The "strategic logic" of suicide bombing

But if the occupation of territory spurs terrorism, why does it take the form of suicide terrorism specifically? Suicide attacks, Pape explained, are particularly well-suited to accomplishing two goals. One is “to coerce the target government to pull back its military forces, and suicide attacks kill more people—it’s the lung cancer of terrorism—than non-suicide attacks by a factor of ten.” The public will be terrorized by the scale of the carnage and the sinister nature of the suicidal act itself, the logic goes. Under pressure, their government will be forced to retreat from the territory that the terrorists desire.

Second, in the regions where terrorist groups operate, “suicide attacks are excellent against security targets to hold territory.” Those security forces—be they American or Iraqi or Sinhalese—are usually better armed and equipped than the terrorists. “Suicide attacks are a way to level that tactical advantage,” Pape explained.

“If you’re just going to go up against a tank with a handgun, it’s a lot less effective than some coordinated suicide attacks,” he continued. “That’s why, when there was a pitched battle for [the Iraqi city of] Ramadi last May, there were complex suicide attacks [by ISIS] used in coordination with other non-suicide attacks to basically seize and hold territory against an opposing force. That’s not something that we see in El Salvador with the [guerrilla group] FMLN [during the Salvadoran Civil War]. We don’t see that with the [Viet Cong] in South Vietnam [during the Vietnam War]. They’re not holding territory in a pitched way. … Suicide attack allows for more aggressive, coercive punishment and it allows for more aggressive territorial strategies.” While these strategic considerations have remained fairly constant across time and place, he says, what’s changed in the last 10 or 15 years is that in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, suicide bombing has increasingly been used as a tactic to take and hold territory.