Monday, December 14, 2015

Dying To Win: Video Introductions To Suicide Terrorism Studies and further reading

I often recommend Robert Pape's book "Dying To Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" to people to learn why the common views of both many of our officials and much of the public are simply wrong on the causes of suicide terror and the effects of our foreign policy. Bradley Mowell otday reminded me that there are good video lectures by and interviews of Robert Pape that go through the data he painstakingly gathered and what it unambiguously says.

The Videos

I do not usually offer videos because my brain does not work that way: I would rather read something. highlight it, mark it up and scrawl notes in the margins--- and I have a lousy Internet connection. But for people who do like videos, here are what I think are the two best on the subject. Pape's book was written in 2005 and updated in 2008. This first video is from 2011. It covers a wider context than the book and specifically talks about the modern ISIS threat, about the Palestinian Two-State Solution and other recent issues. This video, "The Strategic Logic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," is where I would start.

The second video is a bit older but focuses just on the dataset Pape used in "Dying to Win" and the 2008 updates in a bit more detail. Some of it is just audio and because he explains what he is showing in the graphs as he goes, the whole thing can probably be listened to in the car without the benefit of the slides or seeing him wave his arms around.

Further Reading

  • Robert Pape. Dying To Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Random House. 2006. On Amazon in both dead tree and Kindle format.
  • Robert Pape and James K. Feldman. Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.  University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2010. Also on Amazon.
  • Capitol Books has a summary of Dying To Win in paperback and also free to Kindle subscribers.
It should be noted that Robert Pape's work is not the last word on the subject. Although his work made a significant contribution to the field, it was just the start of a whole conversation. Here are some other places you can look to expand on the issue:
  • Max Abrahms critique of Pape's work: [Max Abrahms, “Dying to Win,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 2005), pp. 176–178.]
  • Max Abrahms disagreeing with Pape that suicide terror is actually effective, specifically arguing that terrorism is almost completely ineffective at achieving policy goals when it primarily targets civilian populations. Abrahms identifies the very different response to Al Qaeda when it concentrated on primarily (or arguably) military targets before 11 September 2001. He also develops a substantial dataset on whether and why terrorism works to achieve policy goals: [Max Abrahms. "Why Terrorism Does Not Work." International Security. Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 42–78 ]. (Available for free from the Muse Project.)
    • "The data yield two unexpected findings. First, the groups accomplished their forty-two policy objectives only 7 percent of the time. Second, although the groups achieved certain types of policy objectives more than others, the key variable for terrorist success was a tactical one: target selection. Groups whose attacks on civilian targets outnumbered attacks on military targets systematically failed to achieve their policy objectives, regardless of their nature. These findings suggest that (1) terrorist groups rarely achieve their policy objectives, and (2) the poor success rate is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself." pp 43-44"
  • Mia Bloom discusses the group dynamics which lead an organization to adopt suicide terror as a tactic. She frames this in terms of the competition between extremist groups for constituency and funding, and how this competition forces them to escalate tactics even when those tactics are ineffective at achieving policy goals. She also discusses the similar pressures which lead Muslim extremists to incorporate female suicide terrorists even though they were culturally resistant to participation by women at all (terror has a macabre egalitarianism). [Mia Bloom,  Dying to Kill: Devising a Theory of Suicide Terror. Paper for Presentation to the Harrington Workshop on Terrorism] (PDF)
    • "Suicide bombing might be considered a tactic of coercive bargaining which includes the risks of outbidding because of the competition among rival organizations utilizing the tactic. Under conditions of group competition, there are incentives for further groups to jump on the 'suicide bandwagon' and ramp up the violence in order to distinguish themselves from the other organizations." pp 137
    • Bloom also goes into the difference between instrumental rationality (goal-based rationality) and value rationality based on "a conscious 'ethical, aesthetic, religious or other' belief, 'independently of its prospects of success.' Behavior, when driven by such values, can consciously embrace great personal sacrifices." [pp 125] and is critical to understanding suicide terrorism.
  • Anne Speckhard extensively documents interviews she and her colleagues conducted in Chechnya and Palestine with the families of suicide terrorists and with failed suicide terrorists (those who survived and were captured or who refused to carry out an assigned mission). These accounts largely support and expand Pape's theories of why suicide terrorists carry out their acts. Many of the accounts are quite painful and very difficult to read, but it puts a human face on the kinds of circumstances which lead someone to perform so desperate an act. [Anne Speckhard. Talking To Terrorists - Understanding the Psycho Social motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & 'Martyrs' to Combat Terrorism In Prison & Community Rehabilitation. Advances Press. September 11, 2012.] (Amazon link)


This is a complex and difficult topic, intellectually, politically, and emotionally. It is extremely difficult for most people to understand why someone would want to blow themselves up, taking a crowd of people with them and it should be. But only by understanding how we got here is it possible to find rational policies to counter the threat of terrorism. Only by understanding why people do this can we try to keep people from going down the path of violent radicalization in the first place. Although this is a painful topic, it is worth studying in order to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities. I do not have all of the answers. Hopefully this post will help you start down the road of asking the questions and coming up with answers of your own.

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