Explosive violence by Islamic StateExplosive violence in Nigeria

2015: an epidemic of suicide bombs


The aftermath of a suicide bombing in Jos, Nigeria.

A mosque in Kuwait. A market in Cameroon. A rally for young activists in Turkey. All of these were torn apart by suicide bombers this year in what looks set to become the worst year ever for this vicious form of attack.

Between January and the end of July this year, over 5,000 civilians have been killed and injured by suicide bombings globally. This is a 45% increase from the same period in 2014, which saw 3,463 civilian casualties.

Globally, the use of suicide bombings as a tactic is on the rise. Of the 8,990 civilian casualties from all Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks in the first seven months of this year, more than half (56%) were from suicide attacks. In 2014 suicide attacks made up just over a third of all IED attacks.

The cult of the suicide bomber

The rising use of the suicide bomber by non-State actors should concern us all.

Action on Armed Violence’s monitoring of global explosive weapons use has found that in 2014 suicide attacks were by far the most dangerous form of IED attack around the world. Over 22 civilian casualties were recorded on average with each suicide attack that year – a figure that compares to 14 in timer-operated IED attacks, six where command-operated IEDs were used and four in victim-activated IEDs,

So far this year the casualty count per suicide attack has become even worse. An average of 31 civilians have been killed or injured in each suicide bomb attack so far this year, with huge bombs being used from Iraq to Nigeria, Chad to Turkey.

Major attacks

These figures translate into hard headlines. Four of the ten worst explosive weapon incidents so far recorded by AOAV in 2015 have involved suicide bombings.

The worst explosive weapon attack recorded by AOAV this year occurred in Yemen on 20 March 2015, when four suicide bombers targeted two Shia mosques. 137 people were killed and a further 345 were injured. It was a bombing that resulted in more civilian casualties than any other explosive weapon incident of 2015 – more than any air strike, rocket attack, or shelling incident.

A car bombing leaves a crater in Baghdad, 2007

A car bombing leaves a crater in Baghdad, 2007

Civilian harm

What is most notable, too, is that civilians have overwhelming borne the brunt of harm caused by suicide bombers. This year 84% of the total recorded casualties (5,027 of 5,978) were civilians going about their daily lives. In 11 of the 18 countries in which suicide attacks have been reported so far in 2015, over 90% of those killed and injured were reported as civilian.

It also appears that suicide attacks are disproportionately affecting civilians living in non-conflict zones. In recognised conflict zones, such as Iraq and Syria, the percentage of civilian casualties from these attacks were notably less than average at 68% and 80% respectively.

The spread of suicide bombings

Perhaps the most notable aspect of suicide attacks this year has been the geographical spread of their use. Since AOAV started recording casualties of explosive weapons in 2011, four of the countries in which suicide attacks have occurred this year had hitherto not experienced a suicide bombing: Cameroon, Chad, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The major reason for the increasingly global spread of suicide attacks is their use by two armed groups: the Islamic State (ISIS) and Boko Haram. It might well be because these bombings represent a low-cost, low-tech weapon that is readily available and requires little training.

Islamic State

Suicide attacks have played a key part in ISIS’s military tactics, particularly in Iraq. This is most notable in ISIS’s offensive to take the city of Ramadi in May 2015. Three weeks before the group seized the capital of Anbar province, an ISIS commander called for fighters in Syria to redeploy to Iraq. A complex battle plan was put into action, with the group taking control of Ramadi very quickly, outwitting the Iraqi armed forces and a US-trained special-operations force.

The key to ISIS’ battle plan was their use of up to 30 suicide bombings using vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDS), including Humvees. At least one of these suicide bombings was reportedly as powerful as the bomb used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – it levelled an entire city block. A Baghdad police captain was reported to have said that the car bombs were works of art. They were so sophisticated that they destroyed everything; there was nothing left of the car and nothing to investigate how the explosive charge was assembled.’

However, while ISIS have used suicide bombings to their tactical advantage against state forces, their impact has been most profoundly felt by civilians. Globally, ISIS is reported as being the group responsible for the most civilian casualties from suicide attacks in the first seven months of 2015, with nearly 2,000 (1,977) killed or wounded. An average of 60 civilians were killed and injured in each ISIS suicide attack.

The allure of martyrdom


The aftermath of another car bomb in Iraq

The allure of martyrdom seems to be developing hand in hand with the use of suicide bombing as a tactic. It has even been reported that there is a waiting list to become a suicide bomber for ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

In June 2014, British militant Kabir Ahmed was reported to have said ‘an emir decides who to choose. There is a waiting list. I am lobbying for him to move me up.’

And, according to an English-language guidebook published by ISIS, new recruits must pass a ‘boot camp’ and prove themselves on the battlefield before they can put their names on the list. The list is reportedly so long that many militants are dying on the battlefield before they can be called up to carry out suicide attacks.

It would appear that becoming a suicide bomber is the ultimate goal of many of those fighting for ISIS.

