Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by Robert A. Pape.New York: Random House, 2005. viii +250 pages. Acknowledgements to p. 252.Appendices to p. 278. Notes to p. 316.Index to p. 335. $25.95 cloth.
Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, by Mia Bloom. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2005. xvii + 192 pages. Appendixto p. 201. Notes to p. 238. Index top. 251. $24.95 cloth.
The Road to Martyrs’ Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber, by Anne Marie Oliver and Paul F. Steinberg.New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.xiii + 181 pages. Glossary to p. 189. Notesto p. 198. Index to p. 214. $26.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Lori A. Allen
The July bombings in London provoked another wave of debate, punditry, and polemic. Explanations and condemnations littered the pages of the mainstream press in the United States and Britain, where Islam regularly is blamed for the terrorist attacks. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made the racist remark that it is a “civilizational problem” “when al-Qa‘ida like bombings come to the London Underground,” urging “the Muslim world” to wake up to the “jihadist death cult in its midst” (“If It’s a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution,” New York Times, 8 July 2005). William Tucker of the right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute went even further, blaming polygamy in Islam as the root of the problem (“How Polygamy Fuels Terrorism,” Northjersey.com, 26 July 2005). Others reasserted the dangerous notion that even attempting to understand and explain such attacks is incendiary or un-American or that it gives the terrorists too much credit.
In this climate of ideologically hidebound discourse, it is a relief to discover Robert Pape’s rational and careful analysis in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. This book is directed largely toward a U.S. policy audience that is asking why there has been a rise in suicide terrorism around the world and how it can be stopped. Based on data compiled from regional news media and other sources covering the 315 suicide attacks that occurred between 1980 and 2003, Pape argues that suicide terrorism is a response by weaker actors against foreign occupation by democratic states. Democracies are the most likely targets of suicide terrorism, he claims, because their “publics have low thresholds of cost tolerance and high ability to affect state policy” (p. 44). With broad brushstrokes Pape defines democracies as states with elected chief executives and legislatures in multiparty systems with “at least one peaceful transfer of power” (p. 45), thereby allowing Russia and Israel to fall within the framework of his theory. Avoiding discussion of the ideological uses of the term, he defines terrorism as “the use of violence by an organization other than a national government to intimidate or frighten a target audience . . . to gain supporters and to coerce opponents” (p. 9). Pape acknowledges that the definition of “terrorism” could be broadened to include governmental actions, but he limits his analysis to non-state actors, which is the subject policy-makers are most interested in (p. 280, n2). He argues that terrorism’s enactment “makes strategic sense,” usually as a last resort when crucial nationalist interests are at stake (p. 42). His succinct conclusion is that suicide terrorism is growing because terrorists have made the “quite reasonable” assessment that “it works” (p. 61).
Pape emphasizes the inaccuracies of other analyses that draw connections between Islam and terrorism. He likewise points out the pitfalls of investigations that focus on supposed psychological and personal factors that drive individual attackers. After reviewing the facts of these 315 cases, Pape concludes that neither religious motivations nor any single religion fuels these attacks. Suicide terrorism is not irrational, random, or pathological, but rather political, organized, and directed toward specific, secular goals. Proving this point are examples from the conflict in Sri Lanka, where the secular Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bear the dubious distinction of having carried out the largest number of suicide terrorism attacks of any group. There it is the mainly Hindu Tamils’ understanding of Sinhala “encroachment on Tamil culture and resources” that spurred the increase in Tamil militancy (p. 141). According to Pape, even Islamic al-Qa‘ida must be understood as reacting to the U.S. military occupation of Muslim countries rather than acting out of any kind of unified Islamic ideological motivation (p. 103).
