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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: A brief history of SIEDs

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

Although suicide bombings have never been as prominent of a phenomenon as they are today, it is important that we trace where they came from and how they have developed throughout history. This section offers a brief overview of the growth of the suicide bomber as a weapon of war – from sporadic early attempts at the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, to the development of the situation that we see today, where daily headlines of suicide bombings are seen around the world.

Certainly suicide bombings are a tactic of immense harm. They have been used in over 40 different countries and territories over the last 30 years, killing at least fifty thousand people. And they are, today, the weapon of choice for some of the most feared terrorist organisations.

Generally speaking, before 1980, this overview contests that suicide attacks were generally carried out under military orders and were motivated by a form of acute nationalism or political ideology. Between 1980 and 2001, suicide attacks were driven by a response to perceived or real iniquities carried out by forces occupying the attackers’ homeland. Since 9/11, however, most suicide attacks have been carried out for reasons largely framed under the banner of Salafist-Jihadism.

Suicide attacks and suicide bombings

First, it is important to draw the distinction between suicide attacks and suicide bombings.  For as long as there has been war, there have been men who, in the thick of fighting, have thrown themselves with ferocious intent into the line of battle. They have done so all too often, with the absolute knowledge that their actions would result in their own death.

One of the first recorded instances when an individual caused the deaths of others through their own ‘self-sacrifice’ comes in the biblical tale of Samson:

‘Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.”  Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform…. Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.’[i]

Even since this moment of self-sacrifice, history has witnessed a steady stream of moments where an individual has given their life in battle for what is seen to be ‘the greater good’. In 11th century India, for instance, to combat the greater numbers of the Chola dynasty empire’s army, suicide squads were raised by the Indian Chera rulers. And in the 19th century, Muslim Acehnese from the Aceh Sultanate of what is now Indonesia performed suicide attacks known as Parang-sabil against Dutch invaders during the Aceh War.

Of course, such ‘suicide attacks’ usually result in the combatant’s or terrorist’s death. But high risk attacks or reckless charges in battle still carry the possibility – however remote – that the person leading the charge might survive.

Not so suicide bombings. These are situations where the odds of survival are not near to zero but are explicitly zero: where “the perpetrator’s ensured death is a precondition for the success of his mission”. They are situations where the perpetrator functions as a sophisticated guidance system for the weapon, capable of approaching a target and detonating at the most devastating moment.

It is also worth noting that there are also “proxy bombings” which may be designed to look like suicide bombing. This paper’s position is that where “proxies” are forced to carry a bomb under threat (such as having their children killed), or where they may be unaware that they (the proxy) will be killed (because of, for instance, the fact that they have Down’s syndrome), this is not a suicide bombing, but a form of homicide by coercion.

Drawing the line between a coerced suicide and an intentional suicide is occasionally difficult. People with low IQs, or people who have been powerfully brainwashed by their peers, might choose to undertake a suicide attack and do so in the absence of hard coercion or a certifiable mental impairment.  In Afghanistan, child suicide bombers are even sometimes given an amulet containing Koranic verses and told that it will protect them. Such events are hard to incorporate into a general overview of suicide bombings and so are best dealt with on a one-off basis, and not part of an overall critique of this tactic.

The first bombing
On 13 March 1881, Ignaty Grinevitsky watched as his accomplice threw a small bomb at the convoy of Tsar Alexander II outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Safely enclosed in a carriage made from bulletproof material as a gift from Napoleon III, the Tsar stepped out, dazed but unhurt.

Grinevitsky saw his chance.

The young man, a member of The People’s Will left-wing terrorist group, rushed towards his target, dropping a second bomb at the Tsar’s feet, killing them both.  The night before the attack Grinevitsky had written: ‘I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumphs, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do.’ And with that deadly sense of duty, Grinevitsky was to make his mark on history: the first recorded suicide bomber.

