actor is the coercer, the stronger
actor the target. "The key difference," Pape says,
"is that a target of a suicide campaign cannot easily
adjust to minimize future damage."
Suicide terrorists' gains, however, are
limited. The attack does not achieve goals "central
to wealth or security." Even in the one example of
a complete gain, when the United States abandoned Lebanon,
Pape argues, the U.S. had "only a humanitarian interest
at stake." When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985,
its troops remained in a security buffer. Israel also withdrew
from the West Bank and Gaza in 1994 and 1995, but its settlements
there increased, and the Israel Defense Forces, Pape says,
"had no trouble going back when they thought it was
While the rise in suicide terrorism and
the reasons behind it seem daunting, Pape notes, there are
policy lessons to learn. Military action or concessions
alone rarely work. Instead a government must "deny
terrorists the ability to inflict significant punishment
on their targets." The issue most underrepresented
in the current public debate, Pape says, is homeland security,
arguing that strategies that combine homeland defense with
either military action or concessions work best.
"Israel should abandon the West
Bank," he suggests, "but build a wall—a real wall,
20 feet high and 20 feet thick." Meanwhile, the United
States should begin pursuing energy independence and consider
immigration controls. The current homeland-security bill,
Pape says, "merely reorganizes existing organizations
and does not add new money." Rather than spending another
$100 billion on a war with Iraq, Pape says, that money should
go to homeland security. Furthermore, Pape's analysis suggests
that the war on terrorism may be heading in the wrong direction:
"The occupation of more and more countries is likely
to increase the number of terrorists coming at us."
After his talk, the political scientists
gathered in Pick quizzed Pape. Why not crack down on emerging
terrorist threats by attacking the populations that support
them? Because it's immoral and ineffective, Pape replied.
Why not study all terrorism rather than only suicide terrorism?
Because suicide terrorism is the purest form of terrorism,
he answered, the attackers' goals being first to inflict
And an oft-repeated question: if not
all military occupations breed suicide terrorism, which
ones do, and why? That intrigues Pape enough, he says, that
it might be his next project.