Document created: 18 December 06
Air & Space Power Journal Book Review - Spring 2007
Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert A. Pape. Random House (http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg), 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019, 2005, 352 pages, $25.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (softcover).
In Dying to Win, Prof. Robert Pape argues that despite a widely held belief to the contrary, Islamic fundamentalism is not the root cause of suicide terrorism. Rather, 95 percent of such attacks between 1980 and 2003 occurred as part of coherent campaigns that had political and territorial—not religious—goals. According to the author’s thesis, “Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation” (p. 23). Although this sounds like a rather narrow proposition, if validated, it could significantly weaken many other popular explanations for this phenomenon, such as globalization, a clash of civilizations, and Islam versus democracy.
Dr. Pape marshals considerable evidence to support his thesis. By systematically studying 315 suicide attacks that occurred over a 23-year period, he demonstrates that most of them were not isolated acts carried out by lone fanatics who wanted to die for Islam. He makes a good case that the actions of the Tamil Tigers, Hamas, and even al-Qaeda were rationally guided campaigns driven by concerns over foreign occupation (or perceived occupation) of territory. The fact that individual suicide bombers may not be rational does not mean they can’t be part of a larger rational scheme. Islam plays a role in the recruitment of potential suicide attackers, but it is not the sole or even the primary factor.
One problem with the book is its timing, related to the current situation in Iraq. According to the Brookings Institution, more suicide attacks have occurred in Iraq since 2003 (the book’s publication date) than have taken place globally in the previous 23 years. This leaves a large number of incidents not analyzed by the study.
A second problem involves the fact that the author doesn’t sufficiently address the idea of the Islamic state. If terrorist groups seek to reestablish such a state, as bin Laden has often intoned, then terrorism entails more than simply fighting the foreign occupation of territory. Establishing a universal Islamic state means that the distinction between foreigners and natives becomes much less important than the one between Muslim and non-Muslim.
Dr. Pape’s work raises important questions about the role of territory in causing suicide terrorism. It could undermine the notion that terrorists are irrational actors beyond compromise. As he points out, terrorists continue to conduct suicide attacks because the democracies of the world keep making concessions after such use (Spain, for example). If these acts are part of rational strategies for national liberation, then recasting the Muslim world along democratic lines won’t help. Terrorists would simply view democracy as another form of foreign occupation, which would have no effect on stopping the attacks—and could even lead to more of them. Whether or not one agrees with Dr. Pape’s thesis, all policy makers and students of foreign affairs should read Dying to Win.
Capt Jason Belcher, USAF
Goodfellow AFB, Texas
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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