A contemporary description of the device is worth noting:

‘The infernal machine used by Elnikoff was about 7 ½, inches in height. Metal tubes (bb) filled with chlorate of potash, and enclosing glass tubes (cc) filled with sulphuric acid (commonly called oil of vitriol), intersect the cylinder. Around the glass tubes are rings of iron (dd) closely attached as weights. The construction is such that, no matter how the bomb falls, one of the glass tubes is sure to break. The chlorate of potash in that case, combining with the sulphuric acid, ignites at once, and the flames communicate over the fuse (ff) with the piston ©, filled with fulminate of silver. The concussion thus caused explodes the dynamite or “black jelly” (a) with which the cylinder is closely packed.’

More importantly, it was to do its deadly work with efficiency – delivered at such close quarters, this ‘infernal machine’ took the life of its target as well as its maker, and in such a way became the first of so many suicide bombs in the decades that followed.

Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905)

Grinevitsky’s work as a targeted assassin might have secured his name in history, but one of the first recorded use of suicide attacks in warfare comes in the book ‘Dynamite Stories’ by Hudson Maxim, the brother to the more-famous Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun.  In the book Hudson describes in the Russo-Japanese war the sighting – by the Russians – of waves of Japanese suicide bombers advancing on the Russian lines, loaded with yet more ‘infernal machines’.

The tactic, similar to when poison gas was used in World War I, was too deeply confuse the enemy, sending murmurs of terror through the ranks. (Incidentally, the Russian army were to also face Japanese suicide bombers in the Second World War – as depicted in the 2011 South Korean film My Way.)

Chinese Dare-to-Die battalions

The militarized suicide bomber was, it appears, to accord with early 20th century East Asian warfare mentalities.  There have been numerous records of Chinese ‘Dare to Die’ battalions being fitted with suicide vests when attacking the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese war. Among others, this tactic was used during the Battle of Shanghai, where a Chinese suicide bomber reportedly stopped a Japanese tank column by exploding himself beneath the lead tank.[ii]

Japanese Kamikaze pilots

Some of the most notorious militarised suicide bombings of the twentieth century involved the Japanese military in the Second World War. Faced with the overwhelming naval aerial superiority of the Allied forces in the Pacific, Japanese troops resorted to the use of the Tokkotai. This ‘special attack unit’, popularly known as Kamikaze or ‘divine wind’, consisted of planes, boats or submarines loaded with bombs. The pilots were instructed to crash into naval targets, their ranks drawn from volunteer conscripts or university students.

The militaristic Japanese culture at the time forbade any form of surrender, and the leap from this sense of death with honour, to volunteering as a human bomb was not – at least on face value – such a large one.

The Tokkotai were first deployed at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. A plane struck the St Lo aircraft carrier, triggering a fire that eventually sunk the ship. Their use peaked at the Battle of Okinawa in April and June, 1945, where 30 Allied ships were sunk or put out of action. In total, around 3,860 suicide attacks were carried out by the Japanese before the end of the war.

Their impact in addressing the balance of naval power in the Pacific, however, should not be over-estimated. It was expensive and often the planes lacked the penetrative force to sink a ship – only around 50 ships were sunk by Tokkotai. But the attacks did have a real and lasting psychological impact on the Allied sailors. Admiral Halsey, commander of the US Third Fleet declared that it was ‘the only weapon I feared in war’. The attacks also sent a message of fanaticism and intimidation to Japan’s enemies.

It was not just the Japanese who were implicated in suicide attacks.  There are reports, too, of Paluans from the Philippines being recruited to take part in naval missions that were termed ‘suicide squads’.

Unlike modern suicide bombings, the Tokkotai attacks were directed exclusively at military targets. That said, the themes in the Japanese tactics of a military imbalance, indoctrination, and psychological intimidation can be seen years later – and are today seen in suicide bombings by non-state groups. It is, in this way, hard not to see the dark foreshadows of September 11th, 2001 in the tactics of the Tokkotai.

The Cold War

There were almost no reported incidents of suicide bombings after the Second World War until the 1980s. This despite there being numerous conflicts where insurgent groups faced a larger and better armed opponent, such as in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola, Northern Ireland, and Nicaragua.

