Robert Pape collected data for every documented case of suicide terrorism from 1983-2003. In Dying to Win he makes a strong case that suicide terrorism is almost exclusively used to combat occupation where there is a religious difference between the occupiers and occupied (together these present an existential threat to the occupied community) and the occupier jurisdiction is a democracy (and therefore less likely to reply ruthlessly and more likely to grant concessions). Furthermore, suicide terrorism seems to be relatively effective under these conditions.
Pape also dismisses two sucicide terrorism myths. First, that it is an Islam-only phenomenon (the Hindu/Marxist Tamil Tigers account for the most cases). Second, that suicide terrorists are primarily poor, uneducated and fundamentalist (they tend to have above average education and opportunities for their communities and often show now fundamentalist commitment before volunteering — an act of extreme commitment to their community by well integrated members of the same).
Although Pape has amassed significant data in support of his analysis, suicide terrorism (largely suicide bombing) has effectively only existed for a little over two decades (though suicide attacks have occasionally been used for millennia, briefly covered in this book). Will suicide terrorism change, or continue in the same pattern? There are two obvious questions, neither of which Pape bothers to pose (though I read the book a few months ago, I could’ve missed or forgotten):
- Will suicide terrorism continue to be effective? In other words, will democracies continue to respond with a combination of concession, coercion, and grandstanding? Alternatives include apolitical response (e.g., criminal investigation and prosecution) and ruthless response (i.e., annihilation of the terrorist’s community).
- Given that suicide terrorism is effective, will it be taken up by other groups that perceive an existential threat, e.g., radical environmentalists?
It seems that suicide bombings in Iraq, only the first several of which are included in Pape’s data, fit the pattern Pape has described. Even when not directed against the occupiers, religious difference (Shia vs. Sunni) is involved, as is the potential for influencing the democratic occupiers.
Apart from advising democracies to not occupy jurisdictions with a different predominant religion, which flows obviously from his analysis, Pape’s recommendations are irrelevant at best (e.g., lock down U.S. jurisdiction borders), as Peter McCluskey observes in his review. Nick Szabo and Chris Hibbert have also recently reviewed the book.