Research on terrorism and political violence has been a core part of CPOST’s focus since its founding in 2004. The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. homeland and the sharp increase in suicide attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed an urgent need to better understand the threat of terrorism. What are the causes of terrorism and especially suicide terrorism, its deadliest variant? What explains why and when groups will attack specific kinds of targets? Empirically-grounded and policy-relevant scholarship on the terrorist threat — its causes, consequences, and conduct — is crucial to identifying the strategies most likely to succeed in combating it. That terrorism and insurgency remain a major threat to regional stability in areas of key strategic importance for the United States and its allies more than a decade after 9/11 underscores the continued importance of this research. How will terrorism evolve in the coming decade, and what are the prospects for regional and global security?
CPOST has been recognized for its pioneering research on the causes of suicide terrorism and the implications for U.S. security policy, playing a major role in shaping scholarship and policy since 9/11. Dr. Pape’s study of suicide terrorism published in the American Political Science Review in 2003 was crucial in two ways: 1) it challenged deeply held convictions among scholars and policymakers by demonstrating that foreign occupation, not religion, was the primary driver of suicide terrorism; and 2) it backed its argument with data, the basis for the first complete database of all suicide attacks world-wide. This commitment to policy-relevant scholarship grounded in hard data continues to guide its approach to the study of terrorism and political violence today.
Starting in 2004, CPOST expanded its research into suicide terrorism by investigating the strategic, social, and individual logics that combine to make suicide attacks a viable strategy in cases of occupation but not other conflicts. Following the publication of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism in 2005, CPOST began work on an ambitious project to complete detailed case studies of the eight largest campaigns to use suicide attacks, which were published in 2010’s Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. As with previous work, the application of scholarship to policy was a central objective of Cutting the Fuse, which made concrete recommendations for reducing the threat of suicide terrorism to the U.S. and its allies. It was the basis for a major conference on Capitol Hill in 2010, and drew the endorsements from a wide variety of policy experts, including the Chief of the U.S. Navy and the two chairmen of the 9/11 Commission.
In 2012, CPOST shifted its research emphasis from the causes to the conduct of militant group campaigns, specifically how groups select the timing, location, and targets to attack, as well as whether and when they will use suicide attacks to do so. In the fall of 2013, CPOST completed a major eighteen-month government-funded study on targeting by the eight most violent militant groups that use suicide in addition to non-suicide attacks. The study was built on the most extensive and complete record of violent incidents (suicide and non-suicide) in these zones, a dataset comprising over 50,000 data points with nearly 20 targeting variables for each case. In addition to eight case studies, the study produced working papers on the effect of the religious calendar on the timing of attacks as well as a methodological paper on mitigating the problem of attacks with unknown perpetrators that plague all datasets on political violence.
Current and Future Projects
Research into the conduct of militant group campaigns remains a major focus of CPOST’s ongoing research. CPOST is currently engaged in a six-month study of militant group strategy, a follow-on to the recently completed targeting study. The study investigates how militant group capabilities interacts with government counter-insurgency strategy and and changes in the group’s territorial control to shape the group’s overall strategy for victory. Future projects include 1) a study of what happens to militant group strategy after a foreign military occupier withdraws — a salient topic given the imminent withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan; and 2) a study to better understand how militant groups construct and maintain the culture of martyrdom necessary to sustain a suicide campaign over time.
The CPOST Suicide Attack Database is the most comprehensive in the world. It is the only database that is searchable, up-to-date and entirely transparent in its source material. This database allows CPOST to produce data-driven theories and conduct leading research, especially in the study of terrorism and political violence. One of the most unique aspects of the database is its commitment to sharing publicly its source material, including data files, once CPOST completes its analysis. Each suicide attack, in order to be entered into the database, must first be verified by two independent sources.