Three Books on Terrorism:

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,by Robert Pape

Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide, by Mia Bloom

Suicide Bombers: Allah's New Martyrs, by Farhad Khosrokhavar


reviewed by
Gerald Meyerle

Terrorism is a low-cost tactic of coercion and fear that almost anyone anywhere can adopt. It takes only a few highly motivated individuals to shatter the security of millions. It is also a tactic that drives governments to extremes of paranoia and into morally repugnant terrain. So great is the fear of this method of political agitation that it seems to stir almost as much revulsion as genocide, bombardment of civilians, or the use of nuclear weapons – though it has killed far fewer people. In fact, the odds of dying in a terrorist attack on US soil are only about 80,000 to one – much less than the chance of dying in a car accident or getting shot in Washington D.C. Yet it is routine for political leaders and commentators to decry the evils of terrorism while many times more civilians are killed by sophisticated aerial bombs – as was the case during Israel’s attack on Lebanon this summer where air raids killed over 900 Lebanese civilians, while Hezbollah rockets killed 43 innocent Israelis. Despite the Bush administration’s recent election-time comparisons of the Al Qaeda to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, terrorism remains a very different sort of threat – one that Israel’s bombing of Lebanon or America’s invasion of Iraq have probably made worse. There is no military solution to the tactic of terrorism because it is a political weapon whose proponents tend to become stronger when governments overreact and innocent people get killed. In fact, tricking governments into overreacting or getting tied down in places like Iraq is part of their strategy.  

The subject of terrorism tends to arouse emotional diatribes for or against the tactic, but not much in the way of dispassionate analysis. Among the exceptions are new books by Robert Pape, Mia Bloom, and Farhad Khosrokhavar. Pape and Bloom delve into the strategies of terrorists – a profoundly important subject that few American scholars since 911 have had the stomach or sense to address. Most writers – as if it were their duty – treat terrorist violence as senseless and random, when in fact it rarely is. It follows regular patterns which suggest a strategic logic that policy-makers ignore at their own peril, or at least at the peril of citizens less vulnerable than they are. Terrorism did not begin when Al-Qaeda operatives struck America in 2001. Terrorist tactics evolved over many decades in conflicts around the world as a strategy of guerilla warfare, and one that has succeeded as often as it has failed.

Both Pape and Bloom argue that suicide terrorist organizations are basically rational and strategic – that is, they do not kill as an end in itself, but as a means to other ends. They weigh the costs and benefits of different strategies and act accordingly. They adopt the tactic of suicide terrorism because they believe it works, because other tactics have failed, or, as Bloom argues, to “outbid” rival militias in the use of shocking tactics. This form of violence tends to be carefully calibrated to end unpopular foreign occupations. In a chapter entitled “Learning Terrorism Pays”, Pape demonstrates that terrorists learn from the successes of others. For example, the Lebanese Hezbullah used suicide tactics to force American and French peace-keeping troops to leave Lebanon in 1983, and later the Israeli army. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka adopted suicide bombing after observing the Hezbullah’s successful use of the tactic. Since 1983 the Tigers carried out more suicide attacks than any other group, including the Hamas. While suicide bombing may sometimes appear irrational or senseless, there are genuine strategic reasons for adopting the tactic. For example, suicide bombers can penetrate tight security cordons without the need for an escape route. They also die before they can be interrogated. Most importantly, the fact that young men and women are willing to embrace certain death in pursuit of the cause demonstrates great resolve and triggers intense emotions of shock and awe among friends and enemies alike. Whatever one might think about its legitimacy as a tactic, suicide terrorism can be a dangerous and effective tool.

Yet one should not overstate the strategic dimensions of suicide terrorism either. While leaders who adopt the tactic may be rational, the same cannot always be said of the young men and women who strap bombs to their chests. The act itself seems prima facie irrational, partly because it is incomprehensible to anyone living in more agreeable circumstances. Perhaps the bombers believe fervently in their cause or overvalue the compensation promised to loved ones. In either of those cases, the costs of certain death seem greater than any conceivable benefit. On the other hand, the bombers may calculate that suicide terrorism is the only significant way to strike back at deadly enemies of their community. Nonetheless, they will not survive to enjoy the potential benefits of their actions. Pape and Bloom fall short in their efforts to explain these apparently irrational acts.

