Suicide Terrorism - Opportunistic Tactic or Strategic Campaign?
33 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2011 Last revised: 6 Apr 2011
Date Written: April 4, 2011
Over the last ten years scholars have examined the phenomenon of suicide attacks and offered hypotheses that emphasize the qualitatively different nature of its various manifestations. One of the main arguments is that suicide attacks are strategic by nature. They are executed mostly by national liberation groups seeking to coerce foreign (democratic) occupying forces to withdraw from the homeland. Lately however, we have seen the proliferation of suicide attacks in states such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. Many of these areas cannot be defined as occupied by foreign forces. These attacks typically been directed against local targets and in many cases in environments that do not provide the ‘high visibility’ and signaling capacity. Suicide attacks have also been observed to occur in parallel with other ‘conventional’ types of attacks such as car bombings and gun attacks. These developments call for a re-examination of the ‘strategic logic of suicide attacks’. In the paper we will pose the question: Should suicide attacks be seen as an opportunistic tactic rather than an outcome of a highly organized campaign? We have constructed two comprehensive databases of suicide attacks worldwide and collapsed this with data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) for the years 1998-2008. From this consolidated database, we have constructed a ranked list of terrorist groups in descending order of suicide terror attacks. Analyzing the attack data for each of these groups by year and month, we find that suicide attacks are significantly interspersed (in time) with non-suicide attacks. These findings suggest that Suicide attacks are one tactic among many used by terrorist groups. A further analysis of this data by target type shows that a significant number of suicide attacks have been directed against military targets rather than civilian ones. The totality of these findings suggests that Suicide attacks are a set of opportunistic tactics used in conjunction with other conventional tactics in pursuit of a diverse set of goals. In the next stage of our research, we propose to examine whether the military and civilian targets are local as opposed to foreign. We begin by examining the cases of Iraq and Pakistan and suggest a framework for future research that examines whether the targets of suicide attacks are local sectarian or ethnic rivals rather than armed occupiers. A finding of this nature would call into the question the theory that suicide attacks are primarily used against foreign occupation.
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