This reticence to use suicide bombers by non-state actors, may partly have been due to the relatively easy access to conventional weapons supplied by the two dominant super powers of the time – the US and Russia. It may also have been down to the lack of a successful precedent, as seen above, to inspire copycat attacks.

There have been some suggestions that the Viet Nimh used, on occasion, suicide bombers in the Vietnam war.  This tactic is perhaps most famously memorialized in the film ‘Platoon’ where two NVA troops are depicted penetrating enemy lines, and one of them rushes a control bunker, killing himself and two American soldiers within. It is hard to say, though, whether this depiction is entirely historically accurate. We know that NVA and VC Sappers were combat engineers or reconnaissance commandos who were specially trained to infiltrate a camp’s defences in order to take out strategic targets with explosives before the main attack.  The idea that these Sappers, though, were used as suicide bombers is challenged by some, primarily because they were considered too valuable to expend. That said, a 1965 NY Times report talks of a Viet Cong suicide unit, though details of whether they were bombers or not is not listed.

During the Cold war period, though, there were developments that would be important influences in the emergence of suicide terror at the end of the 20th century. After the Second World War, the US and UK encouraged and strengthened radical Islamic movements in the Middle East to contain the spread of the Soviet Union and to suppress nationalist movements hostile to the West. It was also during the 1970s that Saudi Arabia began to spend billions of dollars to promote Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative reading of Islam, around the world. Today groups propagating an ideology known as Salafi-Jihadism, in part inspired by Wahhabism, are among some of the most prolific users of suicide attacks.

The shift in ideologies

In this way, the cold war period was to see the beginning of a development of Islamic ideological extremism that was, over time, to flower into the suicide attacks that have been seen so prolifically in the 21st century.

The 1960s, for instance, saw the emergence of radical Sunni ideologues like Sayyid Qutb, and other protégés, in the Egyptian prison system.  Not all of these ideologues were Salafists, but what they had in common was the adherence to a newly formed rhetoric of intolerance.  It was, in a way, an exclusive ‘takfirism’ that promoted the excommunication of other Muslims who they felt were not up to scratch.

From such beginnings, jihadist ideologies became increasingly ‘Salafized’ – there began to emerge from intolerance a more potent language of political violence, particularly coming out of Saudi Arabia. Over time this Salafist-Jihadi interpretation of Islam began to harden. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) and the First Gulf War (1990-1991), for instance, saw non-Muslims ending up in Muslim lands. In Saudi Arabia, in particular, the deployment of American troops there saw a political counter-response in what has been termed ‘The Awakening’.

This Awakening saw a distinct shift – from religious intolerance to political response to direct violent action.  The notion of the suicide bomber to serve political ends began to materialize, a notion that saw its most pronounced Salafist representation in the attack on the twin towers on 9/11, where 15 of the terrorists involved were Saudis.

What came next is something that is still evolving – and occurred in response to the US’ intervention in the Middle East.  The Allied intervention in Iraq produced profound shifts in the formation, approach, language and identity of jihadist groups there, and saw the suicide bomber becoming an almost ‘normalized’ form of warfare.

Syria’s role

Parallel to this evolution of Sunni thought, there was also an evolution of permissible ideological suicidal violence in the Shia world.

In the 1980s, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad made an alliance with the new revolutionary force of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. This happened at a time when Shi’ism was mobilising the tradition of self-sacrifice and devotion through pain (as most evidenced in their penitent rituals of blood letting) into a military and political weapon.

Khomeini was the leading force of this – he told his followers they could kill themselves so as to save the revolution provided that, in doing so, they killed as many enemies around them as possible. This position by Khomeini was completely new in the Shia world, primarily because the Koran explicitly prohibited suicide. Traditionally, one became a martyr on the battlefield because God chose the time and place of one’s death. Khomeini changed this.

He did so by going referencing one of the central rituals of Shia Islam. Every year, Shi’ites march in a procession mourning the sacrifice of one of their most influential figures, Husayn. As they do, they whip themselves, symbolically re-enacting Husayn’s suffering at the Battle of Karbala. Bloody excesses of this sort are prohibited in contemporary Iran, but, during the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini appropriated the essence of the ritual as a symbolic act and politicized it. He took the inward-directed fervour and channelled it toward the external enemy. He transformed the passive lamentation into a very active, public protest.

