Why Academic Terrorism Experts Don't Get It


Mr. Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

The study of terrorism is the orphan of Middle Eastern studies. The Middle East academics, whose self-appointed mission is to cast their subject matter in a favorable light, simply avoid the subject. They are happiest studying putative reformers of Islam, not the terrorists who invoke it. Just look at the program of the upcoming conference of the Middle East Studies Association: not a terrorism paper in sight.

The field has been left wide open for social scientists without any particular knowledge of the Middle East. We should be grateful that some in academe are thinking about these things. The problem is that some terrorism research wobbles, precisely because it isn't sufficiently grounded in the complexities for which the Middle East is famous.

I'm moved to write this after reading an article that has gotten a lot of play over the past few weeks."The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" is by a University of Chicago political scientist, Robert A. Pape, and it appeared in the August issue of the American Political Science Review, the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association. The publication is described by the assocation as"the preeminent political science journal in the United States and internationally," and it is received by the association's 14,000 members in 70 countries. Last week, Pape also published an op-ed in the New York Times, distilling his study for an even wider audience.

Pape's thesis is really quite simple: suicide terrorism is not irrational or an expression of religious fanaticism. It is part of a strategy deliberately adopted by the groups that sponsor it."In contrast to the existing explanations," writes Pape,"this study shows that suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant territorial concessions. Moreover, over the past two decades, suicide terrorism has been rising largely because terrorists have learned that it pays." For that reason, too, it is used by secular groups (e.g., Tamil Tigers) even more often than by religious ones. What gives Pape's argument its"scientific" aura is that he spent a year compiling a list of all suicide attacks that took place between 1980 and 2001 (188 in number) and infers from their timing that they took the form of deliberate campaigns.Hamas Suicide Bombers

I find all of this to be fairly obvious, so I was surprised to see myself as one of the foils of Pape's study. Pape:

The small number of studies addressed explicitly to suicide terrorism tend to focus on the irrationality of the act of suicide from the perspective of the individual attacker. As a result, they focus on individual motives--either religious indoctrination (especially Islamic Fundamentalism) or psychological predispositions that might drive individual suicide bombers (Kramer 1990; Merari 1990; Post 1990).... some analysts see suicide terrorism as fundamentally irrational (Kramer 1990; Merari 1990; Post 1990).

Now Professors Merari and Post, who are in the psychology business, can speak for themselves. But peruse my 1990 article,"The Moral Logic of Hizbullah," and show me where I even suggest that suicide terrorism is"irrational." To the contrary: I demonstrate that the method enjoyed such stunning success that leading Shiite clerics were prepared to bend their interpretation of Islamic law to sanction it. As for"irrationality," in a 1993 article, subtitled"The Calculus of Jihad" (and which Pape didn't consult) I made my view absolutely clear:

Hizbullah's collective choices regarding the extent and intensity of its violence had a clear political rationale. Hizbullah was also a political movement, and indeed saw politics as an inseparable part of religion. When it employed violence, it did so for political and not ritualistic purposes--to bring it closer to power. In making its choices, Hizbullah weighed benefits against costs.

Later in Pape's article, he associates me again with the notion that terrorists are irrational:"Many observers characterize Hamas and [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad as fanatical, irrational groups, extreme both within Palestinian society and among terrorists groups in general (Kramer 1996)." Really? In that 1996 article, I don't mention Hamas or Islamic Jihad at all.

For years, I (and others) have argued that suicide bombing fits nicely into savvy strategies for terrorist groups, and that their popularity grows when they seem to work. So Pape's main claim to originality is that he has documented this with empirical evidence.

But reading through Pape's database of suicide attacks for the place and period I know best--Lebanon in the mid-1980s--I kept encountering operations that I couldn't remember at all, or that I remembered as having different authors than the ones he names, or that I remembered as having killed far fewer people than appear in his"killed" column. Here are a few glaring discrepencies:

Pape's Campaign 2 ("Hezbollah vs. Israel"), incident no. 2, June 16, 1984, lists a suicide bombing of an Israeli army post that supposedly killed 5. In fact, this was the first suicide bombing conducted by Hizbullah's rival, the Amal movement, and it didn't kill anyone. (It's one of two case studies I treat in an article on the first suicide bombings against Israel in Lebanon. Not in Pape's bibliography.)

Pape's Campaign 2 ("Hezbollah vs. Israel"), incident no. 3, April 9, 1985, lists a suicide car bombing of an Israeli army post. It did happen, but the bomber was a teenaged woman, and she belonged not to Hizbullah but to a pro-Syrian organization (the Syrian Social Nationalist Party). It was the first such bombing ever done by a woman, and it was much-celebrated.

