Dying to Win by Robert Pape

Part I of an American’s Library for Making Sense of the Palestine Israel Mess: This section is five books from outside the conflict that explain the conflict: Book 4:

Dying to Win The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. by Robert A. Pape 2005. Random House, New York, 335 pp.

Before Dying to Win was published most Americans thought suicide bombers were young Middle-East Muslim males who were not very intelligent, had few prospects in life, and who were brainwashed by groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in much the same way cult members are. Suicide bombers, we were told, acted out of hatred for America and Israel because of our lifestyles and democracy. We were told suicide bombers believe they get 71 virgins in heaven, and other nonsense.

Pape analyzed every completed suicide bombing in the world from 1980 until 2003—three hundred fifteen attacks. What set him apart from other researchers on the topic is that he worked with graduate students at the University of Chicago who were fluent in customs and languages of populations that produced suicide bombers. They read newspaper accounts, propaganda flyers, interviewed relatives, etc. and, over time, arrived at conclusions that were at odds with the conventional wisdom about what makes suicide bombers tick.

Pape explains in Dying to Win that the most prolific suicide bombing campaign in the world as he was writing was not even in the Middle East. It was being waged by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. These were Hindus fighting the Indian Army who were primarily Buddhist. World wide, suicide bombers came from various religions including Christianity but many of them were secular. Also, many of them were female. Their ages ranged from teenagers to a Chechen in her 50’s. As a group they are intelligent and more highly educated than most of their surrounding communities. Their life prospects were better than most of their peers. Pape found that, just the opposite of keeping them where they could be brainwashed, manipulated, and away from the community where no one would be able to talk them out of it, suicide bombers were well-integrated into their communities and encouraged to participate in community life. They were not mentally ill and didn’t have a history of suicide attempts.

Instead of being an act of fanaticism, the author makes a strong case that suicide bombing is viewed as an altruistic act, both by the suicide bombers and by their communities. It is an act of self sacrifice much like a mother who sacrifices her life for her child or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies. As a strategy suicide bombing can be very effective. In 1983, when the United States went to bail out Israel’s stalled attack on Lebanon, two suicide bombers killed themselves, along with 241 American Servicemen, and 55 French troops. Following the attack, the United States, France, Britain and Italy all withdrew from Lebanon.

Moreover, Pape notes that organizations which have organized suicide bombings, groups we’ve never heard of without the words ‘terrorist organization’ attached to them, are in fact grounded in altruistic works inside their countries. Hezbollah, for example, was the origin for the Islamic Health Organization which has built major hospitals. At the time of the book’s writing Hezbollah had given out over 130,000 scholarships and had made interest free loans and provided other help to over 135,000 needy families.

Pape found that the real reasons for suicide bombers has nothing to do with hating democracy or college students having wet T-shirt contests on spring break. What creates a suicide terrorist, says Pape is a powerful occupying army—of a different religion than the occupied country—controlling a vastly weaker local population. American support Middle Eastern dictators and our support of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians are often cited as incentives for attacking Americans. So too, is the presence of US military troops and bases in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia where the two holiest sites in Islam are located.

The bottom line: If we get our troops out of their countries people around the world are far less motivated to attack us by blowing themselves up.

Robert Pape is arguably the world’s leading expert on suicide bombings. He is read by everyone in the field of counter terrorism. Some, like the Israelis who want suicide bombers to be perceived as depraved Arab, anti-Jewish terrorists, disagree with his conclusions. Dying to Win is Pape’s landmark book on the subject. His update,’ Cutting the Fuse’ expands on this work.