Khomeini took it even further. He went on to say the ultimate act of penitence was not just to whip yourself, but to kill yourself… …providing it was for the greater good of the revolution. ‘The natural world,” he explained in October 1980, ‘is the lowest element, the scum of creation. What is decisive is the beyond: The divine world, that is eternal.’  The origins of modern Istishhadi (martyrdom) attacks, then, appear to lie among the Shia in Iran during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988.

Perhaps the first ‘martyr’ was Mohammed Hossein Fahmideh, a 13-year-old boy who is said to be the first Muslim to have participated in such an attack in contemporary history. He strapped rocket-propelled grenades to his chest and blew himself up under an Iraqi tank in November 1980. Ayatollah Khomeini declared Fahmideh a national hero and an inspiration for further volunteers for martyrdom.

This human sacrifice was commemorated in giant cemeteries across the country.
Fountains flowing with blood red-water glorified this new kind of martyrdom. And it was this new idea – of an unstoppable human weapon – that President Assad took from Khomeini.


It was during the 1980s that the idea of suicide bombing began to spread across the Middle East, and most notably it spread to Israel, in particular the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The largest ‘martyrdom’ bombings during that occupation happened on 23 October 1983, when a truck was driven into a US Marine base in Lebanon, containing some 2,000 pounds of explosives. The bomber killed himself, along with 241 military personnel. Seconds later, another bomber struck the operations building of French paratroopers and killed 58 more.

These bombings shocked the world, and blame fell on Shiite militant groups supported by Iran and, more importantly, by Syria. These groups eventually formed to become the militant group Hezbollah. They went on to be responsible for a series of around 20 suicide attacks directed at the Israeli and Lebanese armies in the 1980s.

Car bombs in Lebanon were already a regular occurrence but suicide attacks added a new dimension to the threat. They required a broad range of security measures and their novelty captured widespread media attention. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a spiritual guide of Hezbollah, described under what circumstances suicide bombers were to be deployed:

‘We believe that suicide operations should only be carried out if they can bring about a political change in proportion to the passions that incite a person to make his body an explosive bomb.’

These attacks were, then, not seen to be – on the part of the users – pointless acts of brutality but were carefully considered, and were believed to have a profound political impact. In some ways this thinking was borne out by reality. The bombing of the military bases successfully undermined US public support for continued involvement in the Lebanese war, and the Multinational Force withdrew from Lebanon. Similar suicide attacks on Israeli military bases persuaded the Israelis to move out of populated areas.

At this stage, for the most part, suicide bombings were directed at military targets, although civilians were sometimes part of the collateral damage. But the highly organised campaign in Lebanon was a breakthrough moment in the history of suicide bombings. The strategic successes helped to popularise the tactic and raise the profile of Hezbollah.  They were the first Islamic group to carry out suicide attacks and the group would go on to play an important role in exporting their knowledge to Palestinian militant groups.

In this way, with Syria’s support, suicide bombings became the only weapon that defeated the Americans and forced them to leave the Middle East. It was a force that, once unleashed, was going to spread with terrible power.

The Palestinian territories

It was also a force that, ten years later, was to jump, like a virus, from Shia to Sunni Islam.

In December 1992, Palestinian militant group Hamas kidnapped an Israeli border guard and stabbed him to death. The Israeli response was overwhelming. They arrested 415 members of Hamas, put them on buses and took them to the top of a mountain in southern Lebanon. They left them there – and refused to allow any humanitarian aid through. But the Israelis had dumped the Hamas militants in an area controlled by Hezbollah. Hamas spent six months there, and during that time, they learnt from Hezbollah how powerful suicide bombing could be. Hezbollah told them how they had used it to force the Israelis out of Beirut and back to the border.