Pape's Campaign 2 ("Hezbollah vs. Israel"), incident no 6, June 15, 1985, lists a suicide car bombing of an Israeli army post in Beirut that supposedly killed 23. It never happened: by that date, Israel was long gone from Beirut. This would seem to be a confused reference to a suicide car bombing that took place in Beirut the day before, June 14--not against Israelis but against a position of the predominantly Shiite Sixth Brigade of the Lebanese army, then laying siege to Palestinian refugee camps (the so-called"war of the camps"). In other words: a Palestinian suicide bombing against Shiites.

Pape's Campaign 3 ("Hezbollah vs. Israel and South Lebanon Army [SLA]"), incident no. 6, September 3, 1985, lists a suicide car bomb at an SLA outpost that supposedly killed 37, a whopping toll that would have been unforgettable. In fact, the suicide bombing killed only its perpetrator (who was not a member of Hizbullah but belonged to the Lebanese Baath party).

In sum, Pape has not told us much we didn't know anyway, and his data inspire less confidence than earlier data-based studies. We already knew that suicide bombings were strategic choices. Even in Lebanon, and without the example of the Tamil Tigers, we knew that secular groups could embrace the method with fervor. (In Lebanon in the mid-1980s, pro-Syrian secular groups did three attacks for every one launched by Hizbullah. In Pape's data, all of these attacks are inexplicably attributed to Hizbullah.) What happened in Lebanon has been repeated in the Palestinian territories, where secular groups have jumped on the bandwagon of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. What begins as a strategic campaign is often driven forward by organizational and Islamist-secular rivalry.

I suppose we should still be grateful to Pape for telling a wider audience the truth--that suicide bombing has a strategic rationale, that it's being used by more groups because it seems to work, that it's even superseding other terrorist tactics, and that it's so appealing in its simplicity and effect that you don't have to be a religious fanatic to plan one or carry it out. Pape comes closest to an original claim (for academe) in his argument that Yitzhak Rabin, by his words and deeds, gave Hamas and Islamic Jihad every reason to assume that their suicide bombings were working. Pape concludes that small concessions under fire, such as those made by Rabin, just increase the fire--something most Israeli voters concluded a few years ago.

But in his broader policy conclusion, Pape strikes out in an unexpected direction, and on very thin ice. Reading his analysis, you would think that the conclusion would be to raise the costs for terrorist leaders who choose suicide bombings, from Afghanistan to Gaza--to mark such attacks as crimes against humanity and war crimes, to find the masterminds, and to put their heads on pikes for all to see.

Yet Pape does a last-minute twist, arguing that the most effective response would be an American disengagement from the Middle East and Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. The United States and Israel should stand back and hunker down behind defensive perimeters. Why? This would diminish the incentives (read: grievances) behind strategic suicide bombing. I find this conclusion completely at odds with the analysis. Wouldn't this be the ultimate concession to the suicide strategy--and be celebrated as such by its planners? Wouldn't this inspire yet more mutations of the method, and the expansion of the terrorists' strategic goals? One is left suspecting that Pape's conclusion has been infected by his loyalties to the Chicago"realists," a school of political scientists who favor a low-profile posture for the United States in the Middle East (and who also opposed the Iraq war).

In short, Pape has given us a paper of limited originality, based on data that needs double-checking, and topped off with conclusions that don't flow from the findings. It's more evidence that this kind of work has to be done on an interdisciplinary basis, and in consultation with people who remember.

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ian august - 10/22/2003

nice reply ny guy, i believe you have change a little since you firts began to visit this site, and it's nice to see GW fans begin to be open.

David - 10/21/2003

How come the so-called "experts" on the middle east at MESA never talk about terrorism? The silence is truly deafening.

NYGuy - 10/21/2003


"ny guy i am glad you asked what i believe our role should be in fighting terrorism."


You have just written what I call a very fine post that shows you have strong beliefs and you back them with good reasons. I would betray my own believes if I were to laugh at you.

This is not a sporting event in which someone has to win. It is an exchange of ideas; such as you have given in your post, and as such we can communicate in a friendly, if sometimes strong way to each other. I don’t believe I have used or relied on name-calling and personal attacks to make my point. Since I have made many posts, however, I may have and I apologize if I did. I have such discussions with many posters with whom I disagree. And we often use the :) symbol to relieve tensions.

First, we don’t disagree on everything.

You say: “…do not hate us bc we are american they hate things we do that affect them.”

