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2017 could be the deadliest year for suicide attacks in Afghanistan on record – why is this happening?

Today we read reports of yet another suicide attack killing and injuring people in Afghanistan. This news will swiftly pass – this country is no stranger to the improvised explosive device (IED).

Between October 2010 and June 2017, Action on Armed Violence has recorded 1,382 IED incidents in Afghanistan alone. These attacks caused the death or injury of 12,333 civilians – out of a total of 16,256 casualties.

In other words, though many may think that IEDs in Afghanistan impact soldiers in Humvees, the reality is over 75% of those killed or injured were just normal Afghans going around their daily business.

In recent months, though, things have taken a considerable turn for the worst.

In the first half of 2017, AOAV has recorded at least 1,436 civilian deaths and injuries from IEDs across the county. This constitutes a 61% increase on harm recorded in the same period in 2016. It is also a 105% increase in civilian deaths.

This sharp rise is largely down to a surge in suicide bombings.

Between January and June 2017, 87% of civilian casualties from IEDs were caused by suicide attacks – with the death or injury of 1,273 civilians (compared to 81 armed actors). The number of Afghan civilians harmed in just 6 months is more than the total number of civilians harmed by suicide bombers in 5 of the 6 full years of data that AOAV has collated. Only in 2016 – all 12 months – were more civilians killed or injured (1,324) by suicide bombers, and only just. And many suicide attacks have occurred in Afghanistan since June of 2017.

Indeed, 2017 could become the deadliest year for suicide bombers in Afghanistan’s history.

The reasons behind this surge are numerous. One suicide attack was claimed to be in retaliation for the US distributing propaganda material that insulted Islam – the US military had dropped leaflets featuring a passage from the Qur’an superimposed on the image of a dog.

Others seem to be the strategic use of suicide tactics as increasingly deployed by ISIS. One strike involved the bomber dressed in a burqa ramming his motorcycle into an international convoy. While today, suicide bombers and gunmen launched an attack on a police training centre in south-eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens of others.

A shift in strategic focus cannot explain, though, the sharp rise in civilian casualties. 2017 has seen mosques targeted, as minority Shiites have been increasingly the subject of suicide attacks for which the Sunni-dominated Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan has taken responsibility. In July, that group claimed a suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in western Herat province that killed 32 people.

In short, ISIS’ fingerprints are all over the sharp rise.  In Syria and Iraq, their suicide bombers have been deployed both strategically (in an almost Kamikaze style wave of strikes) as well as in the spreading of terror among Shi’a civilians.

The same is now happening in Afghanistan. This might be a result of ISIS fighters fleeing defeat in Iraq and Syria and heading to Afghanistan, or it could be the final-aggressive acts of a desperate and defeated group, like a rat in the corner. Or it could be the Taliban adopting tactics and practises that it has seen deployed elsewhere.

What has caused this rise in suicide bombings in Afghanistan is, clearly, complex, and as yet not fully understood, but what is fundamentally clear is that hundreds of civilians have been caught up in this flaring of violence. Their needs are often unmet, psychologically and physically, and State parties should acknowledge the urgency of victim assistance when addressing this new terror threat.


IED casualties by year in Afghanistan

By yearIncidentsTotal civilian casualtiesTotal armed actor and security personnel casualtiesTotal casualties
2010 (Oct -)89433168601
2017 (- Jun)4714361141550


Oct 2010- Jun 2017 by activation method in Afghanistan

Row LabelsIncidentsTotal civilian casualtiesTotal armed actor & security personnel casualtiesTotal casualties
Multiple modes of detonation720666272
Remote detonation66345162507
Suicide attack331755920129571
Timed detonation2808
Grand Total138212333392316256


Suicide attack by years

Suicide attacks by yearIncidentsTotal civilian casualtiesTotal armed actor and security personnel casualtiesTotal casualties
2010 (Oct-)1515166217
2017 (- Jun)191273811354


Populated areas (Oct 2010 – Jun 2017)

Populated areaIncidentsTotal civilian casualtiesTotal armed actor and security personnel casualtiesTotal casualties
Not reported as pop921279323425135
Afghanistan Total138212333392316256


IEDs compared to other explosive weapons (Oct 2010 – Jun 2017)

Weapon typeIncidentsTotal civilian casualtiesTotal armed actor and security personnel casualtiesTotal casualties
Multiple types24437419856
Afghanistan Total214814992931824310