Authoritarianism and Suicide Terrorism

Authoritarianism and Suicide Terrorism


All suicide attack data is the intellectual property of the Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) and was accessed with the permission of Director Robert Pape.

Suicide terrorism is a complex and, unfortunately, global phenomenon, whose incidence has only increased over time. In light of this, both academics and policy-makers have sought to understand why groups make the decision to employ suicide attacks, hoping that an understanding of suicide terrorism’s causes will enable states to eliminate current violence and prevent future violence.  To this end, many theorists contend that suicide terrorism is related to and caused, in part, by the regime of the attack’s location or target. This paper seeks to evaluate those claims using the cases of China and Iran to challenge those theorists that contend that suicide terrorism is only committed against democratic and partially-democratic states. It also offers other plausible explanations of the causes of suicide terrorism, such as minority exclusion, and describes the relevance and implications of each.

Secondary Literature
The literature on the relationship between regime type and terrorism is extensive. Within the literature, however, there exist two dominant schools of thought: the political access school and the strategic school.[1] The political access school maintains that the availability of political representation provides alternative means to terrorism, making terrorism less prevalent in democracies.[2] Conversely, the strategic school contends that terrorism is more likely to occur in democracies and against democracies.[3] It supports this claim with three distinct lines of reasoning. First, the strategic school asserts that the existence of a free press provides an incentive for groups to employ terror attacks; terrorist groups are publicity-hungry, and suicide terrorism is both physically and psychologically damaging.[4] Second, the school asserts that freedom of expression and association lower the costs of organizing to engage in terrorism.[5] Finally, the school asserts that a democracy’s respect for civil liberties functionally limits its ability to conduct counterterrorism operations.[6] Though other theories exist, these two schools accurately reflect popular sentiment on each side of the debate regarding suicide terrorism and its relation to regime type.

One probable proponent of the strategic school is Robert Pape, whose works on the root causes of suicide terrorism implicitly reference the school’s primary assertion: Terrorism is more likely to occur in democracies and against democracies. In his writing on the subject, Pape emphasizes the strategic, and decidedly not irrational, nature of suicide attacks. Because suicide attacks are cheaper, more destructive, and more effective than run-of-the-mill terror attacks, employing suicide attacks offers terrorists a plethora of strategic benefits.[7] Furthermore, in line with the strategic school, Pape claims that democracies are more likely to be the location and/or the target of suicide attacks.[8]

Pape diverges from the strategic school, however, in the explanation that he gives for this phenomenon. Using data from his Suicide Attack Database, Pape proposes that “…nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”[9] That is, occupation by a democracy motivates terrorists to utilize suicide attacks, and occupation leads terrorists to believe that their homeland and/or way of life is existentially threatened.[10] The perceived threat to terrorists’ way of life, and, consequently, the effect of occupation, is exacerbated when there exists a religious difference between occupier and occupied; to prove this, Pape utilizes information from the Minorities at Risk dataset to identify occupied, religiously-distinct minorities.[11] Ultimately, Pape’s research concludes that suicide terrorism is a strategy for national liberation, rife with both territorial attachment and anti-status-quo sentiment.[12]

In recent years, Pape’s theories have come under increased scrutiny from other political scientists. Much of this criticism centers upon the definitions, or lack thereof, that he utilizes. In both The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2003) and Dying to Win (2005), Pape defines occupation broadly, writing that it occurs: when democratic states have stationed heavy combat troops on national homelands, when democratic states control the homeland of a national minority within its own borders, or when a national minority feels as though either of the aforementioned is imminent.[13] As a result, it is not entirely clear how he coded “perception of occupation” by Minorities at Risk.[14] If Pape based “perception of occupation” on the existence of religiously distinct minorities, the coding was inconsistent, because it was certainly not applied to all that it described.[15] Worse still, detractors remark that Pape does not ever define democracy and, in his work, classifies Nicaragua, Pakistan, Ghana, Peru, South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Guatemala as democratic occupiers in spite of the fact that, between 1980 and 2003, the years that Pape’s analyses center upon, these nations were not entirely democratic.[16] Holes in Pape’s definitions of occupation and democracy undermine the credibility of his theories.

The credibility of Pape’s theories is further undermined by empirical research on the suicide terrorism. Pape’s detractors , Sara Jackson Wade and Dan Reiter assert that there is limited support, if any, for Pape’s claim that democratic regimes are more susceptible to suicide attacks.[17] Instead, they find that there exists a moderate correlation between instances of suicide terrorism, regime type, and the number of religiously distinct Minorities at Risk in a country.[18] In free and partially-free states, a greater amount of religiously distinct minorities yields a greater probability that suicide terrorism will occur.[19] Conversely, in non-free states, the number of religiously distinct minorities has no effect on the incidence of suicide terrorism.[20] Wade and Reiter’s conclusion, that democracies are no more or less susceptible to suicide attacks, is partially supported by James Piazza’s A Supply Side View of Suicide Terrorism.[21] Piazza argues that, while occupation, religious diversity, and group typology predict suicide terrorism, suicide attacks are ultimately the product of terrorist groups themselves.[22] He concludes with the harsh truth that, despite discovering that regime type has little effect on suicide terrorism, political scientists know startlingly little about the causes of suicide terrorism.