I agree. As I read it, however, many Muslin leaders are really angry at our success in improving our standard of living, which has lead to a culture they want to destroy. What are we to do, go live in dirt huts with not electricity, etc? This would not change their opinions but it would make us weak prey for them. Beside, I live 5 miles from the WTC, which they attacked and killed 3,000 people, many of whom were not Americans.


i believe our major role in combating terrorism should not be in actually fighting.


I agree with you. I also don’t want to see people die in war. My cousin was one of the few casualties of the first Gulf War. His father has grieved greatly over his only sons loss and my cousin’s two daughters have no father. This has been very hurtful for all. War is not something that someone can advocate. So I think we both agree we should stop the killing, particularly in the Palestine/Israel.


“And i see the major goal of all this to make the world as safe as possible, while retaining liberty.”


This may be the heart of our disagreement, how do we achieve this goal?

I have given many reasons for my conclusion and conclude that the following vision by GW is right on track toward achieving the goals we seem to agree on, a more peaceful world. .

“The world is getting smaller because of telecommunications, which increases peoples aware of the world around them causing them to want a better life. Countries recognize this knowledge poses a threat to their leadership positions. Meanwhile economic trade creates prosperity. Prosperity leads to improved standards of living, which I believe is one of your goals also. Increased prosperity leads to peace.”

As I read the newspapers each day I see more evidence that other countries are getting on the bandwagon and supporting GW’s leadership.

Needless to say this is not a perfect world, but I do believe that the world recognizes terrorism must stop and most countries are now working toward that goal while at the same time seeking to expand their economic opportunities, other countries are recognizing that bad behavoir is not in their best interests.

I am not saying I am right nor am I saying you are wrong, I am just expressing an opinion. I do take your arguments seriously, and consider them. But, when all is said and done the above is the conclusion I come to.

All the best. Let us stay in touch.


ian august - 10/19/2003

ny guy i am glad you asked what i believe our role should be in fighting terrorism. if you dont know i like to find you comments on this site because i disagree with most of what you say. and i know you like name calling so i will tell you ahead of time i am not liberal but agree with some of what they preach. i believe our major role in combating terrorism should not be in actually fighting. I believe that no matter how many countries we invade, liberate, turn democrat, that we can never irradicated terror views aimed agaisnt the us by resorting to force. No matter how bad we stomp on them it will only create more hate and more desire for them to seek revenge, in my vies. And i see the major goal of all this to make the world as safe as possible, while retaining liberty. So as for afghanistan, sure invade, we needed to find osama, the henchmen. but iraq, i was not on board. I think war and threats can only take us so far in this battle, my main argument would be to reach out a hand of friendship. if i know you like i think i do, i can picture you laughing right about now. but these men that hate us and want to kill us do not hate us bc we are american they hate things we do that affect them. We are not getting to the root of the problem by scaring the arab world with threats of invasions. we need to get to the heard of the problem in order to create a better world, not just for now but for the future.

i await your response and cannot wait to count all your personal attacks--

Herodotus - 10/15/2003

Point? Patrick Henry didn't go around killing women and children for his beliefs.

Patriotic Terrorist. - 10/15/2003


Stephen Rifkin - 10/15/2003

Today a few Americans were blown up by Palestinians, while being escorted by PLO security and when the emergency medical teams attempted to extract the victims were driven off by a rock throwing mob until IDF tanks rolled in to provide cover. The PLO PM de jour refused to comment.

Now this makes the news albeit the news organs are falling over themselves downplaying this as they have in the past with the 45 or so other American citizens murdered by one Palestinian faction or another.

Yet it takes a mass attack on Israelis on the order of more than 10 fatalities to even register as some kind of act that we in the West might or should have some negative thoughts about. And typically that response, if you read the NY Times, what you'll get is a front page below the fold human interest mangled puppy sniffler about the poor poor lives of mama Palestinian ladies who last saw their poor shahid son/daughter when she herself held the video camera at her childs' suicide farewell message.

What would you call that? When you splutter out the obligatory "Of course we decry terrorism.....(but of course let me tell you why it's some Jews' fault)" then how are you different from any al Quds al Hayyat column screaming that any Jew lving anywhere east of Brooklyn is a 'legitamate' military target.

What would you call that?

NYGuy - 10/15/2003


I appreciate your response and I can now understand your point. I have to agree with you that the article has its shortcomings and I am caution when someone defines his opponent’s position. The Mid-east is a highly emotional topic and I believe gets too much attention in the press. Giving both the Israeli’s and Palestinians all that face time on TV and in the news coverage is in my opinion counter productive and distracts the world from more important considerations. Since we know what they are going to say, what is the news value. It merely encourages bad behavior.

