U.S. Counterterrorism Restraint has Reduced Suicide Attacks

March 1, 2023 (last updated on March 2, 2023)

Faculty| Student| Announcements| Political Science

The new report from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats argues for a foreign policy that is restrained but highly vigilant.

By Sarah Steimer

Robert Pape
Robert Pape


Suicide attacks by terrorist groups have declined sharply since 2015, suggesting that the U.S.’s restrained counterterrorism policy a highly effective option, according to a new report from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST). The study authors, led by principal investigator Professor Robert Pape, emphasize that this policy must feature sustained vigilance, judicious use of air power and special forces, and enduring regional engagement.

In this latest analysis of the CPOST Database on Suicide Attacks, the team identified a steep and abrupt drop in all the major regions that account for this form of terrorism, with a return to pre-U.S. occupation levels in Iraq and Afghanistan and a reduction of such campaigns in Pakistan and Africa. The report comes on the heels of having a period of time since the U.S. has changed its foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East to be far less militarized. It allowed the researchers to look at the patterns of suicide attacks not just in the last five years, but to also compare those five years to previous periods.

“You see a dramatic change as we have moved to a policy of what you would call military restraint in the Middle East,” Pape, CPOST Director and Professor of Political Science, says.

Keven Ruby
Keven Ruby


“There's a clear pattern shift in the data and it bears directly on the foreign policy question for the future: What are the strategic benefits and risks with this policy of restraint?”

A debate in the policy world is whether this over-the-horizon strategy — defined as a minimal military footprint and working with intelligence, Special Forces, and local allies to manage the problem of terrorism — will keep suicide attack campaigns down.

“One of the prevailing arguments, even as we were considering the drawdown from Afghanistan, was: If we leave these spaces to the Taliban, or they become ungovernable, are we just going to get a repeat of groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS finding safe haven there and then launching attacks against the American homeland,” says Keven Ruby, a Senior Research Associate and Research Director at CPOST.

Pape outlines three core takeaways from the recent findings: Restraint can be a net positive for American security; restraint requires vigilance and flexibility to respond to new threats; and restraint needs to be considered a broader policy that involves the reduction of ground forces as well as the use of drones or air power.

Astrid Weinberg
Astrid Weinberg


But the research isn’t exclusively intended for policymakers. Pape says such findings offer a way for a broader audience to better understand the world.

“For the media, it's important to see that there's striking change,” Pape says. “Twenty years ago, we had Vice President Dick Cheney saying terrorism — meaning also suicide terrorism — would never go away. Well, it's gone away to a meaningful extent in the Middle East and other significant regions of the world. That's important for the public and the media to understand, both because it means Americans are safer and because it also suggests that problems we have today that many think could never be solved, like polarization in our politics, can be made better.”

The database originated post-September 11, 2001, when Pape found a lack of structured, accessible information about suicide attacks by terrorist groups. There were unanswered questions, such as what caused people or groups to use this strategy or whether it was religiously motivated. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pape received funding from President George Bush’s administration to study suicide attacks, which CPOST defines as a person killing themselves on purpose to kill others — whether that’s killing 100 people or only themselves (but with the intent to kill others).

Bertrand Chu
Bertrand Chu


One of his initial findings from the early research was that the world leader in suicide attacks was not an Islamic group, but a Marxist group — refuting the common notion that these were primarily religiously motivated acts. The data instead pointed to foreign occupation as the driver that caused rebels to go to the extreme, and there were cases of internal occupations with major social differences between the group in control of the government and the rebels. Over-militarized foreign policy leads to suicide terrorism at least 90-95% of the time, Pape found.

An enormous part of what has allowed the database to function over the years — and at very high levels of reliability — is student involvement. Where other government entities would struggle to secure the the funding for such an expensive undertaking, and with AI currently unreliable for such work, students have done the crucial, methodological searching, sorting, and verifying of suicide attack incident reports.

“What's striking is, we just have wonderful students and researchers who have, over time, just produced the absolute highest quality work on the planet on this subject,” Pape says.

One such student, Astrid Weinberg, who worked at CPOST since June 2021 and is a research supervisor, says tracking the suicide attacks helped emphasize the importance of public service or working in a way that is useful to public interest. Another student research supervisor, Bertrand Chu, emphasized the benefits of the data research and leadership experience.

“It's cool that we have this program where undergraduate students are able to both work with data as well as actually help shape real-world policy outcomes and proposals,” Chu says. “Working under Bob and Keven, it's definitely a unique experience to be able to do this level of work on such an international scale, as well as the community it builds within the undergrads who work at CPOST.”