Though Piazza’s opinion of his discipline’s ability to understand the causes of suicide terrorism is low, he appears quite confident in his own ability to understand the causes of terrorism broadly. In two articles, Ethnic Groups, Political Exclusion, and Domestic Terrorism and Poverty, Minority Economic Discrimination, and Domestic Terrorism, he proposes that terrorism is significantly more likely to occur in nations that exclude minority ethnic groups politically and/or economically. In the first of the two articles, Piazza uses the Ethnic Power Relations Dataset to determine whether an ethnic minority is politically excluded.[23] To determine whether an ethnic minority is economically discriminated against, he examines the following factors: employment discrimination, unequal access to government services, formal or informal housing segregation, economic opportunities.[24] With this in mind, Piazza borrows from Ted Robert Gurr’s theories on minority rebellion and proposes a rough chronology for minority disenfranchisement, radicalization, and engagement in terrorism. He posits that exclusionary policies lead to anti-state group grievances and an enhanced sense of ethnic group identity; these grievances are matched by an erosion of trust and, eventually, individual members of the group are radicalized and become prone to violent action.[25][26] Unlike Gurr, however, Piazza claims that minority groups are more likely to engage in terrorism rather than civil war, due to the comparatively lower cost of terror attacks.[27] Based on existing datasets, Gurr’s timeline, and the low cost of terrorism, Piazza concludes that minority exclusion is related to domestic terrorism.

Case 1: People’s Republic of China
To better understand the relationship between suicide terrorism and regime type, it is important to evaluate incidences of suicide terrorism in the People’s Republic of China; because China is an authoritarian regime, rated “not free” by Freedom House, it defies Robert Pape’s theory on suicide terrorism, as well as that of Sara Wade Jackson and Dan Reiter.[28] Since 2002, 16 suicide attacks have occured in China. The frequency of suicide attacks has generally increased over time, peaking in 2014 when five suicide attacks were carried out over a five month period. The frequency of these attacks suggests that this is not an isolated series of suicide attacks but rather part of a larger campaign of political violence. This claim is further supported by the fact that 8 suicide attacks, half of all suicide attacks conducted in China, occurred in a single province, Xinjiang; by comparison, each of the other 8 suicide attacks occurs in a different province. Because there is no evidence that suggests that the 8 attacks that occurred outside of Xinjiang were related to one another, the scope of this paper is limited to Xinjiang Province, as the suicide attacks that took place there are both similar and related.

The 8 suicide attacks in Xinjiang province occurred over a 13-year period, 2002-2015, and took place in four cities: Kuqa, Wushi, Urumqi, and Hotang. These cities were the location of 2, 1, 3, and 2 suicide attacks, respectively. More significant than the city that each attack occurred in, however, is what the attack targeted. Half of all suicide attacks were employed against security targets; civilian and political targets were attacked at a frequency of 37.5% and 12.5%, respectively. Moreover, all targets were Chinese nationals, rendering this campaign a case of domestic terrorism and indicating that the actors involved have grievances against the Chinese government.

Xinjiang itself is unlike the rest of mainland China; it is home to nearly all of China’s ethnic Turkmen, a group that includes Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Tajiks.[29] The majority of Xinjiang’s population speaks Uyghur, practices Sunni Islam, and is ethnically Turkmen.[30] By comparison, the majority of China’s population speaks Mandarin, does not practice any religion, and is ethically Han Chinese.[31] Despite constituting less than 1% of China’s total population, the Turkmen constitute 52% of Xinjiang.[32] The Turkmen believe that their common ethnicity, religion, language, and national history differentiate them from the majority of Chinese citizens.

