Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism Underscores Method’s Efficiency

Ongoing al-Qaeda campaign continues, driven by hostility towards U.S. troops in Middle East

November 1, 2006 • News Releases

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WASHINGTON – “America needs a new strategy that safeguards our vital interests, but that does not stimulate the rise of a new generation of suicide terrorists,” asserts a study released today by the Cato Institute. In the policy analysis “Suicide Terrorism and Democracy: What We’ve Learned since 9/11,” Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of the influential book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, analyzes the psychology behind suicide attacks, warning that “the longer this suicide terrorist campaign continues, the greater the risk of new attacks in the United States.”

Contrary to popular belief, suicide terrorism is not the last resort of the disaffected, nor is it merely an Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon; such conclusions, Pape contends, have merely been drawn from stereotyping and a lack of comprehensive data. The belief that “anti‐​American terrorism can only be stopped by wholesale transformation of Muslim societies” was a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s rationale for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and continues to be used as a justification for the ongoing occupations. Ironically, allied forces stationed in Iraq now serve as al-Qaeda’s greatest recruiting tool.

Suicide attacks follow a consistent logic in order to achieve secular aims related to territorial objectives, says Pape. Additionally, they are designed to inflict the maximum amount of pressure possible on the occupying force — be it through the loss of coalition partners, increasing public disdain, or rising costs.

Illuminating the logic governing suicide terrorism, Pape argues that the current approach to “spreading democracy throughout the region” is not only prone to failure, but is also likely to incite further violence against America and its allies. Pape cites a January 2006 statement issued by Osama bin Laden which boasts that “operations are in preparation” to carry out “operations in America” similar to attacks in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Pape recommends the United States and its allies begin a disengagement process, whereby Iraqi forces would assume complete control of their security forces. He proposes a systemic withdrawal of U.S. troops from the entire Middle East region, in order to weaken al-Qaeda’s raison d’être. He also advocates a traditional U.S. policy of “offshore balancing” in the Middle East, as maintained during the 1970’s and 1980’s, in order to safeguard our strategic interests while removing the ostensible “occupation” presence which continues to enrage the Arab world. To balance this disengagement, regional partners should be encouraged to play a larger role in the stabilization of Iraq.

Policy Analysis Paper no. 582