Political Science Targets Suicide Terrorism. Bystanders: Take Cover!


The study of terrorism is the orphan of Middle Eastern studies. The Middle East academics, whose self-appointed mission is to cast their subject matter in a favorable light, simply avoid the subject. They are happiest studying putative reformers of Islam, not the terrorists who invoke it. Just look at the program of the upcoming conference of the Middle East Studies Association: not a terrorism paper in sight.

The field has been left wide open for social scientists without any particular knowledge of the Middle East. We should be grateful that some in academe are thinking about these things. The problem is that some terrorism research wobbles, precisely because it isn’t sufficiently grounded in the complexities for which the Middle East is famous.

I’m moved to write this after reading an article that has gotten a lot of play over the past few weeks. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” is by a University of Chicago political scientist, Robert A. Pape, and it appeared in the August issue of the American Political Science Review, the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association. The publication is described by the assocation as “the preeminent political science journal in the United States and internationally,” and it is received by the association’s 14,000 members in 70 countries. Last week, Pape also published an op-ed in the New York Times, distilling his study for an even wider audience.

Pape’s thesis is really quite simple: suicide terrorism is not irrational or an expression of religious fanaticism. It is part of a strategy deliberately adopted by the groups that sponsor it. “In contrast to the existing explanations,” writes Pape, “this study shows that suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant territorial concessions. Moreover, over the past two decades, suicide terrorism has been rising largely because terrorists have learned that it pays.” For that reason, too, it is used by secular groups (e.g., Tamil Tigers) even more often than by religious ones. What gives Pape’s argument its “scientific” aura is that he spent a year compiling a list of all suicide attacks that took place between 1980 and 2001 (188 in number) and infers from their timing that they took the form of deliberate campaigns.

I find all of this to be fairly obvious, so I was surprised to see myself as one of the foils of Pape’s study. Pape:

The small number of studies addressed explicitly to suicide terrorism tend to focus on the irrationality of the act of suicide from the perspective of the individual attacker. As a result, they focus on individual motives—either religious indoctrination (especially Islamic Fundamentalism) or psychological predispositions that might drive individual suicide bombers (Kramer 1990; Merari 1990; Post 1990)…. some analysts see suicide terrorism as fundamentally irrational (Kramer 1990; Merari 1990; Post 1990).

Now Professors Merari and Post, who are in the psychology business, can speak for themselves. But peruse my 1990 article, “The Moral Logic of Hizbullah,” and show me where I even suggest that suicide terrorism is “irrational.” To the contrary: I demonstrate that the method enjoyed such stunning success that leading Shiite clerics were prepared to bend their interpretation of Islamic law to sanction it. As for “irrationality,” in a 1993 article, subtitled “The Calculus of Jihad” (and which Pape didn’t consult) I made my view absolutely clear:

Hizbullah’s collective choices regarding the extent and intensity of its violence had a clear political rationale. Hizbullah was also a political movement, and indeed saw politics as an inseparable part of religion. When it employed violence, it did so for political and not ritualistic purposes—to bring it closer to power. In making its choices, Hizbullah weighed benefits against costs.

Later in Pape’s article, he associates me again with the notion that terrorists are irrational: “Many observers characterize Hamas and [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad as fanatical, irrational groups, extreme both within Palestinian society and among terrorists groups in general (Kramer 1996).” Really? In that 1996 article, I don’t mention Hamas or Islamic Jihad at all.

For years, I (and others) have argued that suicide bombings fit nicely into savvy strategies for terrorist groups, and that their popularity grows when they seem to work. So Pape’s main claim to originality is that he has documented this with empirical evidence.

