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on 28 October 2010
"Dying to Win" is the catchy title of Robert A. Pape's thorough study of suicide terrorism and its background. By compiling and making use of a large number of statistics about suicide attacks as a method of terrorism and/or warfare by non-state actors, Pape has been able to draw some important and significant conclusions about the background and meaning of this phenomenon. Most importantly, he emphasizes that 1) suicide terrorism is not specifically a product of Islam; 2) it is not undertaken, even in majority-muslim countries, mainly by the most intensely religious; 3) it correlates not with religious fundamentalism, but with nationalist movements against foreign occupation and oppression. Based on these facts, and analysis of the biographies of major suicide terrorists and their organizations, Pape suggests that we should see the phenomenon as the final weapon of choice of nationalist organizations. Although often using religious differentiation as a source of nationalist ideology and recruitment, these essentially nationalist groups are very weak against the military power of their opponents and are forced to choose this method to do maximum damage or simply give up. As a result, the average suicide bomber, if there is such a thing, fits not the profile of the crazy loon or the suicidal loner, but rather the profile of the educated working class or professional lower middle class political activist - in other words, the constituency of virtually any broad political movement, in particular left-wing ones.

Pape makes his case well and much of it is highly convincing. It is especially important to disprove the notion that suicide terrorism is an entirely new phenomenon and that it is 100% correlative with fundamentalist Islam. In fact, as Pape shows, in the suicide terrorism campaign against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in the early 1980s, a majority of the actual volunteers were from left-wing organizations and secular backgrounds, even though Lebanon is a (small) majority muslim country. As the author's dissections of the known biographical facts about suicide bombers show, it is not possible beforehand to estimate who will become a suicide bomber, nor is there usually some major trauma or event that causes them to 'switch' to a willingness to give up their life for the cause. This makes any counterinsurgent strategy based on the notion that one can identify and eliminate suicide bombers before they undertake the attack completely pointless, and it greatly limits the use of profiling for security reasons.

Not all of the book is entirely persuasive, however. Although I think Pape is right that suicide bombing is an ultimate weapon of the weak in national liberation struggles (or ones seen as such), it is a bit of a stretch to fit Al Qaeda into a 'nationalist' pattern. Pape notes that the point of Al Qaeda is precisely to unite the different local sunni Islamist struggles in the respective countries of the Middle East and North Africa, but the pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism of Al Qaeda have only very weak support and cannot really count as coherent and popular enough to work on behalf of a sunni Arab 'nation' at this time. What is also interesting in that context is that Pape ignores entirely the small suicide bombing campaign of the Turkish Communist group DHKP-C, which had already started its suicide bombings before the first edition of this work was published (so presumably was known) and which explicitly profiles itself as opposed to Turkish nationalism. I think therefore that a better framework, although very similar, is to see it not as a weapon of nationalism as such but more broadly anti-imperialism. That allows it to include not just direct perceived occupation and oppression by a foreign entity, as in the case of Palestine or the Tamils, but also campaigns where the issue is not a nation-state to be but rather a sense that an existing nation is being controlled by foreign imperial entities (as in the Turkish case) or a multiplicity of nations are made puppets in this way (as for Al Qaeda). This preserves Pape's basic framework, which seems to me correct, but I think increases its explanatory power.

The last chapter contains a series of recommendations for American national security strategy based on Pape's analysis. This is an odd mixture of the wise and the foolish. The author very sensibly underlines the importance of withdrawing as much as possible all American combat troops from the greater Middle East, because they are the number one cause of resentment against America in the nations where suicide bombers disproportionately come from - it is much more rare to see them from nations which do not have American troops on them. At the same time, however, Pape does not at all mention American support for Israel, which surely is about equal a source of irritation in that part of the world; even if it does not immediately produce suicide bombers the way American 'occupation' does, it surely greatly increases the appeal of Islamism and nationalism generally and aimed against America in particular. This is all the more true since the United States otherwise is acceptably popular in the Middle East, because of the relative freedom of its citizens and laws compared to their own. Since Pape is a student of John Mearsheimer, one would expect the 'Israel connection' to not be overlooked. It also strikes me as rather bizarre that Pape stresses the importance of building border walls and stricter immigration controls in the United States itself as a short-term solution against the already existing terrorists-to-be. His own book exactly makes it clear that one cannot predict or profile a suicide attacker with any real meaning, all the more since neither socio-economic background nor religious affiliation of itself can be succesfully used for this purpose. At most one could 'profile' relatively well-educated working class people from the Middle East and other war zones, but there are so many people who potentially fall in this category that only a complete shutdown of tourist visas and the like could have the desired effect, and the cure would be much worse than the disease. In any case it may be the somewhat dubious nature of the last chapter is because the author sees it as his task to formulate a strategy to "defend America's core interests" in it, such as occupying nations in order to safeguard the flow of oil to the United States, whereas I have no interest whatsoever in defending 'America's interests' or those of any other nation (in fact, it is by no means clear that nations actually have interests).

