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Many mistakenly believe that suicide terrorism is an act undertaken by the most deranged in a group of deranged people. Others contend that suicide terrorism is irrational, counterproductive, and plain crazy. Prominent scholars have proven otherwise — suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic. The details are calculated, from the logistics of the act to how it will advance the group’s cause. Where strategy is less conspicuous, however, is in the individual’s motivation. Individuals often engage in suicide terror to salve deeply-harbored rage or to exact revenge. Robert Pape, a leading academic on the topic, focuses on the strategic logic of suicide terror in terms of the organization as a whole. While this perspective does not invalidate Pape’s thesis, I contend that it is vital to distinguish the group’s strategy from the individual’s incentive. Pape’s dismissal of the individual’s motive weakens an otherwise sound analysis.
In his article The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert Pape argues that suicide terrorism is not, despite common misconceptions, attributable to religious indoctrination or psychological predispositions. Rather, he argues that suicide attacks are intended to achieve political goals. Namely, they intend to coerce a target government to change policy, to mobilize additional recruits and to generate financial support. Often, terrorist organizations want to end foreign occupations in their homeland. The threat of indiscriminate, collective punishment is built into the attack’s design to coerce a government to withdraw state military forces.
It may be difficult for the average person to understand suicide terror, but in the context of traditional battlefield norms, it becomes clearer. Louise Richardson, the author of the book What Terrorists Want, argues that suicide terrorism is logical. Martyring oneself to kill others is consonant with warrior behavior throughout history. Soldiers engage in risky, albeit highly rewarding plans. They are aware that death is a possibility. Patriotism is reason enough for soldiers to sacrifice their lives. After all, 105 countries, the United States included, have robust militaries despite lacking enforced military conscription. In the context of traditional war, such notions are associated with valor. Yet a suicide bomber is written off as crazy. Like any group engaged in warfare, terror strategists choose tactics that benefit the organization, and the cause, the most. Per Pape and Richardson both, terror organizations continue using suicide as a tactic because it works.
Suicide terror campaigns are performed with specific nationalistic goals in mind. Ergo, organizational use of such attacks is part of a strategy, not random violence carried out by the mentally ill. The overarching goal is to coerce troop withdrawal from terrorists’ homelands. But the dedication to organizational strategy in the attack’s every level lends credence to Pape’s thesis. Organizations that use suicide terror, for example, consider the target and the timing carefully to maximize coercive effects.
Suicide terrorists target democracies because they are perceived as vulnerable to collective punishment. Terror organizations strategically attack states that are limited in their ability to respond. Democracies have checks and balances. Byzantine political channels must be navigated before responding to attacks with military force. Whereas authoritarian states lack such inhibitions and can respond with ferocity.
Terrorist leaders are strategic at macro and micro levels. In addition to carefully choosing their target country and timing, they diligently select the individual for the mission. Terror strategists choose a psychologically sound member and train, supervise, and encourage that person. The advent of female suicide bombers indicates organizations are shifting tactics in response to counter-terror efforts. The upsurge in female attackers in Iraq coincided with security forces’ improved ability to detect and impede male attackers. Leaders take advantage of traditional female apparel, which often consists of a floor-length abaya. Devices strapped to a female’s body are harder to detect given all that fabric. Due to religious and cultural austerity, police guards rarely search women.
I am sympathetic to Pape’s thesis, but it is too broad and errs in its parochial view of the phenomenon from the perspective of the terrorist organization. His dismissal of a suicide bomber’s personal motives is short-sighted. Pape argues that “…although study of the personal characteristics of suicide attackers may someday help identify individual terrorist organizations [that] are likely to recruit…the vast spread of suicide terrorism over the last two decades suggests that there may not be a single profile.” While this is valid, Pape fails to see that examining the personal characteristics of the suicide bomber has worth beyond the likelihood of identifying them in advance. Other authors have noted that suicide terrorists are often motivated by revenge and glory. Richardson embraces much of Pape’s thesis, but her discussion of individual motivation helps to fill in Pape’s analytic gaps.
While Pape grazes individual motivation in suicide terror, he focuses on characteristics bombers lack, rather than traits they possess. He posits that suicide bombers are generally neither fanatical nor extremely religious. It is worth emphasizing, however, that suicide bombers often act for personal reasons and not of accord with the group’s cause. Richardson touches on the motive variance between leaders and volunteers. She points out, “When leaders of terrorist groups speak of suicide attacks, they are hard-nosed and tactical. When volunteers speak of suicide attacks, they are emotional and excited.”
The individual yearning for martyrdom, regardless of underlying motivations, benefits terror strategists since they need members who are willing to die. According to Pape, the strategic logic of suicide terrorism revolves around the advancement of a group’s nationalist agenda and the symbiotic phenomenon of attackers killing out of hatred for an occupation in their homeland. One would-be suicide bomber stated, “I know we are fighting against the Americans and they are the occupation. We are doing it for God’s sake. We are doing it as jihad.” Women, in particular, find motivation in response to their inferior social status. Because many women live in isolated communities controlled by extremists, knowing that a suicide attack will give them an identity is a driving factor.
Pape uses the absence of a terrorist profile as justification to ignore individual motivations in favor of a broader thesis. Theses such as Pape’s are innocuous in academia. But in the policy world, his failure to examine personal motivations could prove consequential.
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