But reading through Pape’s database of suicide attacks for the place and period I know best—Lebanon in the mid-1980s—I kept encountering operations that I couldn’t remember at all, or that I remembered as having different authors than the ones he names, or that I remembered as having killed far fewer people than appear in his “killed” column. Here are a few glaring discrepancies:

  • Pape’s Campaign 2 (“Hezbollah vs. Israel”), incident no. 2, June 16, 1984, lists a suicide bombing of an Israeli army post that supposedly killed 5. In fact, this was the first suicide bombing conducted by Hizbullah’s rival, the Amal movement, and it didn’t kill anyone. (It’s one of two case studies I treat in an article on the first suicide bombings against Israel in Lebanon. Not in Pape’s bibliography.)
  • Pape’s Campaign 2 (“Hezbollah vs. Israel”), incident no. 3, April 9, 1985, lists a suicide car bombing of an Israeli army post. It did happen, but the bomber was a teenaged woman (pictured below), and she belonged not to Hizbullah but to a pro-Syrian organization (the Syrian Social Nationalist Party). It was the first such bombing ever done by a woman, and it was much-celebrated.
  • Pape’s Campaign 2 (“Hezbollah vs. Israel”), incident no. 6, June 15, 1985, lists a suicide car bombing of an Israeli army post in Beirut that supposedly killed 23. It never happened: by that date, Israel was long gone from Beirut. This would seem to be a confused reference to a suicide car bombing that took place in Beirut the day before, June 14—not against Israelis but against a position of the predominantly Shiite Sixth Brigade of the Lebanese army, then laying siege to Palestinian refugee camps (the so-called “war of the camps”). In other words: a Palestinian suicide bombing against Shiites.
  • Pape’s Campaign 3 (“Hezbollah vs. Israel and South Lebanon Army [SLA]”), incident no. 6, September 3, 1985, lists a suicide car bomb at an SLA outpost that supposedly killed 37—a whopping toll that would have been unforgettable. In fact, the suicide bombing killed only its perpetrator (who was not a member of Hizbullah but belonged to the Lebanese Baath party).

SSNP suicide bomber.

In sum, Robert Pape has not told us much we didn’t know anyway, and his data inspire less confidence than earlier data-based studies. We already knew that suicide bombings were strategic choices. Even in Lebanon, and without the example of the Tamil Tigers, we knew that secular groups could embrace the method with fervor. (In Lebanon in the mid-1980s, pro-Syrian secular groups did three attacks for every one launched by Hizbullah. In Pape’s data, all of these attacks are inexplicably attributed to Hizbullah.) What happened in Lebanon has been repeated in the Palestinian territories, where secular groups have jumped on the bandwagon of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. What begins as a strategic campaign is often driven forward by organizational and Islamist-secular rivalry.

I suppose we should still be grateful to Pape for telling a wider audience the truth—that suicide bombing has a strategic rationale, that it’s being used by more groups because it seems to work, that it’s even superseding other terrorist tactics, and that it’s so appealing in its simplicity and effect that you don’t have to be a religious fanatic to plan one or carry it out. Pape comes closest to an original claim (for academe) in his argument that Yitzhak Rabin, by his words and deeds, gave Hamas and Islamic Jihad every reason to assume that their suicide bombings were working. Pape concludes that small concessions under fire, such as those made by Rabin, just increase the fire—something most Israeli voters concluded a few years ago.

But in his broader policy conclusion, Pape strikes out in an unexpected direction, and on very thin ice. Reading his analysis, you would think that the conclusion would be to raise the costs for terrorist leaders who choose suicide bombings, from Afghanistan to Gaza—to mark such attacks as crimes against humanity and war crimes, to find the masterminds, and to put their heads on pikes for all to see.

Yet Pape does a last-minute twist, arguing that the most effective response would be an American disengagement from the Middle East and Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. The United States and Israel should stand back and hunker down behind defensive perimeters. Why? This would diminish the incentives (read: grievances) behind strategic suicide bombing. I find this conclusion completely at odds with the analysis. Wouldn’t this be the ultimate concession to the suicide strategy—and be celebrated as such by its planners? Wouldn’t this inspire yet more mutations of the method, and the expansion of the terrorists’ strategic goals? One is left suspecting that Pape’s conclusion has been infected by his loyalties to the Chicago “realists,” a school of political scientists who favor a low-profile posture for the United States in the Middle East (and who also opposed the Iraq war).

In short, Pape has given us a paper of limited originality, based on data that need double-checking, and topped off with conclusions that don’t flow from the findings. It’s more evidence that this kind of work has to be done on an interdisciplinary basis, and in consultation with people who remember.

Update: Over two years after this post, Martin Kramer debated Robert Pape at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on November 8, 2005, by which time Pape had turned his article into a book.

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