Pape includes interesting personal histories and demographic profiles of suicide bombers. His data suggests that there is no consistent profile. Different people become suicide bombers for different reasons, and they rarely survive to explain why they did it. Pape profiles a woman named Dhanu, a member of Sri Lanka’s LTTE who assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. She was gang-raped by Indian soldiers and her entire family was killed during India’s brief peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka during the 1980s. After that ordeal, she joined the “Black Tigers”, the LTTE’s special suicide squad. Her story suggests she experienced great personal trauma, desired revenge, and had nothing to lose. On the other hand, Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 911 attacks, had a supportive family, a graduate education, and a bright career. There is no evidence that he experienced personal trauma that might incline him toward revenge. It was an intellectual passion for Al Qaeda’s brand of militant pan-Islamism that influenced him to lay down his life. It’s possible that, while leaders are motivated by common strategic aims, individuals become suicide bombers for a host of reasons. 

Khosrokhavar goes into greater depth on this question of what motivates these people. He does not believe the question can be answered with the usual rationalism of political science and economics. There is an irrational element to the decision to become a suicide bomber. It is a decision influenced primarily, he asserts, by alienation and unswerving belief in a cause. The “new martyrdom” reflects the despair of individuals in modern society seeking to lend meaning and dignity to their lives. The idea of becoming a martyr empowers those who feel they have no control over their lives, who feel oppressed by armies with seemingly unlimited resources. It is a form of “holy rage”, a means to meet power with faith through a combination of self-assertion and resignation to death. Suicide bombers are praised as heroes of the faith, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to fight injustice. It is the act itself that matters – almost, but not quite, as an end in itself. Khosrokhavar argues that the “specific feature of Islam is that it legitimizes sacred death in the service of the community or umma by making it part of the fabric of a war that enjoys religious legitimacy, namely jihad.” Faith and religious sanction help young fighters overcome their fear of death and justify violence in the name of God. Islam has no monopoly here. Khosrokhavar examines cultures of martyrdom in three religious traditions – Christianity, Sikhism, and Islam – and finds that all encourage a sense of empowerment, defiance, and blind faith which overrides material concerns. 

Khosrokhavar’s argument helps us to understand the recruitment of suicide bombers as well as the popular support they often enjoy. But the picture he paints is no more complete than that of the other two authors. While it is plausible that young men and women carry out attacks for personal reasons, Khosrokhavar does not account for the particular patterns of these attacks or their role in larger political campaigns. Some bombers may choose to kill as an end in itself, but they still are only a few individuals in a larger organization. For every suicide terrorist attack, there is not only the bomber but many others involved in recruitment, training, fund-raising, political activities, and leadership. For example, the largest practitioner of suicide bombing, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, employ suicide tactics as only a small part of an organization that integrates carefully targeted suicide attacks with larger ‘conventional’ guerilla operations and political activities. Suicide bombing clearly is part of a broader politico-military strategy. No doubt, ideas and emotions are integral to recruiting young men and women to die for a cause, but they are not all or even most of the story.  

Pape finds that suicide terrorist attacks reveal clear patterns in terms of timing, target-selection, and nationalist goals. Terrorist groups will go on the offensive at key political moments in order to force specific concessions. For example, the Hamas launched suicide terrorist attacks in May 1994 and December 1995 so as to improve Hamas’ bargaining position and accelerate negotiations with Israel. Once their immediate objective was attained, Hamas leaders pulled back. As many commentators have noted, suicide bombers may also target democracies because doing so carries less risk and more chance of success than attacking less restrained authoritarian states, and because it seems easier to operate in a free society than one teeming with secret police (though the latter has not stopped them either). But this begs the question, why would they want to?

Terrorists don’t target America because “they hate our values” but for more strategic reasons. Democratic states must consider the long-term health of their liberal values and institutions when fighting terrorism. They must be restrained – or indeed abstain – in their use of torture, strategic bombing, and collective punishment. Widespread use of torture or indiscriminate violence corrodes democracy itself, especially if these tactics are used against one’s own people instead of civilians abroad. Using coercion to crush a terrorist group threatens the legitimacy of a democratic government – almost by definition – more than it does an autocratic regime with a long history of unrestrained repression. Perhaps this is one reason why there is a widespread insurgency in Iraq under the American occupation, but not under Saddam Hussein – even though he was no more popular among the majority of Iraqis. The US cannot use poison gas against civilians in rebel-held areas (as Saddam Hussein did against the Kurds in the 1990s), or engage in mass executions (as Saddam did against the Shias when they rose up in 1991). Pictures of naked prisoners standing on boxes and being mauled by dogs caused a major crisis in the US government, while tens of thousands were tortured to death under Saddam, also to little consequence.  

