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Volume 95, Issue 2
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The strategic logic of suicide terrorism
Robert Pape asks why the deadly tactic is on the rise and what can be done about it.

Television and 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 community."

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 terrorist leaders.

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 the Marines."

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 Israel's withdrawal."

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 necessary."

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 harm.

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.




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