Xinjiang, and the Turkmen people more broadly, have a long and troubled history with the Chinese government. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government aimed to change the demographics of Xinjiang and, through the establishment of development projects, actually induced Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang.[33] Consequently, the Turkmen, who once constituted all of Xinjiang’s population, constitute a bare majority of the province today. Since 1996, ethnic violence has been a staple of life in Xinjiang. To counter this violence, the Chinese government has engaged in a massive campaign of repression against Turkmen. Today, they are frequently sent to “re-education centers,” de facto internment camps, against their will.[34] Xinjiang is also the Chinese province with the highest number of political executions per month.[35]

Discrimination against Turkmen in China does not stop at violence, unfortunately; the Turkmen are disadvantaged economically and politically, too. Economically, they have lower average incomes and are underrepresented in most careers.[36] Hiring discrimination has made this a semi-permanent feature of the Turkmen community; most, if not all jobs created by new development projects, have been given to the Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang.[37] Politically, the Turkmen hold official positions in the government of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, though they are still far outnumbered by Han Chinese.[38] In response to repression at the hands of the government, the Turkmen’s chief desires include greater political representation, economic opportunities, and religious freedoms.[39] If these desires continue to go unmet, there is reason to believe that violence in Xinjiang will persist or even escalate.

Case 2: Islamic Republic of Iran
In addition to the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran ought be included in any case study that seeks to evaluate the relationship between suicide terrorism and regime type; it reveals the same flaws in existing theories of suicide terrorism. Iran is also rated “not free” by the Freedom House and has been plagued by suicide terrorism.[40] Since 1985, 13 total suicide attacks have occurred in territorial Iran, 12 of which were conducted in the last decade. The sustained level of violence in Iran indicates that these suicide attacks are part of a larger campaign of political violence. The credibility of this claim is strengthened by the fact that 9 suicide attacks, 69.2% of all suicide attacks in Iran, occurred in the same province, Sistan and Baluchestan; though the other 4 attacks all took place in the province of Tehran, they occurred over a much wider range of years and do not appear to be related to one another. As a result, analysis of suicide terrorism in Iran will focus almost exclusively on the province of Sistan and Baluchestan.

The 9 suicide attacks in Sistan and Baluchestan were conducted over a 10 year period, from December 2008 to December 2018; because targeting was so consistent throughout this period, there are a number of distinct conclusions that can be drawn about the nature of this campaign. Similar to China, Iranian suicide attacks were overwhelmingly employed against security and civilian targets, at rates of 62.5% and 37.5%. They were also employed exclusively against Iranian nationals. Thus, it is most likely that the goals of this campaign are nationally-focused and are related to grievances that the population of Sistan and Baluchestan has against the Iranian government.

Sistan and Baluchestan, despite being the second-largest of Iran’s 31 provinces, is remarkably dissimilar from the Iranian majority. Whereas the majority of Iran speaks Persian (Farsi), practices Shi’a Islam, and is ethnically Persian, the majority of Sistan and Baluchestan speaks Western or Southern Baluchi, practices Sunni Islam, and is ethnically Baluch.[41] The Baluch people constitute roughly 2% of the Iranian population and possess a shared national history and culture, which distinguishes them from the majority of Iranians.

Historically, Iranian Baluchis have been isolated, geographically and politically, from the mainstream. Though this once worked to their benefit, insulating them from exclusionary and repressive government politics, this is clearly no longer the case.[42] Today, Baluchis have little to no regional autonomy.[43] Since 1980, they have been subject to active, intentional, and targeted discrimination.[44] Since 2004, Baluchestan has been subject to heavy Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence presence.[45] Isolation, forced and otherwise, and stigmatization has also made Baluchestan one of the poorest regions in all of Iran. Indeed, one of the Baluchis’ primary grievances is the lack of economic opportunities and/or public funding available to them.[46] Territorial concentration, government repression, exclusionary government policies, and economic discrimination provide a perfect backdrop for an ethno-nationalist rebellion, as demographic differences between opposing groups tend to escalate conflict.

After considering  the literature on the causes and the nature of suicide terrorism in Xinjiang, China and Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran, the next logical step is to reconcile the theory and the practice, such that political scientists can clearly understand both the relevance and the implications of each theorist’s arguments. This section will focus first on the relevance and implications of Robert Pape’s and Sara Jackson Wade and Dan Reiter’s theories on the causes of suicide terrorism, and then on Piazza’s two theories.

To reiterate, Pape holds that suicide terrorism is the consequence of a democratic state occupying a minority group’s homeland. Wade and Reiter largely agree with Pape, though they hold that suicide terrorism is likely to target democratic as well as partially-democratic occupiers. Xinjiang’s Turkmen and Iran’s Baluchis are each a religiously-distinct minority suffering severe and systemic disenfranchisement at the hands of a government and country that do not share their ethnicity, language, or religion. Further, given the limited definition of occupation that Pape utilizes, both the Turkmen and Baluchis merit classification as an occupied minority, given the military and police presence in their home provinces. With that said, China and Iran are not, by any means, democratic or partially-democratic states. Consequently, the theories proposed in Dying to Win, The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, and Does Democracy Matter? are, at best, partially applicable. While each may have described the nature of suicide terrorism when it was published, none describe the nature of suicide terrorism today. Protracted suicide bombing campaigns against authoritarian regimes, including the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran, demonstrate this. Occupation of a minority at risk may still be a cause of suicide terrorism, if only when Pape’s definition is applied.