All three authors note that suicide bombing is a “weapon of the weak”. Though it has been used by states – Japanese Kamikaze pilots, for example – it is militant organizations that adopt the tactic as a means to counteract the superior capabilities of governments with standing armies and high tech weaponry. The Hamas cannot hope to win militarily against a much stronger Israel, but it can force a hurting stalemate that denies Israel victory and makes refusal to negotiate costly and painful. Bloom notes that the dilemma for the Israeli army is that there are no targets to bomb in the Palestinian territories, and thus no opportunity for the world’s most sophisticated army to use the world’s most sophisticated weapons. The capabilities of the militias are in their members hidden among the population and their resolve to absorb whatever the Israelis throw at them. By firing rockets from crowded apartment buildings in dense neighborhoods, the Hezbullah is daring the Israeli military to kill civilians. If the Israelis do not react, they look helpless; if they do, innocent people get killed and they look like aggressors with no regard for human life. If so, the Israelis cannot win either way, morally speaking. As long as Lebanese blame the Israelis and not the Hezbullah for the destruction, Hezbullah will come out politically stronger. Bloom’s answer is a common, if rarely availed, one: The Israelis must win hearts and minds. But that is easier said than done. The only way to win the hearts and minds of insurgents is to do precisely what the authorities usually don’t want to do – withdraw permanently from the disputed lands. Bloom also does not fully appreciate the dilemmas that a government faces when threatened by numerous and competing militias. What should leaders do when concessions may be viewed as a sign of weakness and encourage further escalation? How is a leadership to balance the benefits of offering concessions with the costs of looking gullible?

Suicide terrorism is particularly dangerous because its practitioners cannot be deterred and because one’s defenses cannot be hermetically sealed. Pape quotes Hamas leaders saying that in retaliation for Israeli attacks that kill civilians and make Palestinians insecure, Hamas will destroy the security of Israelis. He quotes Israeli leaders saying that there is no way to completely prevent suicide attacks. Nothing makes one’s life appear more fragile than a sudden explosion in a crowded market. What makes terrorism appear more threatening than the targeting of civilian populations by states in war is that it takes only a small number of ardent individuals to accomplish the operation, and partly because mass media will downplay ‘clean’ high tech-inflicted deaths (via aerial bomb, smart or otherwise, or artillery) versus more primitive lethal mechanisms. When the ability to launch orchestrated campaigns of violence against innocent populations passes into the hands of shadowy organizations with no fixed address, the security of a settled society is severely undermined. No doubt, organizations like the Hamas, al Qaeda, and the Tamil Tigers are aware of this. Like other militant leaders involved in the killing of innocents – such as Israel’s Menachim Begin, Ireland’s Gerry Adams, and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella – Hamas leaders ironically have gone on to become elected statesman. That’s what happens to insurgents who win. The difference between terrorist groups and organized militaries is not so much their tactics – legitimate states deliberately killed tens of millions of innocent people during the 20th century, terrorists only thousands – but the fact that they employ violent means without the legitimacy conferred by diplomatic recognition.

The gnawing fear is that if everyone with a grievance uses terrorist tactics, there will be security for no one – and without security, there can be no development or civilization, only the law of the jungle. While violent resistance is too often the only real means to resist oppression, stable government is the only means to establish order and security and (if a representative one) to protect the weak from the strong according to established laws. Since the 911 attacks Americans discovered the dark side of armed resistance, but the dark side of military occupation continues for millions elsewhere. What goals and tactics are legitimate, and under what circumstances? Thomas Jefferson raised similar questions during the American Revolution. He went so far as to say that people should rise up against the government every twenty or so years – a notion that America’s right-wing militias embrace. When, then, is it right and good to take up arms against the government, and with what means? The social scientists reviewed here do not raise these knotty questions, much less address them.