Pape’s discussion of the Palestinian Hamas further helps to disabuse readers of the notion that religion, Islam, or some ill-defined “jihadist death cult” is to blame for suicide terrorism. This group is motivated primarily by the (political) goal of ending foreign military occupation rather than by religious concerns. The author’s characterization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, however, is sometimes rather bland and understated, such as when he explains that one “factor that probably did contribute significantly to the rise and persistence of the Palestinian rebellion was the increasing encroachment of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land” (p. 48). This is not just a probable factor but an overwhelming cause.
Pape’s reasoning and argumentation can be overly mechanistic and occasionally somewhat simplistic as well. For example, he dismisses the hypothesis that suicide terrorism is a product of the severity of the occupier’s policies by comparing the “level of deaths in the occupied community to the number of suicide terrorists and see if there is a consistent relationship between the two” (p. 60). Regardless of the veracity of such a premise, casualty rates are not a sufficient measure of the Israeli occupation’s severity. One need merely consider the range of policies and practices that constitute the occupation in Palestine—including hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints, torture, imprisonment without trial, ongoing land appropriation, and economic suffocation—to understand that there are multiple modalities by which an occupation can oppress a society.
Given the tendency of other observers to see the actions of suicide terrorists as inexplicably demonic and fanatical, Pape’s strict “rational actor” approach is productive. Much of this book goes a long way toward de-exoticizing this form of militancy, explaining why suicide attacks make sense within a strategic logic and from the perspective of the perpetrators and their communities, rather than condemning them from a decontextualized moralistic position. But Pape’s narrow methodological individualism also places a disproportionate emphasis on the role of instrumentalism over other social factors. Most problematic in this regard is his analysis of the significance of interactions between members of resistance groups and other social institutions. He describes suicide terrorist organizations’ efforts “to become deeply embedded” in schools, charities, and religious groups to achieve community support as being driven by their recruitment requirements, as well as their need to avoid detection by their enemies’ security forces (p. 81). This cynical interpretation obscures the fact that resistance groups are products of the mores, history, and culture of their larger society, that they reflect the collective aspirations of their members as much as they influence them.
Pape’s understanding of “martyrdom” is likewise partially corrective of popular misconceptions but also confined by the disciplinary strictures of political science. On the one hand, he recognizes martyrdom as a “social construct” and not purely a religious concept. This is as evident among secular groups, including the LTTE, as it is among more religiously affiliated groups such as Hamas. Martyrdom is a label of honor for those who have died for the sake of their community (p. 82). On the other hand, Pape insists that martyrdom “is religious in origin and remains primarily a religious concept even today” (p. 91). He refers to the visual culture and rituals that commemorate martyrdom everywhere from Sri Lanka to Lebanon as “propaganda,” just another element of terrorist groups’ efforts “to persuade the local community to re-define acts of suicide and murder as acts of martyrdom on behalf of the community” (p. 83). While political persuasion and competition are no doubt one aspect of this dynamic, Pape’s reading implies a clear analytic distinction between the religious and political, just as it presumes a rigid top-down relationship between the militants and their communities that is not accurate.
Despite these limitations, Dying to Win is a generally well-reasoned book that hopefully will inject some much-needed equanimity and rationality into popular debates and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. An interesting if uneven supplement to this book appears in Mia Bloom’s Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. Perhaps the most significant message emphasized by both authors is that there are no military solutions to terrorism. Bloom especially cautions governments away from harsh militaristic counterterrorist tactics that tend to encourage continued violent resistance. Only political solutions can resolve the fundamentally political problem of suicide terror. Like Pape, Bloom explains the rational motivations behind suicide terrorism as a strategy to end foreign occupation; she demonstrates the unnecessary connection between Islam and violence and provides a fascinating, brief survey of some historical antecedents of suicide terror, ranging from the Hindu Thugs, the Muslim Assassins, and the Jewish Zealots and Sicarii, to Japan’s Kamikaze pilots. In addition to the Palestinian case, from which she draws a great deal of her material, Bloom focuses on Sri Lanka, the PKK in Turkey, gender issues related to suicide terror, and how terrorist groups learn from each other (or what she calls the “transnational contagion” of suicide bombing).