Child suicide bombers

One of the most disturbing aspects of ISIS’s increasing use of suicide attacks to further its objectives in the Middle East is their reported willingness to use children to perpetrate these attacks. Throughout 2015 it has been reported that ISIS was training ‘cubs of the Caliphate’ to become child soldiers and suicide bombers. In February 2015, an ISIS video was released showing a training camp for children; the next generation of ISIS.”

In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council found that ISIS was recruiting “children into armed roles under the guise of education” and that they were being “deployed in active combat missions during military operations, including suicide bombing missions.”

The Iraqi Independent Commission for Human Rights estimated in May 2015 that over 1,000 children had been trained to become suicide bombers since November 2014.

ISIS has justified the use of child soldiers, stating that: “The Islamic State has taken upon itself to fulfil the Ummah’s duty toward this generation by preparing it to face the crusaders and their allies in defence of Islam. It has established institutes for the lion cubs to train and hone their military skills.”

ISIS’ spreading tool of terror

The majority of suicide attacks perpetrated by ISIS, which have involved bombers on foot and in vehicles, have occurred in Iraq and Syria. But the group has claimed responsibility for suicide attacks in a further five countries, ones that lie outside their immediate control: Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Libya.

Such attacks carried out by ISIS include a suicide attack at a mosque in Kuwait, in which 27 people were killed and 227 injured, and a bombing during midday prayers in Qadeeh, Saudi Arabia, which killed 21.

These attacks, which are just two examples of at least 33 suicide bombings carried out by ISIS this year, have clearly targeted civilians.

Firefighters and rescuers extinguish a fire at the scene of a bomb blast at Terminus market in the central city of Jos on May 20, 2014. Twin car bombings on Tuesday killed at least 46 in central Nigeria in the latest in a series of deadly blasts that will stoke fears about security despite international help in the fight against Boko Haram Islamists. AFP PHOTO / STR

Firefighters and rescuers extinguish a fire at the scene of a bomb blast at Terminus market in the central city of Jos on May 20, 2014

Boko Haram

The Nigerian-based Islamic militant group Boko Haram has also led the global rise of suicide attacks. They carried out their first suicide bombing in the country in June 2011, but AOAV saw this tactic become the group’s clear weapon of choice in 2014, with 397 civilian casualties recorded by AOAV.

This year it is even worse. Boko Haram was second only to ISIS in terms of casualties caused in suicide attacks from January to July 2015, killing and injuring 637 civilians. In all, Nigeria was the most dangerous country in the world during those seven months for civilians, with 1,261 civilian casualties from suicide bombs.

It is also worth noting that suicide attacks in Nigeria often go unclaimed, and so attacks are typically reported as bearing the hallmarks of Boko Haram but not specifically attributed to them. It is therefore likely that Boko Haram is responsible for even more civilian casualties than AOAV was able to capture.

Notably, Boko Haram has not used IEDs to further a military campaign against the Nigerian state, but has typically targeted civilian populated areas such as markets and bus stations. Unsurprisingly, these IED attacks cause many civilian casualties: 94% of all casualties of suicide bombings in Nigeria so far in 2015 were civilians.

Child and female suicide bombers

Boko Haram bombings are regularly perpetrated by women and girls, with increasing reports that the militant group is using ‘mentally-handicapped’ women to bomb civilian areas. The group has kidnapped hundreds of women and girls, with reports stating they are being forced to carry out suicide attacks.

In May 2015 it was reported that children had been used to perpetrate three-quarters of all suicide attacks in Nigeria since 2014. Girls are increasingly being used to carry out attacks in crowded areas as they can pass through security more easily than boys. In all cases involving child suicide bombers in Nigeria, girls were reported to be carrying the explosives.

In July 2015, at least six of the twelve suicide attacks perpetrated in Nigeria were carried out by girls reported to be as young as thirteen and ten. A ten-year-old girl detonated explosives in an open-air prayer area on 17 July, killing four and injuring seven more.

The US State Department has condemned the unconscionable use of children as suicide bombers,” and UNICEF has emphasised that the children are first and foremost victims, who are “used intentionally by adults in the most horrific way.” While it has been reported that ISIS is training child suicide bombers, it is in Nigeria where this epidemic is truly visible.

The increase in the numbers of female suicide bombers in Nigeria has also been rapid and shocking. The first recorded attack was in June 2014, when a middle-aged woman detonated explosives at an army barracks in Gombe. Indeed in 2014, 85% of the suicide attacks perpetrated by females around the world took place in Nigeria. This trend looks set to continue in 2015, with many of the biggest attacks in Nigeria being carried out by women, including an attack at a fish market and mosque on 22 June, where 30 were killed and 50 injured.

In addition to wreaking havoc in Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has carried out attacks outside its territorial base for the first time in 2015, almost mirroring recent ISIS bombing tactics.

Chad and Cameroon

Chad and Cameroon, which had never experienced a suicide bomb attack prior to 2015, were attacked by Boko Haram in June and July of this year.

Chad’s first ever suicide attack took place in the capital on 15 June 2015. The bombing, perpetrated by Boko Haram, killed 23, injuring a further 100. A month later, on 11 July, the militant group bombed a market in N’Djamena, killing and injuring over 90.