I read both Kramer and Pape's thoughts on this subject and did not think they had any real answers for global terrorism. Most of the writings were on the 7 million people whose philosophy is that "Life is death". Focusing on this small part of the world population, Pape concludes that one should withdraw within its borders. This implies that one should not fight terrorism on its home court and leads to the opinion of many that such actions should be viewed as aggression or empire building.

If one gets beyond the idea that Arafat and Sharon are the center of the universe and considers not 7 million people but the welfare of billions of people we get a different perspective. Terrorism disrupts trade and the ability of a country to create a better standard of living for its people. From this perspective taking actions against terrorism on their home court and telling them this is not the way the world wants to live shows the way to world peace in my opinion.

And, if a small group of people prefer to kill themselves rather than building a better life for themselves and their family what is one to do? Should we now adopt this silly philosophy? So long as it is localized the rest of us can enjoy the improving standards of life in the world and work to build a better world by saying that Global terrorism is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The results show that global terrorism is losing support from the rest of the world.

We approach this topic from different points of view and may come to different conclusions. That is ok. I am not saying I am right, and you are wrong, but I do appreciate the opportunity to clarify my thougths, get your thoughts and exchange ideas.


Michael Meo - 10/15/2003

NY Guy,

The article complains about an effect of a reasonable application of coherent thought.

Terrorism is widespread in the Middle East, practiced by the U.S. and Israel most of all.

I agree with Richard Kurdion that the article adopts a stance which is pretty insulting to thinking folk.

NYGuy - 10/14/2003


Do you have anything to add beyond listing several unconnected items.

What are you trying to say and what do you think should be the US role in fighting terrorism which is the topic of the article.

Michael Meo - 10/14/2003

Rolling over an unarmed, clearly-marked Rachel Corrie with a bulldozer is not terrorism; nor is shooting two of her co-protesters, all three of them nonviolent.

Bombing a civilian bomb shelter with a bunker-buster and killing several hundred women and children of Baghdad is not terrorism; nor is opening fire on a crowd in Falujah because a boy threw a sneaker.

In fact, holding sanctions in place through the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children isn't terrorism, either.

The only terrorism is attacks on "us" by "them". Why can't Middle East experts see that?

NYGuy - 10/14/2003

Reading Kramer and Pape’s original article which is referenced with a link, I see much agreement, to a point, and some of the disagreement is on scholarship considerations and solutions. Both analysis’s seem, however, to be looking at an unchanging world and saying history will repeat itself.

Because a primary focus is on the Mid-East, the suggestion is made that individuals countries should retreat to a defensive perimeter behind their borders which would reduce the incentives (read: grievances) behind strategic suicide bombing.

As such, the US actions to put world terrorism on the table, and taking military action in Afghanistan and Iraq could be interpreted as wrong headed and will be unsuccessful.

I disagree and point to recent world events which say just the opposite, that the US has really provide the necessary leadership that will greatly reduce terrorism in the future by emphasizing eliminating terrorism with military actions and that economic growth is the way to world peace.

Recently 10 Southeast Asian leaders forged deals with China, India and Japan to make partners out of regional competitors by forming the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's, (ASEAN) which included a nonaggression treaty, a security pact and a agreement to cooperate in fighting regional terrorism which calls for a regional security community to combat terrorism and other transnational crimes. (ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand.)

The importance of China can not be overlooked particularly since it is showing signs of becoming a major economic force but it is also sheding communism and moving toward a more democratic form of government by giving its people more freedom.

The point is that GW and the US actions actually showed the world that they have a a choice, enjoy economic growth, prosperity and a higher standard of living, or allow terrorism to flourish and disrupt international trade.

If one gets beyond the 7 million people in the Mid-East where terrorism plays such a major part and the focus to the billions of people who want peace, and a better way of life, it is reasonable to conclude the war on terrorism is being recognized as necessary and a war that will be won as world economic prosperity grows. Thus our focus should shift to the global world situation and see if we still believe that terrorism is a malignant force that will tolerated in the future or is it really a local issue between two nations the see death as a wayh of life.

Richard Kurdlion - 10/13/2003

The assumption that denial of a Palestinian state is somehow a viable defense against terrorism is all too typical of the Zionist claptrap that pervades this website, though we have to wade through a lot of convoluted nitpicking to finally get there in this instance. Nowhere in this long diatribe is there anything close to an historical explanation of terrorism. Whatever the merits or flaws of the article by Pape (which prompted Kramer's boring whine here) evidently it at least has something to do with history.