Unlike Pape, Bloom emphasizes the ways in which internal competition among political groups fuels terror campaigns, as when Hamas has used bombers to spoil gains achieved by the Palestinian Authority (p. 20). She also contextualizes why bombings gained support among Palestinians during the second intifada, in response to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s harsh tactics (p. 26) and “the disappearance of any potential peace dividend.” These factors, she writes, convinced many Palestinians that “military operations are the only way to wear down the Israeli resolve” and leave the occupied territories (p. 28).
Bloom’s analysis, which draws heavily from the press, existing scholarship, and interviews with academics and government officials, accepts as fact some prevalent misconceptions about the protracted Palestinian-Zionist conflict. Such problems lead to her frequent misreading of the social and political contexts of suicide attacks. She claims, for example, that in Palestine “[v]iolence has become the source of all honor” (p. 29, emphasis in original), ignoring the greater value attributed to anti-occupation resistance (of all kinds) and expressions of nationalist solidarity. Similarly, her account of female suicide bombers in Palestine (chapter 7) indicates a lack of familiarity with the political and military involvement of Palestinian women throughout the history of the nationalist movement. Finally, Bloom also contrasts the “varied and nuanced” attitudes about violence among Tamils to the implied uniformity of Palestinian opinion (p. 66), frequently referring to their “cult of martyrdom” (an ideologically loaded term that she fails to define), and their supposed increasing support for extremism (p. 75). She thus contradicts her own acknowledgement of the contingency of this form of violence behind which there is ultimately “a complexity of motivation” (p. 90). Despite her frequent citations of this reviewer’s work on the diverse and fluctuating opinions about violent resistance (see my “There Are Many Reasons Why: Suicide Bombers and Martyrs in Palestine,” in Middle East Report no. 223, Summer 2002), Bloom ignores its main argument of Palestinians’ many diverse and fluctuating opinions about violent resistance.
While one of Bloom’s goals is to devise a theory of why suicide terror becomes popular in some cases and is rejected in others, her attempts to explain this across contexts often seem rather tautological or inconclusive, such as when she writes that the “larger population will either support the tactic of suicide terror or reject it and make distinctions between the targets” (p. 91). She does make the reasonable generalization that suicide bombings gain popularity when states deploy helicopter gunships to execute “targeted assassinations,” in part because of the high civilian casualty rate associated with such attacks.
Both Dying to Win and Dying to Kill would have benefited from a more holisticapproach to the conflicts they analyze. By focusingon suicide attacks as a distinct and distinctlyanalyzable phenomenon comparableacross widely divergent political and socialcontexts, Pape and Bloom lose a great dealof the cultural and historical specificity thatwould help to explain the variable dynamicsof nationalist conflict in these different situations.However, the broad scope of thesestudies does enable their authors to make the case that heavy-handed military retaliation against insurgents tends to inflame—not stop—the violence of these resistance movements,from Palestine to Kurdistan.
Anne Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg’s The Road to Martyrs’ Square is neither an academic text nor a work of pure fiction. Instead, it is an extended anti-Palestinian rant dressed up as a colorful travelogue written in the style of a bad thriller. An example of their stylistic garishness occurs in an account of their interview with Hamas leader Ahmad Yasin. The authors describe the shaykh as having “a face both cruel and faerie at once” with a “voice like a Talking Barbie” (p. 15). Strewn with anti-Arab stereotypes and Orientalist clich´es, this text portrays Palestinians as backwards, dirty, murderous and sadistic, offering no account of the history or presence of Israeli occupation. In light of the authors’ apparent lack of rapport with their subjects, and the absence of revelation about where they obtained some of the more sensitive material they discuss, the reader is left wondering what purpose these authors intended to serve. Ultimately, their account of martyrdom and its meaning in Palestinian society is egregiously inaccurate. This book is useful only as an example of one of the ways in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is nefariously reflected in the United States.
Lori A. Allen is a Pembroke Center Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.