Dying to Win is a significant contribution to terrorism studies that applies statistical analysis to answer core questions about suicide terrorism. Robert A. Pape, associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, has compiled a comprehensive database of every suicide attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003. Pape draws three interrelated conclusions from the dataset: 1) suicide terrorism is a “response to foreign occupation” (p. 23); 2) suicide terrorism has increased markedly during this period because groups have learned that terrorism “works” to repel foreign occupiers (p. 61); and 3) to mitigate the terrorism threat, the United States should eliminate the conditions that gave rise to it in the first place, namely foreign occupations. The universe of suicide attacks does not lend itself equally to all three conclusions, however. Pape provides powerful empirical evidence that nationalism is the taproot of suicide terrorism, but his conclusion that terrorism works is not borne out by the data. Moreover, while his counterterrorism strategy derives logically from the empirical record, the data can also be construed in support of a very different set of policies.
To demonstrate that terrorist groups are generally motivated by a desire to repel occupation, Pape shows that, of the 315 separate attacks, 301 of them were perpetrated as part of a “large, coherent political or military campaign” against a foreign occupier (p. 4). Nine international disputes — the presence of American and French forces in Lebanon, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the status of the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka, the status of the Kurdish region of Turkey, the Russian occupation of Chechnya, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the Indian control of Punjab, and the presence of American forces in Iraq and in the Arabian Peninsula — account for 95 percent of the suicide terrorist attacks during this period. The nationalist argument is bolstered by the surprisingly weak correlation between religion and suicide terrorism. Pape shows that in the past 20 years Islamist groups were responsible for less than 35 percent of suicide attacks and that the leading perpetrators have been the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group adamantly opposed to religion (p. 4).
Contrary to expectations, this secular interpretation of suicide terrorism applies equally to al-Qaeda. Of the 71 individuals who killed themselves on al-Qaeda missions from 1995 to 2003, Islamic fundamentalism was a considerably weaker predictor for becoming a terrorist than the presence of American military forces in their homeland territory. The Chicago database reveals that al-Qaeda suicide terrorists are ten times more likely to come from Muslim countries where there is an American military presence than from other Muslim countries and that al-Qaeda terrorists are ten times more likely to come from a Sunni country with American military presence than from another Sunni country (pp. 103, 112). Together, the data support the conclusion that the sponsors of every campaign have been terrorist groups trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a foreign power to withdraw from the territories they claim, and that religious considerations are therefore secondary even for al-Qaeda. Students of political Islam will undoubtedly take exception to this assertion, but they will face an uphill battle against Pape’s sound statistical methodology.
The evidence that terrorism works is comparatively weak and vulnerable to objection. Groups may believe that terrorism is a winning tactic, but the data do not demonstrate that this is “a quite reasonable assessment,” as Pape suggests (p. 61). According to Pape, there have been 18 distinct suicide terrorist campaigns during this period (In certain disputes the terrorists elected to suspend operations more than one time). Pape focuses on the 13 campaigns that have ended, while ignoring the five that were ongoing as of the end of 2003 (p. 39). He reports that during 1980-2003, seven of the 13 terrorist campaigns were correlated with “significant policy changes by the target state toward the terrorists’ major political goals” and that “a 50 percent success rate is remarkable” (pp. 64-65). While it is true that, in one case, the terrorists fully achieved their territorial goals (Hezbollah versus the United States and France, 1983), other terrorist “victories” seem arbitrary. He counts, for example, three separate Palestinian victories in the 1990s — the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) strategic withdrawal from parts of Gaza in April 1994, the partial withdrawal from the West Bank between October 1994 and August 1995, and the decision to release Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison in October 1997 — without mentioning that the Israeli withdrawals were agreed upon years earlier in the Declaration of Principles and that U.S. pressure, not Palestinian terrorism, was behind the Yassin liberation.
Furthermore, Pape’s count does not include the copious incidents of Palestinian terrorism that were followed by the reoccupation of the territories or the fact that the number of Israeli settlers increased by 167 percent in the 1990s, the most visible sign of Israeli occupation (Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel Yearbook and Almanac, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jerusalem Post, August 8, 2001). Additionally, if prisoner releases are counted as victories, then imprisonments and targeted assassinations should presumably be counted as failures. The decision to ignore “ongoing campaigns” in the success rate also skews the results. Ongoing campaigns, by definition, are those where the terrorists have not achieved their objectives; otherwise the terrorists would either change their objectives or lay down their arms. Terrorism’s inability to force Russia out of Chechnya, to coerce India to abandon Kashmir, or to expel American forces from the Persian Gulf are all excluded from the inflated 50 percent success rate (p. 115). Such methodological problems are a testament that further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of terrorism and to locate the key variables affecting the success — and failure — of terrorist campaigns.
These difficulties do not in themselves detract from Pape’s policy conclusion that the United States should promptly withdraw from the Persian Gulf. If one accepts that terrorists are motivated by foreign occupations, then a reasonable counterterrorism strategy would be to limit foreign interference. Yet, if one also takes seriously the claim that suicide terrorism has increased in the past two decades because terrorist groups have learned that it pays, then a plausible counterterrorism strategy would be to systematically deny terrorists even the perception that terrorism leads to policy successes. The immediate implication is that targeted countries can deter terrorists by responding to attacks with policies inimical to their strategic objectives, i.e., by either broadening or deepening the occupation. The notion that terrorists are deterrable is supported by other data in the Chicago Project, such as the fact that the vast majority of terrorist attacks are neither random nor irrational, but part of a political or military campaign with clear strategic objectives. Like all good datasets, the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism asks more questions than it answers. Pape deserves credit for creating this indispensable resource, even if scholars may not accept all of his conclusions.