In Cameroon, a country that has been active in the fight against Boko Haram, the group carried out three attacks in the space of a month in July 2015. Similarly to tactics used in Nigeria, women carried out the attacks. In one such attack, girls reported to be aged thirteen and fifteen were used to bomb a market, killing 13 and injuring 32.

Prior to the attacks, both Chad and Cameroon had joined Nigeria in a military cross-border campaign targeting Boko Haram fighters.


IEDs also have a big impact on military operations, particularly roadside bombs.

The spreading threat
The rapid expansion of suicide attacks in 2015, driven by ISIS and Boko Haram, has crossed borders, killing and injuring thousands of civilians. Such tactics, although occasionally used to target armed actors, disproportionately affect civilians, and are often deliberately targeted against them.

AOAV believes that not enough is being done to address this terrible, almost contagious, spread.

States must step up to the reality that steps need to be taken to try to stop the rising cult of the suicide bomber. To date, actions taken by the states most affected by these weapons to combat this threat have been woefully insufficient. And the response to the impact on civilians even more so.

Responding to suicide attacks

Nigeria, which has been plagued by suicide attacks since June 2014, has adopted mostly military and security measures to try to tackle Boko Haram. But the Nigerian leadership has been said to be weak against Boko Haram, and their military not trained sufficiently to fight an insurgency. Moreover, Amnesty International has condemned the global lack of action taken to protect civilians against militants, saying that as people sufferan escalation in barbarous attacks and repression, the international community has been found wanting.”

Many markets in Northern Nigeria have security measures like checkpoints and barriers, but these are largely manned by vigilante security personnel rather than the national armed forces. Bombings taking place at these security gates often still cause casualties in the markets themselves.

Chad: perfumes and shaven beards

Chad, prior to being attacked by Boko Haram in July 2015 was instrumental in the fight against the militant group. Chad has a 20,000-strong state force, and there is a 3,000-strong French mission based in the country’s capital to help fight militancy in the region.

In the aftermath of the suicide bombings in Chad, the government took a number of steps to try to ensure that further attacks do not occur. One such was the banning of full-face veils for Muslim women. The rationale behind this decision was that explosives can be hidden under such clothing.

Additionally, the UN in Chad has released guidance on spotting potential suicide bombers, including looking for a face tan broken by a freshly shaven beard, unveiling a lighter skin shade. This guidance, alongside looking out for things such as individuals wearing heavy clothing in hot weather, aims to provide UN personnel “with helpful indications to detect a suspect individual whose attitude suggests he might be carrying an IED.”

Are suicide bombers impossible to defeat?


Chad and Nigeria share a border at Lake Chad, enabling Boko Haram to easily carry out cross-border attacks.

These measures are just some of the many different approaches attempted over the years to try to stop the harm wrought by suicide bombers.

There are some measures, though, that could help reduce the threat of this violent form of attack.Iraq, a country that has seen the worst excesses of this devastating tactic, has tried many things – from airstrikes, to curfews, to bans on unmarked cars in populated areas. But such measures seem to do little to mitigate the threat of suicide bombs in populated areas. On the 17 July of this year a huge suicide car bombing in a market in Diyala killed at least 115 people, injuring another 170.

First, States should ensure the rigid security of their explosive weapon caches. Much of the explosive material used in suicide bombings in Iraq and Syria came from abandoned or insecure armouries. And Boko Haram reportedly gained access to explosives from the littered ordnance following the conflict in Libya.

Second, States should ensure open lies of communication are established between national, regional and international police and customs organisations. Measures such as Programme Global Shield, which seeks to address the spread of pre-curser IED materials, are crucial in any efforts to control access to the components of IEDs.

Third, a far broader range of actors needs to be engaged in challenging the rhetoric surrounding becoming a suicide bomber. Such actors include government officials, non-governmental organisations, religious leaders and community leaders. Such groups should work together to stigmatise the use of explosives and suicide attacks, particularly in populated civilian areas.

Fourth, in order to fully understand the threat posed by suicide attacks and IEDs more broadly, efforts must be made to collect data on the impact of their use, including any civilian deaths and injuries. This data should be shared as much as possible between interested organisations, and used to stigmatise those carrying out IED attacks.

Finally, and crucially, it must be remembered that the majority of those feeling the impacts of suicide attacks are civilians. Men, women and children who are affected by suicide bombings can suffer catastrophic injuries such as amputations, internal injuries and psychological harm. The wider impacts include economic, societal and infrastructure effects. Entire communities can be affected by these attacks. Governments and the international community need to address the hidden harm all too often that comes in the wake of a suicide attack.

So far in 2015, over 5,000 people have become victims of suicide bombings. States must remember their obligations to these victims, and provide an adequate level of victim assistance to survivors of suicide bombings, and to all those harmed by IED attacks.

Without doing this the suicide bomber then achieves what they set out to do – to strike humanity at its very root.

To see more of AOAV’s research into IEDs and suicide bombings, please click here.