This is an excellent and must-read analysis of the nature and background of suicide terrorism since 1980, but one would do well to take the author's conclusions somewhat skeptically.
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on 28 March 2014
Unlike most works on suicide terrorism children book almost completely & utterly (and quite rightly) ignores the philosophical/theological attempts at the explanation of the phenomenon, in its place he utilises statistical analysis on an exhaustive volume of data, comparative study of cases spanning various cultures, religions, ideoligies and nations and interviewing many suicide bombers, obviously failed ones, as well as critically analysing their rhetoric & propaganda. The conclusions are valuable for policy makers but it is for the best if the plebs are kept in the dark about this since it might prove harder to whip them up into an agreeable mood to enable our state to successfully carry out policies in differing circumstances.
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on 22 January 2012
This is the study that finally puts to rest the myth that suicide terrorists do it because they're religious fanatics. Other reviewers have very accurately discussed the pros and cons of the book, so I will content myself with merely emphasizing a few points.

First, this is a thorough empirical investigation which takes into account every single known and recorded incident of a "suicide terrorist attack" up to its date of publication. It's scope is well-defined and authoritative. The author's research indicates that most suicide bombers come from middle-class backgrounds (as indeed do most terrorists), are well-educated, and strongly identify with their own communities (which have been violated).

Second, it proves in a conclusive manner that suicide terrorism is motivated by the will of its perpetrators to end what they regard as the foreign occupation of their countries. In effect, it is one of the few direct forms of struggle which can be employed by national liberation movements when confronted by superior force. It is not a creation of religion or Islamic extremism, and Pape correctly points out that most religions (including Islam) generally condemn suicide. He further argues that the act of a terrorist blowing himself up for his cause is similar to that of a soldier sacrificing his life to save his fellow companions on the battlefield. In general, the author's theory is well-argued and impeccably researched.

Thirdly, the book is not without its shortcomings. It fails to discuss in any detail the possibility that terrorists are drugged before they commit suicide attacks, and that they themselves could actually be innocent victims. Recently, the Afghan Taliban have been known to employ such methods, intimidating and drugging those who carry out their attacks. There is also very little on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing (although this only represents one - albeit important - 'suicide' attack).

Finally, the last chapter is a mess and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It makes no sense advising the American government to withdraw occupation troops from the Muslim World without linking that policy to a change in US-Israeli relations. Clearly, Pape is catering to a certain audience in his conclusions.

Nevertheless, this is a groundbreaking study in the field that should be read by all those who are interested in terrorism and international relations. Five stars despite the reservations.
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on 8 October 2016
Very honest book !
Robert showed in his definitive account of the motivations of such attacks , based on surveys of every sucicide bombing since 1980, RELIGIOUS BELIEF OF ANY KIND IS NEITHER NECCESSARY NOR SUFFICIENT TO CREATE SUICIDE BOMBERS! Pape concluded that the FUNDAMENTAL MOTIVATION IS POLITICAL !!
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on 10 October 2014
a clear understanding
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on 23 February 2015
This is a very nice book. I hope all most people have time to read it. It gives you a clear vision regarding the main factors behind committing Suicide bombers...
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on 20 April 2014
Many of the authors dealing with the issue of terrorism can be dismissed as purveyors of junk science. One of those who does not deserve that label is Robert A. Pape. His seminal study on suicide terrorism remains till today the best in its kind. Yet, even he sins in a number of ways against the rules of serious scholarship. His work, based on examining 315 cases of suicide terrorism relies almost entirely on what third parties (governments, law-enforcement agencies, mass media, organizations claiming the act) have designated as a “suicide operation.” The author saved himself the effort to assess the forensics of the cases, i.e. to determine, independently, that the particular events under consideration were actually suicide operations. Admittedly, such work would have required efforts beyond his capacity. On the other side, taking into account the propagandistic nature of terrorism, a scholar cannot take at face value claims by interested parties regarding the nature of the operation. Another failure was to disregard entirely the phenomenon of synthetic terrorism (sometimes called ‘false-flag terrorism’), namely operations covertly staged by governments to appear as authentic terrorism. Was the author unaware of Operation Northwoods (USA, 1962) and of the synthetic terrorist acts committed in Italy and Belgium in the Cold War, commonly known as Operation Gladio?

These two sins by the author seriously mar the value of his study.

An impatient and informed reader might already close the book after reading the very first paragraph of the first chapter, in which the author claims, self-confidently, that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were perpetrated by Muslim terrorists. By 2005, the year of the book’s publication, the author should have been aware that the US authorities had not produced any evidence for their claim that 9/11 was the work of Muslim terrorists (the names of the alleged terrorists do not figure on any authenticated passenger list, no one has seen them board any of the four flights, their bodily remains were not identified, and even the FBI regards their identities as questionable [see appropriate FBI website]) He should have been aware of a large and growing skepticism among US scholars toward the official account. He should have been aware of a documented relationship between Western intelligence agencies and Al Qaeda. He should have taken note of the fact that none of the perpetrators or planners of 9/11 had been brought to court. Taking into account these facts would have led him to qualify his conclusions and examine whether some of the other cases of terrorism he listed might also have been synthetically manufactured by state agencies. To the extent that these scholarly sins can be attributable to a blind spot in the author’s perspective, they may be remedied by him. Having said so, readers might still find the book useful, keeping in mind that the conclusions of an author who relies on corrupt data, must be considered with great circumspection.
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