Ever since the attacks of 9/11, Western scholars have struggled to understand what motivates suicide terrorists to take their own lives in paroxysms of violence against civilians. In Cutting the Fuse, University of Chicago political scientist Pape and

Ever since the attacks of 9/11, Western scholars have struggled to understand what motivates suicide terrorists to take their own lives in paroxysms of violence against civilians. In Cutting the Fuse, University of Chicago political scientist Pape and Feldman, formerly of the Air Force Institute of Technology, analyze new data, extending Pape's earlier research on suicide terrorism in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.[1] This enhanced data set now includes the universe of suicide attacks from 1980 to 2009. According to the authors, the original argument is robust and still stands.

Pape originally claimed that occupation is the taproot of suicide terrorism. In the new book, the authors emphasize that since 2006 use of this tactic has spiked in Afghanistan and Pakistan following U.S. interventions. Although the Afghan case supports Pape's thesis, the notion that Pakistan is occupied makes one wonder about the authors' grip on reality. Consequently, it is unclear why suicide attacks there have spiked in recent years. More broadly, the explicit rejection of a religious explanation in favor of a secular, strategic logic does not hold, as Max Boot has convincingly demonstrated in The Weekly Standard.[2]

The nature of this supposed strategic logic is also murkier here than in the first book. No longer does Pape claim that people turn to suicide terrorism because of its effectiveness in coercing government concessions. Rather, he and his coauthor acknowledge terrorism's political limitations: Groups such as al-Qaeda stand no chance of achieving their expansive demands to establish a caliphate.

This tension throughout the book raises unresolved questions about the motives of suicide terrorists. Why would an al-Qaeda member blow himself up to achieve nothing tangible politically? And how is such costly behavior strategic in the absence of attaining any meaningful political concessions? To square the circle, Pape and Feldman downplay government concessions as the foremost objective of suicide terrorists, emphasizing instead their hatred toward occupiers and the desire to make them suffer, perhaps as an end in itself.

Such defensive, ad hoc shifts in reasoning and logic on the part of Pape and Feldman point to evidence of a degenerating research effort.

[1] Random House, 2005.
[2] Max Boot, "Suicide by Bomb," The Weekly Standard, Aug 1, 2011.