The first sign that the idea of suicidal martyrdom had spread to Hamas was when a group of the deportees marched in protest towards the Israeli border, dressed as martyrs, even as the Israelis shelled them. But this mentality soon became more than just theatre.

Hamas began a wave of suicide attacks in Israel, sending bombers deep into the heart of Israeli cities to blow themselves up and to kill as many around them as possible. In doing so, Hamas were going much further than Hezbollah ever had. They were targeting civilians, something Hezbollah had never done.

Over time, at least 742 civilians were killed and 4,899 were wounded by suicide bombings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, according to data from the University of Chicago. In Lebanon a further 88 civilians were killed by suicide bombings and 160 were wounded.

Hamas’ first attacks occurred in April 1994, when eight people were killed in a car bomb attack on a bus in Afula in Israel. Bombings continued sporadically in the 1990s with seven in 1995, three in 1996, five in 1997, two in 1998 and two in 2000.

An upsurge in Palestinian suicide bombings followed in the next three years decade with 103 bombings. The increase corresponds with the second intifada following the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations. As violence intensified, the military wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, also began to deploy suicide bombers.

These tactics shocked the Sunni world. This was something completely alien to its history. Not only did the Qur’an forbid suicide, but Sunni Islam did not have any rituals of self-sacrifice. The most senior religious leader in Saudi Arabia insisted it was wrong.

But a mainstream theologian from Egypt called Sheikh Qaradawi helped justify the Sunni use of self-sacrifice. He issued a fatwa that legitimised the attacks. It was acceptable, he said, to kill civilians:

‘Because, in Israel, everyone – including women – serve as reservists. So, really, they are all part of the enemy army. It’s not suicide. It is martyrdom in the name of God. Islamic theologians and jurisprudence have debated this issue. Israeli women are not like women in our society, because Israeli women are militarised. Secondly, I consider this type of martyrdom operation as an indication of justice of Allah, our Almighty. Allah is just. Through his infinite wisdom, he has given the weak what the strong do not possess. And that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs like the Palestinians do.’

Attacks against Israeli civilians were justified by claiming that two things.  First, that they were non-believers who were an extension of the Israeli occupation, and therefore legitimate targets who did not qualify as civilians. Second, that Israel had killed many innocent Palestinian civilians and this was therefore a justified act of revenge.

Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash, a twenty-one-year old suicide bomber who blew himself up near Tel Aviv in May 2001 explained such a decision on a video before his mission: ‘I want to avenge the blood of the Palestinians, especially the blood of the women, of the elderly, and of the children, and in particular the blood of the baby girl Iman Heijo, whose death shook me to the core…. I devote my humble deed to the Islamic believers who admire the martyrs and who work for them.’

His argument captures the mixture of religious and personal motivations that seem to fuel suicide bombings. On the one hand his death was part of a wider religious Jihad, on the other it is motivated by a very personal desire for revenge.

For the first time, then, suicide bombings began to be used as a means of transmitting fear throughout a whole population, not just the rank and file. These attacks were no longer unorthodox tactics in a guerrilla war against a state military, but a horribly effective means of terrorising civilians.

Hamas kept sending the bombers into Israel. The horror overwhelmed Israeli society and it completely destroyed the ability of politics to solve the Palestinian crisis. Instead, in the Israeli election of 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu took power. He turned against the peace process, which was exactly what Hamas wanted. And from then on, the two sides became locked together in ever more horrific cycles of violence.

Popular support for suicide bombings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains high. A 2013, Pew survey of global attitudes found that 62% of those questioned in the Palestinian Territories believed that suicide bombing can often, or sometimes, be justified. In Pakistan, though, that figure is just 3%.

Such figures are important for those who seek to reduce the spread of suicide attacks. Groups carrying out suicide bombings are hoping to win public support; if the bombings do not resonate in a positive way then their cause will fail. However, it should also be pointed out that much of the support for suicide bombings in Palestine most likely originates from the wide public support for the causes that groups like Hamas might stand for, and should perhaps not be regarded as an unequivocal sanctioning of the method. Nevertheless, as long as support for bombings remains, there may well be a resurgence of the tactic among Palestinian militant groups in the future.

