Suicide Terrorism

Tom Shipka

Suicide terrorism in today's world began with an attack by Hezbollah against the U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. That attack drove Israel, France, and the United States out of Lebanon and convinced many groups, including the PLO, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, and the Tamil Tigers, among others, that suicide missions can be an effective tool to achieve their goals. (1) As suicide attacks proliferated, millions puzzled over what prompts a person to become a suicide terrorist. The popular speculations are that they are religious extremists, victims of poverty, impressionable youth, mentally ill, poorly educated, or low-achievers. (2) Based on a study of more than four-hundred suicide terrorists from 1980 to 2003 by Robert A. Pape and his associates from the University of Chicago, which is entitled Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, we know now that all of these explanations are mistaken. Here are some of the study's findings:

Firstly, the role of religion as a motivation to suicide terrorism is exaggerated. Fifty-seven percent of suicide attacks around the world during the period studied were perpetrated by seculars. For instance, in Lebanon, thirty of thirty-eight known suicide terrorists "were affiliated with groups opposed to Islamic fundamentalism." (3) Further, very few of those suicide attackers who were religious were inspired to violence by their religious beliefs. (4)

Secondly, most suicide terrorists are not impressionable adolescents. Only thirteen percent of suicide terrorists were between the ages of fifteen to eighteen. Fifty-five percent were between the ages of nineteen to twenty-three and the remaining thirty-two percent were age twenty-four or older. (5)

Thirdly, suicide terrorists as a group possess a favorable socioeconomic status.They score far better on educational attainment and income than the overall populations in their countries. (6)

And fourthly, "The main purpose of suicide terrorism is to use the threat ofpunishment to compel a target government to change policy, and most especially to cause democratic states to withdraw their forces from land the terrorists perceive as their national homeland." (7) These patriotic sentiments are typically shared across the local population and explain popular support for suicide terrorism. (8)

Based on these findings, Professor Pape issues recommendations as to how the United States can defeat suicide terrorism. His principal one is that the U.S. needs to withdraw its troops from majority Muslim nations and give up any hope of transforming them. (9) As it does this, the U.S. should "work with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states to ensure that they maintain the critical infrastructure for a rapid return of U.S. forces should that prove necessary" (10) and it should cultivate "the friendliest possible relations" with Iran. (11) Following this policy, Pape predicts, will "suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere that breeds anti-American suicide terrorism." (12)

Pape and his associates deserve credit for producing a fact-based study which demythologizes suicide terrorism and provides wise counsel to political leaders. I hope that the White House and the Pentagon are paying attention.


  1. Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Random House, 2005, pp. 73-74.
  2. Dying to Win, p. 200.
  3. Dying to Win, p. 205.
  4. Dying to Win, p 210.
  5. Dying to Win, p. 207.
  6. Dying to Win, pp. 212-213. The research team says "The bottom line, then, is that suicide attackers are not mainly poor, uneducated, immature religious zealots or social losers. Instead, suicide attackers are normally well-educated workers from both religious and secular backgrounds. Especially given their education, they resemble the kind of politically conscious individuals who might join a grassroots movement more than they do wayward adolescents or religious fanatics." (p. 216)
  7. Dying to Win, p. 27. The study repeats this finding in many places. See p. 38, p.108, p.126, and p. 237.
  8. Dying to Win, pp. 48-49.
  9. Dying to Win, p. 241.
  10. Dying to Win, p. 247.
  11. Dying to Win, p. 248.
  12. Dying to Win, p. 249.

© 2009 Tom Shipka