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Al Qaeda and the formalisation of suicide bombs

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A section of Al Qaeda’s ‘instructions to applicants.’

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a set of documents this week that had been recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011. Among those documents was a form that appeared to have been used by Al Qaeda to recruit new members.

As well as asking standard recruitment questions such as “list your previous occupations,” and requiring details of any foreign language fluency, the 3-page form included a very disturbing line: “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?”

And, instead of asking for the details of a next of kin, the application also asked; “Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?”

Two questions that, in terms of tone at least – though not in terms of content – are couched in the banal language of Human Resources. It is a language that, in a sense, formalises and makes acceptable the act of suicide bombing; and in that sense it is worrying on so many levels.

While suicide attacks have been part of Al Qaeda’s arsenal since 1995, their inclusion in an official recruitment form gives them the sense of official sanction – and in those two questions makes the use of the suicide bomber seemingly an inevitable and acceptable weapon of conflict. The horrific becomes standardised; the extreme becomes a tick in a box.

Suicide bombs, while once used as a means of resisting occupation in countries such as Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Chechnya and Palestine, have now become the most high profile weapon of global jihad.

Al Qaeda, which was established in 1988 with the mission of implementing Sharia law and ridding the world of non-Muslim influences, carried out their first suicide bombing in 1995 at a US military base in Saudi Arabia, killing 6 people. Three years later twin attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 223 people. And, of course, the deadliest suicide attack ever to take place, one which made Al Qaeda’s battle for global jihad infamous, happened on 11 September 2001, when almost 3,000 people were killed in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in America. These bombings, and more recent ones including those in London in 2005, explicitly attacked Western targets.

In recent years, however, suicide attacks have shifted from being occasional, high impact moments of terror to ones much more regularly been carried out and with often considerably less media coverage and response.

The recruitment form released on Wednesday would appear to be evidence of a dangerous development in the use of suicide bombers: an institutional pattern of using people as bombs. Suicide bombers can be particularly dangerous for civilians. They can infiltrate dense crowds of civilians, detonating their explosives to inflict maximum casualties.

AOAV has recorded data on suicide attacks since October 2010 and the trends are staggering. In 2013, 271 suicide bomb attacks caused 6,333 civilian deaths and injuries globally. While the majority of all attacks took place in Iraq, a suicide bombing took place in 19 countries. These figures show a 17% increase in civilian casualties since 2012.

In 2014, 32% of all civilian casualties of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks were caused by suicide attacks. They were most commonly used to attack markets and public gatherings, but the most destructive attacks were against places of worship, where an average of 51 civilian casualties resulted from each suicide attack.

This pattern looks set to continue in 2015. In January and February this year, 964 civilians were killed and injured in suicide attacks. In Afghanistan, 72% of the civilian casualties of IED attacks in these two months were caused by suicide attacks. Non-state armed actors, such as Al Qaeda, no longer focus on attacking Western targets far away from home, they now injure and kill thousands of civilians in their own countries.

According to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, which collects data on suicide attacks globally since 1981, since 2010, groups such as Al Qaeda have not carried out a single suicide attack in any European country or in the US. Instead groups such as Boko Haram, the Taliban, and ISIS are increasingly using these weapons in their own countries to target civilians going about their everyday lives. Videos sometimes emerge after suicide attacks, celebrating the bombing. But the pain and suffering of the victims, as opposed to the messenger of the bomber, often goes unreported.

It is not only the increasing numbers of casualties that is disturbing; the methods and means of carrying out suicide attacks have also developed greatly in recent years. In Afghanistan it has been reported that suicide attacks have been carried out by children, some as young as 9. Children are particularly vulnerable to indoctrination. As the Guardian has reported: “These kids might disappear at 12 and come back at 15 fully militarised and conscious of their own bodies as weapons.”

In Nigeria, suicide bombers are frequently reported to be women or young girls, and bombs are hidden beneath dresses or disguised as pregnant bumps. In November 2014, a suicide bomber killed at least 48 children in a school by dressing up as a student and detonating his explosives during a school assembly.

The use of suicide bombs as a means to target civilians is spreading. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has recorded a huge increase in such attacks in Africa. Before 1995 no suicide attacks had been recorded in Africa, when there was a singular attack. There were a further two attacks in the remainder of the 1990s.

But things have changed dramatically. The numbers of attacks jumped to 53, with 545 deaths during the 2000s, and again to 172 attacks and 1,756 deaths between 2010 and 2014 alone. In 2014, 1,476 people were killed or injured by suicide attacks in Africa.

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Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism Data

In this way the bland, Human Resource-style questionnaire released this weeks illustrates a deep and worrying trend.

Their use, particularly in recent years, has caused large scale death and devastation, particularly in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

The fact that such a method of attack was included in such a formalised manner should act as a wake up call to states that far more needs to be done to address to root causes of suicide attacks.

For more information please contact Jane Hunter, Armed Violence Researcher,