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Summary of “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" by Robert Pape.

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The article “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” by Robert Pape, analyzes suicide terrorism for purposes of advancing readers’ understanding of it, through a study of one hundred and eighty-eight suicide terrorist attacks worldwide, within the years 1980 to 2001. In its opening paragraphs, Pape observes that there has been an increase in the rate of suicide terrorism over the years of the period of study. This is in spite of the decrease in overall numbers of terrorist occurrences worldwide, for the same period. The question of interest is therefore on reasons for this rise in suicide terrorism. Explanations presented by existing literature attribute the phenomenon to religious fanaticism, particularly Islamic fundamentalism, or individual psychological problems. However, the article argues that these do not sufficiently address the problem. For instance, against popular belief, the majority (75 out of the 186) of the suicide terrorist attacks, between 1980 and 2001, were actually carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Hindu, rather than a Muslim group. Also, it appears that suicide bombers emanate from a wide cross-section of the population, and cannot as such be profiled into given psychological groupings.

Based on its study of various suicide attacks, the following main findings are presented:

  • Suicide attacks are strategic in nature.
  • The logic of suicide terrorism is to force governments to meet given territorial goals.
  • The rise in suicide terrorism could be attributed to the fact that the terrorists have learned that it works in helping them to achieve their goals.
  • Suicide terrorism is generally used to achieve moderate goals.
  • The best mitigation against suicide terrorism is to deflate the confidence of its propagators in their ability to carry out attacks on the population.
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Pape's argument is a somewhat controversial one that states that most people misconstrue suicidal bombings as simply religious extremism that must be addressed within a religious context. Instead, Pape is suggesting that suicidal bombings are part of a rational use of force—extreme force—to overwhelm the enemy and force his hand out of desperation to stop such violence. 

He posits three main criteria to demonstrate his point:

  1. Suicide bombings are strategic.
  2. The logic behind bombings is to bring about significant concessions, particularly self-determination.
  3. Suicide bombings have increased over the decades because terrorists understand that they work in bringing about concessions.

Although Pape notes that suicide bombings can work in the short term, they fail in the long term as the overall damage inflicted is low to medium. Nations are also able to lessen damage through economic measures that disperse their impact.

He also writes that the best way to combat suicide bombers is neither through offensive action or concessions, but to undermine an organization's confidence that they will work. To do this, Pape suggests that countries should focus on border security and other defensive measures.

Pape uses the Tamil Tigers as an example of a non-religious, Marxist-Leninist group that utilized suicide bombings. However, the Tamil Tigers also had a tradition of hero worship that was part of the broader Tamil religious worldview. Further, what Marxist-Leninist groups share with religious fanatics is an orthodox belief system. That is, an unwavering belief system that does not consider any alternatives. So, although suicidal bombers can be secular, it is notable that the organizations they come from are fanatical either in a religious or political sense.

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Basically, what Pape is saying in this article is that our common views of why people commit suicide bombings is incorrect.  We tend to see it as an act of desperation and of religious fanaticism.  Pape argues instead that it is a strategically logical action that is not unique to religious fanatics.

Pape points out a couple of important things.  First, he says the at the leader in suicide attacks have been the (non-religious) Tamil Tigers on Sri Lanka.  Second, he points out that suicide terror campaigns have generally worked to pressure democracies to give in to the terrorists.

So he's saying it's logical to do this (for the groups if not for the individuals) and that liberal democracies need to be sure to avoid giving in so that more groups will not see this as a way to success.

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