Big Boom: Robert Pape Remakes Terrorism Studies

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism
Robert A. Pape (New York: Random House, 2005)

Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It
Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman (University of Chicago Press, 2010)


A fter 9/11, the University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape compiled a database of all the suicide terrorist attacks committed worldwide from 1980 to 2000—187 in total. Pape then analyzed his material, the most comprehensive collection of suicide terrorism ever assembled. His findings are illuminating. Rather than poverty, or a hatred of freedom or other Western values, or even Islamist fundamentalism—as the popular theories claimed—Pape found that the primary motive of suicide terrorists is the desire to compel democratic countries to abandon their occupations of foreign lands.

Pape published his findings in the American Political Science Review in 2003, and the accompanying article became one of the most widely discussed pieces of political science of the decade. He expanded the piece into a book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism , which was nominated for the Council on Foreign Relations’ prestigious Arthur Ross Book Award and covered by CNN, the Washington Post , the American Conservative , Fox News, Huffington Post , and NPR. It was impressive attention for a wonky book.

Pape established the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism in 2003 and now has a new book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It , coauthored with defense analyst James Feldman. In the book, Pape has updated his database of suicide terrorist attacks to 2009, examining a staggering 2,200 in total. Cutting the Fuse comes with glowing blurbs from Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, and 9/11 Commission chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean and has resulted in presentations at several Washington think tanks.

Pape’s ideas have also had a strong impact on the new and growing field of terrorism studies. Though not a major area of research before 9/11, the question of what makes terrorists and their bombs tick has galvanized many scholars in the years since the attacks. Pape is one of them, and his analyses have become the gold standard in the field, used by heavyweights like Marc Sageman, Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer, and Mia Bloom.

Pape’s work has proved powerful among academics for two reasons. For one, it is rigorously empirical. Dying to Win lists all known suicide attacks and categorizes them by date, target, weapon employed, and death toll. It cross-references these with an analysis of the various foreign occupations occurring from 1980 to 2003, which are themselves subdivided by different typologies. In other words, Pape moves terrorism from the realm of speculation to social science.

His second major accomplishment is even more vital: He analyzed terrorists as rational political actors. Suicide terrorists are uniquely horrifying in their methods, yes, but they are simply waging a form of asymmetrical warfare. In other words, they are using terror to pursue politics by other means, as Clausewitz’s famous dictum held.

This is a simple, seemingly obvious insight—but it had nevertheless eluded most scholars for decades. A few had theorized on the rationality of bomb-strappers. The term “propaganda by deed” was coined by anarchists at the turn of the twentieth century to describe their strategies, suggesting that seemingly random violence was in fact as coldly calculated as trench warfare. Terrorists are “rational fanatics,” Israeli scholar Ehud Sprinzak wrote in 2000. Terrorism guru Bruce Hoffman wrote of the “logic of suicide terrorism” in the Atlantic in 2003. But neither these nor other writers grasped the logic of terrorist acts as thoroughly or effectively as Pape.

Most scholars had believed terrorists to be so mired in poverty that they had nothing left to lose—or they were religious fanatics, or deranged nihilists. Titles from books and journal articles give some indication of the academic understanding of terrorists in the pre-Pape era: “Terrorist Psycho-Logic: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Psychological Forces,” The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism , “The Psychology of Political Terrorism,” Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred , “The Mind of a German Terrorist,” Sacred Rage , etc.

This scholarly understanding of terrorists was augmented by their portrayal in great works of literature, such as the seething narcissists in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed or the sociopathic Professor in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent . And of course, in popular culture, terrorists are the bloodthirsty jihadists of, say, True Lies , or the antisocial losers of Columbine. Pape threw a cerebral bomb into these common fallacies and exploded what had been the scholarly understanding of terrorism.


T errorism first came to modern attention in the late nineteenth century, when anarchists from Russia to the United States assassinated major political figures in an effort to overthrow governments. More recently, the radical Baader-Meinhof Gang (in Germany), Red Brigades (in Italy), and Weather Underground (in the US) made terrorism in Western societies seem something of an exotic fringe of privileged narcissists, while Palestinian and Lebanese jihadists remained motivated by primitive fundamentalism. Pape’s work challenged these portrayals of individual and group pathology, taking the terrorists out of the realm of religion or psychology and placing them into the more pedestrian one of politics.

The sheer amount of data he catalogued showed that terrorists were more than just isolated individuals—what Harvard terrorism expert Jessica Stern calls “lone wolves.” By definition, thousands of attackers are not alone. Moreover, religious zealots or impoverished losers would not be expected to concentrate in particular countries or commit their terrorist acts only in certain years. Yet Cutting the Fuse finds that, since 2004, the number of suicide terrorist attacks has multiplied exponentially—nearly five hundred percent more than in all the years from 1980 to 2003 combined . And most have been overwhelmingly concentrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where US troops are seen as occupying forces.

Islam in particular has become synonymous in the popular mind with suicide terrorism. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims, as the saying goes. But in fact, “the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion,” Pape writes. Similarly, many Hezbollah suicide terrorists—who first brought suicide terrorism to America’s attention with attacks on US troops in Lebanon in the early 1980s—are not Muslim at all, but in fact Christian or secular.

Of course, Pape is not without his critics. In May 2008, four Princeton professors wrote that his data “are only minimally informative about the relationship between the strategic environment and organizations’ decisions to use suicide terror tactics.” Others have argued that terrorism cannot be seen as logical because it does not work. If it did, Israel would not still exist, the IRA would be running Ireland, and Kurdistan and Quebec would be flourishing states. Still others have taken issue with Pape’s definitions. “Pape’s choice of the term suicide terrorism , rather than suicide attacks, suicide missions, or suicide operations, has important implications,” wrote one critic. Many of the suicide attacks Pape lists are in fact against military targets; thus they fail to meet the most widely accepted understanding of terrorism, which is violence waged against civilians.

Yet even his most serious critics concede that Pape has advanced the discussion. And if Americans, as it appears, now believe that occupying Iraq and Afghanistan has not made the United States any safer, they should see Pape as prescient. In 2003, when much of the country thought taking out Saddam Hussein and remaking Iraq would make America safer, Pape was saying the opposite—that the best way to prevent suicide terrorism is to avoid occupying foreign lands in the first place. Americans might not consider the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War as an “occupation” akin to the Israeli settlements, but according to Pape it is the presence of foreign troops, not their motivation, that incenses nationalists. And, if you don’t agree, he says he has 2,200 reasons why you’re wrong.


Jordan Michael Smith has written for the Boston Globe, Newsweek, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and Foreign Policy.

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