Origins of CPOST research on suicide attack terrorism

In the wake of the September 11th attacks on the United States, the attention of American policymakers and researchers alike turned to the issue of suicide terrorism — a subcategory of political violence in which an attacker kills themselves to harm or kill others. Professor Robert Pape was among those who sought to learn more about this emergent and deadly phenomenon. In his search for answers, he found that there was a surprising dearth of data on suicide attacks: not a single individual or institution had compiled a comprehensive database that contained all instances of global suicide attacks. He decided that such a database was required in order to produce rigorous analysis on the phenomenon of suicide attack terrorism.

The quest for building the first worldwide Database on Suicide Attacks

Using the same rigorous, data-based approach he applied while working on his first book, Bombing to Win, Professor Pape developed a data collection and coding system that could account for the entire universe of suicide attacks. He then founded the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST) in order to support the colossal collection and coding effort. It took a team of four CPOST research assistants two years to compile all suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003. The Database on Suicide Attacks (DSAT) was born.

Publication of new scholarship on suicide attacks

The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2003)

In 2003, the first academic article using CPOST data was released in the prestigious journal American Political Science Review. Titled The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, the article accounts for all suicide attacks committed from 1980 to 2001 and provides a novel explanation for the rise of suicide terrorism around the world: suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to concede territory, thus actors increasingly utilize suicide attacks strategically. The finding disputes previous explanations for why suicide terrorism occurs, namely, that suicide terrorism is driven by religious fanaticism.

Dying to Win (2005)

Two years after The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, the book Dying to Win was published. Expanding the analyzed period to 2003, the book produced three main takeaways:

  • 9/11 occurred because the suicide terrorism threat was growing but the world was not paying attention.
  • Suicide terrorism has three causal mechanisms: strategic, social, and individual logics following key patterns.
  • Suicide attacks have been strategically effective for militant groups mainly because they cause democratic states to withdraw forces from contested territories.

Cutting the Fuse (2010)

Cutting the Fuse, published in 2010, was Professor Pape’s second book on the origins of suicide attacks and includes data through 2008. It was co-authored with James K. Feldman, a professor from the Air Force Institute of Technology and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) at Air University.

The book argues in favor of adopting an Offshore Balancing strategy to prevent militant groups from carrying out attacks against the US and its allies. Offshore balancing entails a greater reliance on long-distance air and naval strikes paired with on-the-ground support from local security forces. This strategy is less threatening to local political forces and avoids using heavy ground forces, one of the triggers of suicide terrorism.

Introducing the New CPOST Dataset on Suicide Attacks (2021)

After important updates were made to the Database on Suicide Attacks — which now includes ways to link the DSAT to the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset, among other updates — Professor Robert Pape, Alejandro Albanez, and Alexandra Chinchilla wrote a Special Data Feature in the Journal of Peace Research titled Introducing the New CPOST Dataset on Suicide Attacks to formally introduce the DSAT and the Militant Ties Database (MTIED) to the world as standalone datasets developed by CPOST. In the article, the authors stress the importance of studying suicide attacks and the networks of militant groups that use them to understand the increased difussion of suicide attacks in civil wars around the world since the 1980s.