Pape argues that ordinary people living under foreign occupation by a nation of another religion especially tend to support violent resistance, including suicide terrorism. Nearly every suicide terrorist attack has occurred in conflicts involving a combination of military occupation and religious differences. When devout people believe their way of life is threatened by a foreign army, they accept whatever means promise results, not unlike cynical statesmen. As Franz Fanon observed about the Algerian War for Independence, people support the most extreme tactics when they feel their existence is threatened. Whether right or wrong – and the killing of innocents is always wrong – the situation nonetheless reappears with depressing regularity. In such situations, people may cultivate a culture of martyrdom.

Pape finds that nearly all suicide bombers volunteer, and that their families tend to be proud of their choices. They tend to be educated, politically involved individuals from middle class families. They share none of the characteristics of ‘typical’ suicidal young people. Indeed, ordinary suicide is least prevalent where suicide terrorism occurs. Cultures of martyrdom do not develop where local communities do not believe that the terrorists’ cause is just and their methods justifiable. It matters little what outsiders think about the morality of the tactic. The fact is that those who support these operations will continue to do so as long as the conditions that make for conflict do not change. Saying the terrorists are evil may influence ordinary people in the US and Israel, but holds little sway among the militants’ own constituencies in the Palestinian territories. As US and Israeli condemnations of the Hamas escalated in the 1990s, so did the popular support it enjoyed among Palestinians.

When an entire population rises up and supports the militias, violence cannot be stopped through coercive means alone, no matter what a government wants to believe. Khosrokhavar tells the story of the Iranian Bassidj, dedicated young Iranians willing to die in defense of the Iranian Revolution. The organization grew to over 400,000 during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. They died in droves in “human wave attacks” that eventually repulsed the Iraqi army. The Bassidj were not conventional foot soldiers with a salary and pension; they were volunteers. If the US invaded Iran and the Bassidj grew to anywhere near its former strength, it would dwarf the insurgency in neighboring Iraq. If so many young Iranians were willing to die to defend Iran from Saddam’s Iraq, there is little reason they would not do the same against the US. After the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and the rise of a new generation less enamored of Khomeinism, the Bassidj mostly fell into crime and lost their luster. An armed struggle against America, however, might be just what the regime’s hardliners require to recapture the sway they have gradually lost since the Revolution. Even people living under corrupt and oppressive regimes tend to support those governments against foreign invaders. 

The public and the government in the US are only beginning to understand the insuperable difficulties of transforming the Middle East through military force. American leaders gave a blank check to Israel as it launched a disastrous campaign of air-raids on southern Lebanon this summer that killed over 900 Lebanese civilians but less than 100 Hezbullah militants – and all on the slim pretext of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. The plain message is that an Israeli or American life is worth a hundred dead Lebanese or Iraqi civilians – just the sort of idea that makes such devalued people support armed resistance. Heavy-handed tactics may kill a few militants here and there, but the suffering it imposes can only make the militias stronger in the long run – especially when it is done by a foreign power that most ordinary people view with distrust, and that has no real interest in repairing the damage done by its bombs and blockades. These policies seem almost too naïve to be true. One looks back at the disastrous outcomes of the US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s recent air-raids on Lebanon in much the same way: How could these leaders not have known this would happen? Shouldn’t these policy-makers with all their classified information, professional experts, and political experience know better than to stake so many lives on such obviously suspect assumptions? Either US leaders are obtusely stupid, or they did not care what the outcome would be. Are policy-makers in Washington telling us the truth about the situation we face? They were not completely honest about what they did and did not know before the invasion, or their reasons for carrying it out.

The US invaded Iraq under the mistaken assumption that US forces would be embraced as liberators – so much so that the US government did not even formulate a plan for the post-war occupation. This inexplicable belief that the US could destroy every vestige of order in such a complex and fractious nation without any plan for its reconstruction was a serious error in thinking and leadership – one that cannot be attributed to bad information or the fog of war. It seems to run so contrary to common sense that it is difficult to believe, yet it is true – and by now well-documented in Thomas Ricks’ new book about the invasion. It was the sort of failure of thinking that occurs in closed societies where debate is circumscribed – where important questions are not raised until it is too late. The systematic failure of the American government and the public to correctly perceive the threats they face and the proper means to deal with them suggests that academic writers like Pape, Bloom, and Khosrokhavar have an important illuminating role to play. The standard dismissive criticism of academic writers is that they do not understand the difficult realities of politics and war. But, debacles like Iraq demonstrate that the political leadership can be even more out of touch.


Gerald Meyerle is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Politics, University of Virginia. He can be contacted at