Robert A. Pape “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”


“They hate us for our freedoms” –George W. Bush

Most reasonable people realize that the President’s now infamous characterization of the 9/11 terrorists’ motive is drivel. But many reasonable people, when asked what does drive people to commit suicide terrorist acts will give reasons that, though less obviously drivel, are none-the-less completely wrong.

There have been many plausible and well-intentioned hypotheses about the root causes of suicide terrorism. The causes are generally held to be some combination of unstable or suicidal personalities, indoctrination in the tenets of fundamentalist Islam, socio-economic deprivations, and the history of Western, especially American, involvement in the Middle East. That is how I thought about the phenomenon myself, until I read Robert Pape’s comprehensive study of every suicide terrorist incident since the inception of modern suicide terrorism in 1980.

There is nothing better for destroying misconceptions and faulty assumptions than a fat dose of facts. Pape created a detailed database of every suicide terrorism incident between 1980 and 2003 – 315 attacks in all – to test hypotheses regarding what variables actually predict suicide terror, and what factors are actually causal. The result of his work is published in his book, “Dying to Win.” The hypothesis left standing at the end of the day is surprising and has dire import for the conduct of American foreign policy.

It is simply this:

Suicide terrorism is an effective tool of nationalism that is used specifically against democratic states engaged in military occupation of territory the terrorist group considers its homeland.

First of all, Pape points out that the reason suicide terrorism is one
the rise is because it works. It works because it is used against
societies that are democratic. Democratic governance translates mass
opinion into government policy with an appreciable degree of
efficiency. Democratic societies have largely proven unwilling to
sustain civilian casualties unless its most vital national interests
are stake. A good illustrative pair of examples is Israel’s withdrawal
from southern Lebanon in the face of Hezbollah’s suicide attacks,
versus the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank even in the
face of continuing suicide terrorism by Hamas and others. Suicide
terrorism is a strategy for bringing to bear the most coersive violence
while using resources most efficiently in an asymmetric conflict.

Suicide terrorism’s taproot is nationalism, not religious extremism.
Religion is a useful tool to terrorists to get the society they are
based in to overcome the powerful and universal taboo against suicide.
Pape points out the champions of suicide terrorism, in terms of the
number of attacks, is the entirely secular Tamil Tigers who are based
in a Buddhist culture. Religion is also a factor when there is a
significant difference between the religions of the occupying power and
the occupied people. That sharp distinction is a fertile source of
misunderstanding that unscrupulous leaders can exploit to instill fear
and mistrust among their people, like “they hate us for our freedoms,”
for instance.

Pape’s evidence is stark and quite convincing. The seeming outlier is
Al Qaeda, since they purport a global mission and presence. The truth
of Al Qaeda’s recruitment and internal rhetoric presents a much more
parochial agenda, however. Their main dispute with the United States
was the stationing of American combat troops in the land of the
prophet, Saudi Arabia. Most people realize that 15 of the 19 hijackers
of 9/11 were Saudi. It was the perceived occupation of their homeland
by an infidel army that drove recruitment, not a free-floating
fundamentalist fantasy about restoring the Caliphate. The attack was
entirely predictable given Pape’s hypothesis and the escalating pattern
of Al Qaeda attacks against American targets through the 1990s.

We garrisoned almost 800K troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1991,
and kept several thousands there following the first Gulf War. At the
end of 1992 Al Qaeda made its first attack on American targets,
culminating in the attacks of 9/11/2001. Consider for a moment whether
is really just a routine redeployment with Bush withdrew almost all of
the 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia in advance of the 2003 invasion of
Iraq. What better way to cover one’s capitulation to the demands of
terrorists than by saying we need the troops elsewhere? The result? No
more terrorist attacks in the United States for almost 5 years. Sounds
almost like the price of peace to me.

Bush’s capitulation is likely the true source of our relative safety
from further domestic suicide attacks, not color codes and NSA domestic
wiretapping, nor extraordinary renditions and indefinite detentions. In
all likelihood, these poisonous policies are only aimed at expanding
the imperial Presidency to absurd proportions, not at increasing our
safety. Indeed, the dearth of terrorist prosecutions and the
Administration’s inability to substantiate its claims to ‘progress’ in
the ‘War on Terror speak’ more loudly than their propaganda. There have
been subsequent attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia, of course, but
those have focused on the local assets of the contractors supporting
the Saudi regime and that regime itself, not the civilian population in
the United States. It looks very much like Al Qaeda has achieved their
political goals in the United States and are now consolidating their
gains and turning their attention to ‘Coalition Allies’ as specified in
bin Laden’s strategy papers.

But Pape’s theory doesn’t just illuminate the past, it has frightening
predictive value, as well. We now have around 135,000 troops in Iraq.
Right now, acts of suicide terrorism have been directed at American
assets in Iraq, both military and civilian. How much longer will it be
until Al Qaeda, or another terrorist organization, is able to recruit,
train and position another team to attack us here at home? Pape’s
hypothesis suggests that as long as we stay in Iraq, it is not a matter
of whether, but when.

Those who suggest that withdrawal from Iraq may cause a civil war and a
failed state are correct; it might. But Pape’s hypothesis suggests that
even if that happens, so long as we don’t have troops on the ground in
Iraq, we are very unlikely to be attacked by Iraqis here at home.
Suicide bombers don’t do revenge.

Likewise, many who advocate withdrawal from Iraq suggest that we should
withdraw our forces to other countries nearby, such as Kuwait, U.A.E.,
Qatar or Turkey, and maintain a rapid deployment force in the area to
support our puppet government. The problem is that our military
presence in these places might further inflame nationalist passions and
fuel terrorist attacks from these newly occupied countries, or even
from Saudi Arabians again.

Pape’s study is a tremendous contribution to American national
security. Only by fully and objectively understanding the motives and
goals of your enemy can you hope to defeat him. American anti-terror
and foreign policy in the Middle East has been stumbling in the dark
for years (excepting, perhaps, Bush’s capitulation to Al Qaeda’s
demands in Saudi Arabia), and it is time that our policymakers started
applying the lessons that Pape has mined from his data.

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Michael founded BlogForArizona as the Howard Dean campaign blog for Arizona in 2003, and has been blogging ever since. Michael is an attorney living in Tucson with his wife Lauren Murata. In 2008, following some health issues and new time constraints, Michael stepped back from regular blogging and began remaking BlogForArizona into a collaborative project. Michael now contributes occasionally to the blog and provides editorial and publishing direction. Also if you want to keep up with the latest Arizona and National political news that Mike finds important, check out the Donkey Feed, which he curates. If you are curious about what books Mike is reading (or planning to read) you can check out his public library feed or his Amazon book wish list.


  1. This is an excellent and very illuminating article! As a retired statistician, I have great respect for the data Pape has collected, especially since his conclusions tie very closely with my thought that we are like a gnat in the eye and that when you have a gnat in your eye, you cannot do anything until you get the damned thing out!

    There is a dearly held belief that there is a “right” way for us to leave and that it is just a question of finding it – a way that will minimize the loss of life and property to both sides while maintaining our ability to save face. This is simply not possible. The best thing we can do is to develop a coalition of willing nations to form a multi-national peace corps which will work with Iraqis to rebuild their country. We must entirely remove the American military presence which is the target of violence.

    Democracy does not come easily. Iraqis will develop their own interpretation of democracy – it will not be like ours. Let’s remember that, in the United States, we have had a civil war, which did not destroy our nation. We have been struggling for more than 200 years to develop “a more perfect Union”. It is not reasonable for us to demand that in Iraq, the process will occur in the blink of an eye.