Sri Lanka

Not all groups that have deployed suicide bombers have a national-religious ideology. In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a secular guerrilla movement, began using suicide bombings in the late 1980s as part of their campaign to create a separate state for Tamil people in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

The group was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. He developed a cult of personality around himself and played a pivotal role in the recruitment of suicide bombers known as the Black Tigers. LTTE members training at Hezbollah terrorist camps were convinced by the successes of the Beirut bombings in 1983. To join the Black Tigers, LTTE members had to write application letters to Prabhakaran who would decide whether they were worthy. There were so many applications that a lottery for martyrs was created.

The first suicide bombing in Sri Lanka had strong similarities with the Beirut bombings four years previously. On 5 July 1987 an explosives-laden truck was driven into a Sri Lankan Army Barracks, killing 55 soldiers. The perpetrator of the attack was commemorated with a statue in the Tamil occupied town of Jaffna. Even in this secular campaign there existed a kind of almost sacralised martyrdom for those prepared to give their lives.

The Black Tigers were the world leaders in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003. Time Magazine describe the LTTE as ‘the most successful terrorist organization in the world.’ Of the 137 suicide bombings carried out by the LTTE, two were high profile assassinations: the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Five further Sri Lankan cabinet members were assassinated by suicide bombings. The Black Tigers also invented the suicide belt, something which would go on to be used regularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Black Widows

Female suicide bombers have also been used in a wide range of conflicts. The University of Chicago recorded 125 attacks involving female suicide bombers between 1981 and 2010 – just over 5% of those they recorded.

Among the most famous group of female suicide bombers are those referred to as the ‘Black Widows’ by the Russian media. Fighting for independence in Chechnya, they were often women who had lost husbands and brothers to the conflict.

Attacks carried out by women have a range of tactical advantages. Firstly, they attract significant media interest, sending a message that the cause has spread beyond a radical male youth. Secondly, the bombers attract less suspicion than their male counterparts and are able to access areas which men cannot.  Female suicide bombers are still used today for these reasons, particularly by Nigerian jihadi group Boko Haram.

Al-Qaeda and suicide terror

Al-Qaeda was formed in Pakistan in 1988 with the stated mission of implementing Sharia law and ridding the world of non-Muslim influences. They carried out their first suicide bombing in 1995 at a US military base in Saudi Arabia, killing five people. In 1998, the al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa which declared all American citizens legitimate targets. On 7 August that year, they launched twin suicide attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223.

Then came 9/11.  Al-Qaeda became infamous, almost overnight, around the world after hijacked airliners were used in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 2001. Nearly three thousand people were killed in the most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.

The attacks led to complete overhauls in US domestic security and foreign policy and involvement by the US in lengthy military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. The US’s response, in turn, was to severely damage US standing in the some parts of the Muslim world. As such, bombing campaigns against the US and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have some of their roots in the rubble of the twin towers.

Over the following years attacks by al-Qaeda and their offshoots spread throughout the world, including the bombings in London in 2005 and in Bali in 2002. Disturbingly, al-Qaeda quickly developed a reputation for sophisticated attacks designed to inflict the largest number of civilian casualties.


The most deadly country for suicide bombings over the last decade is Iraq by some distance. A Lancet study found that at least 1,003 suicide bombings caused civilian casualties in Iraq between 2004 and 2010. Around 12,000 civilians were killed in this time period.[iii] There were around 60 times more civilians killed than soldiers. Civilians were not merely ‘collateral damage’ but were being deliberately targeted.

Many of the attacks were part of sectarian violence. In particular, Shiite Muslims have been repeatedly targeted by Sunni insurgents dissatisfied at the political regime following the Anglo-American occupation.

Suicide attacks began in Iraq in 2003. The targets included Shiite mosques, the UN headquarters, and the Red Cross headquarters. Further upsurges in the violence occurred following events like the killing of Abu Masab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor organisation to IS) and increases in US troops. Many of those carrying out bombings were from outside of Iraq, with Saudi Arabia contributing the highest number of fighters.