Piazza, in Ethnic Groups, Political Exclusion, and Domestic Terrorism as well as Poverty, Minority Economic Discrimination, and Domestic Terrorism, contends that the exclusion of minorities, economically and/or politically, is the raison d’etre of terrorism and political violence. To this end, both Turkmen and Baluchis are excluded economically and politically in China and Iran, respectively. Economically, both communities are poorer than the average citizen of their home country; Baluchis, in particular, are unequivocally the poorest community in Iran. What’s more, Turkmen and Baluchis face myriad barriers to economic advancement, including hiring discrimination and extremely limited access to government services. Politically, both ethnic groups are underrepresented in government and lack sufficient nonviolent means to express their political views, though the Turkmen enjoy greater autonomy and representation than the Baluchis. Finally, even Piazza’s proposed chronology fits these cases, as each group suffered for decades before they began employing suicide attacks, the Turkmen for five decades and the Baluchis for just under three. Therefore, both of Piazza’s theories can be fully applied to China and Iran. Unlike the theories proposed by Pape, Wade, and Reiter, Piazza’s theories focus on terrorism generally, not suicide terrorism specifically, bringing into question whether there exists a difference between the causes of run-of-the-mill terrorism and suicide terrorism.

Incidents of suicide terrorism in China and Iran indicate that the prevailing theories on the causes of suicide terrorism are flawed. Because suicide terrorism occurs in non-democratic states, it cannot be the result of occupation by a democracy or partial-democracy; it’s entirely possible that regime type has virtually no bearing on suicide terrorism. Suicide terrorism may, however be the result of occupation –– that is, heavy troop presence –– in a territory that a minority perceives as its homeland. Suicide terrorism may also be the result of economic and/or political minority exclusion, as both the Turkmen and Baluchis are broadly disenfranchised. These two conclusions, while different from one another, are not mutually-exclusive, or even contradictory, in the slightest. In fact, occupation and discrimination probably have a similar effect on ethnoreligiously-distinct minorities; each likely induces fear that there exists an existential to the minority group’s way of life.

With that said, Piazza’s theories on minority exclusion and domestic terrorism make no mention of suicide terrorism. They simply assert that there is a relationship between minority exclusion and all terrorism. The fact that Piazza’s theories can be applied to suicide terrorism in China and Iran indicates that current scholarship on the causes of suicide terrorism is, at best, improper and, at worst, completely incorrect. To better understand why suicide terrorism occurs, political scientists must first discern whether the use of suicide attacks has any apparent relationship to the use of terror attacks. Until a conclusive result is achieved, states must work to expand economic and political opportunities to religious and ethnic minorities within their sovereign territory.


Works Cited

[1] Eyerman, Joseph. “Terrorism and Democratic States: Soft Targets or Accessible Systems.” International Interactions 24, no. 2 (1981): 151-170.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pape, Robert. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York, New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pape, Robert. “Methods and Findings in the Study of Suicide Terrorism.” American Political Science Association 102, no. 2 (2008): 275-277.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Wade, Sara Jackson, and Dan Reiter. “Does Democracy Matter? Regime Type and Suicide Terrorism.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 2 (2007): 329-348.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Piazza, James. “A Supply Side View of Suicide Terrorism: A Cross-National Study.” The Journal of Politics 70, no. 1 (2008): 28-30.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Piazza, James.  “Poverty, Minority Economic Discrimination, and Domestic Terrorism.” Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 3 (2011): 339-353.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Piazza, “Ethnic Groups, Political Exclusion, and Domestic Terrorism.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] “China | Freedom House.” Freedom House. Accessed 03/10/2019.

[29] Bormann, Nils-Christian, Lars-Erik Cederman, and Manuel Vogt. “Language, Religion, and Ethnic Civil War.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 61, no 4 (2017): 744-71.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Assessment for Turkmen in China.” Minorities at Risk. Accessed 3/10/2019.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Iran | Freedom House.” Freedom House. Accessed 03/10/2019.

[41] Bormann, Cederman, and Vogt, “Language, Religion, and Ethnic Civil War.”

[42] “Assessment for Baluchis in Iran.” Minorities at Risk. Accessed 3/10/2019.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Vogt, Manuel, Nils-Christian Bormann, Seraina Rüegger, Lars-Erik Cederman, Philipp Hunziker, and Luc Girardin. “Integrating Data on Ethnicity, Geography, and Conflict: The Ethnic Power Relations Dataset Family.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 59, no. 7 (2015): 1327-1342.

[45] Minorities at Risk, “Assessment for Baluchis in Iran.”

[46] Ibid.