In the second Iraq War, Syrian agents set up a pipeline that began to feed thousands of militants across the border and into the heart of the insurgency. And it grew. Within a year, almost all of the foreign fighters from across the world were coming through Syria… and they brought suicide bombing with them. The Americans estimated that 90% of the suicide bombers in Iraq were foreign fighters. But it began to run out of control. Most of the jihadists had joined the group al-Qaeda in Iraq that then turned to killing Shi’ites in an attempt to create a civil war. And the force that had
been birthed in Shia Islam, suicide bombing, now returned and started to kill them.

Suicide attacks in Iraq have continued despite the withdrawal of US troops and attempts to make civilians more secure seem to be failing. Efforts by the government included the establishment of hundreds of checkpoints.

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) – an al-Qaeda offshoot – in Iraq is largely behind this continuation of suicide attacks in Iraq. This has meant that Iraq has retained its unenviable position as being the country most impacted by suicide bombing. Between 2011 and 2015, AOAV recorded just under 350 suicide attacks in Iraq that resulted in the death and injury of over 12,000 people. Of these, over 75% were civilians. Most were committed by IS.

Another 3,000 people have been killed and injured by suicide bombers in Iraq in 2016 alone, as IS strategically use them as part of their offensive and counter offensive efforts.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

Two forms of violence dominated the Taliban insurgency against the Western presence in Afghanistan. One was the use of victim activated IEDs to target troops and the other was the use of suicide bombings in populated areas to undermine any sense of security. Suicide bombings played no role against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s; it only began to be used as a tactic in 2004, perhaps inspired by the success that such bombings were having in Iraq.

Many of the attacks in Afghanistan were carried out by children; those as young as nine have been intercepted on suicide bomb missions. Often trained at Pakistani madrassas, such minors are particularly vulnerable to indoctrination. ‘These kids might disappear at 12 and come back at 15 fully militarised and conscious of their own bodies as weapons.’

Pakistan is also highly impacted by suicide bombers, where government forces and minority groups are the targets. Shia communities in particular are targeted and Human Rights Watch have criticised the Pakistani government’s failure to protect them.

In 2015, 9,109 civilians were reported killed or injured in suicide attacks around the world – lives shattered in 248 incidents in mosques and markets, checkpoints and restaurants. It was a year where 21 countries saw men and women blow themselves up in a rising tide of violence that seems to be spreading by the day.

In this way, suicide attacks are getting steadily worse. In 2011, when AOAV started monitoring explosive violence, 5,107 civilians were reported killed or injured by suicide bombers. In 2015, that was up 78%.

Admittedly, it was not the worst year for suicide attacks on record – 2007 was. That year, according to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, some 20,400 people were killed or injured in suicide attacks. But in 2007 the vast majority of these were in Iraq and Afghanistan and suicide bombs were recorded in just 12 countries.

By contrast, in 2015 places previously untouched by suicide attacks were hit. Chad was targeted for the first time (459 civilians killed or wounded), as was Cameroon (431). And Nigeria’s civilian death and injury rate (which, at 2,062, was the highest from suicide bombings) was 14 times that of 2011.

Last year also showed another trend: that of the suicide vest as terrorists’ explosive weapon of choice. In 2015, according to AOAV’s data, suicide attacks were behind 56% of the 16,180 civilian deaths or injuries from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) worldwide – including car bombs and roadside bombs. In 2011, it was just 38% (5,107 of 13,336).

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] From the NIV Bible, Judges 16:26-30

[ii] Harmsen, Peter (2013). Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (illustrated ed.). Casemate. p. 112. ISBN 1-61200-167-X. Retrieved 24 April 2014.

[iii] Hicks, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei; Dardagan, Hamit; Bagnall, Peter M.; Spagat, Michael; Sloboda, John A. ‘Casualties in civilians and coalition soldiers from suicide bombings in Iraq, 2003–10: a descriptive study’. The Lancet, Vol. 378, No. 9794, 03.09.2011, p. 906–914.