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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Current threat zones – Syria

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.

Despite several insurgent groups being active in the Syrian civil war, and many of them use suicide bombings, there were only two that have used suicide bombings on a large scale in the past five years: IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. There are many similarities between these two insurgent groups’ use of suicide bombings. Both rely heavily on suicide VBIEDs as a military tactic, for example. However, whereas Nusra mainly attacks regime targets with their SIEDs, IS has used the tactic predominantly against religious and ethnic minorities. IS has also used suicide bombings against other rebel groups, whereas Nusra has, in several cases, let other rebel groups ‘borrow’ suicide bombers from them in joint offensives. In addition, IS also seems to rely more heavily on foreign fighters as suicide bombers, whereas Nusra uses more Syrians in its attacks.

SIED attacks in Syria 2011-2015

Syria has seen 104 SIED attacks, as recorded by English language media, within the past five years. These attacks have claimed 5,385 casualties, 86% of whom were civilians. Similar to Iraq, attacks peaked in 2013, and have, after a short drop, begun to increase again. The first half of 2016, for instance, saw almost as many suicide bombings as all of 2015.

It is perhaps unexpected that Syria has been the scene for far fewer SIED attacks than Iraq, considering that the conflict in Syria in the last five years has been deadlier and featured several non-state actors that all use asymmetric warfare methods. The fact, though, that Syria’s crisis quickly evolved into a full-blown war could be a reason why fewer suicide bombings have occurred there.

Some analysts have argued that groups in Syria seem to have applied more restraint in terms of suicide bombings, attempting to use them more restrictively in civilian areas. Such analysis, however, does not seem to be reflected in the data. Whilst looking at target locations in Syria, AOAV found that only 22% of SIED attacks in Syria were carried out against armed bases. The majority of attacks were, it appears, carried out where civilians are likely to be present. These include urban and residential areas (14%), roads (8%), places of worship (8%), public buildings (7%), schools (6%) and police stations (5%). This, together with the very high number of civilian casualties of SIED attacks, does not support the claim that Syrian groups practice more restraint in terms of civilian targets of suicide bombings.

It should be mentioned that a substantial part of civilian areas have been targeted because of the presence of one of two things: either people at the sites were seen to be regime supporters, or they were present in regime institutions themselves. AOAV has identified 42 such attacks, which is more than half of all the attacks on civilian areas. Of these, 60% took place in areas where perceived regime supporters reside, whereas 40% took place in residential areas where regime-linked institutions are based. This would suggest that although civilians are targeted, groups are careful not to provoke the type of backlash among its most likely supporter base (Sunni Muslims) that al-Qaeda in Iraq experienced in the latter half of the 2000s. This caution also seems to have led to SIED attacks being directed at minority groups. Such groups are, in many instances, seen as siding with the Syrian government, but attacks on them can also be seen as the bloody expression of the sectarian ideologies held by groups like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and as such unlikely to cause a backlash against Sunni Muslims.

A similar trend in terms of targeting civilians has been seen in the usage of suicide VBIEDs in Syria. 57 of the SIED attacks perpetrated in Syria in the past five years have been suicide VBIEDs. A surprisingly large proportion (49%) of these attacks occurred in civilian areas, whereas 32% struck armed bases.

The geographical spread of SIEDs shows a similar trend as in Iraq. Urban centres of conflict, such as Damascus and Aleppo, are by far the worst affected, having seen 26 and 18 suicide bombings respectively. Homs (11) and Hama (9) have also seen a significant share of SIEDs. Other more rural areas have also been affected by suicide bombings as a result of local battles. In this way, Hasakah in the northeast of Syria, which has been witness to battles between IS, Kurdish forces, and the Syrian Army, is the third worst affected region with 14 SIED attacks.

History of SIEDs in Syria
Before the 2011 uprisings, which called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria had only seen two SIED attacks. But this should not conceal a hard, hidden reality.  Anger against Bashar al-Assad had built up over decades, as both he and his predecessor (and father) Hafez al-Assad had employed repressive methods to deal with dissenting voices. These voices from both secular opposition parties and Islamist organisations, and were often predominantly Sunni. Indeed, both presidents created their main support base among Syria’s religious minorities, and primarily among the Alawite sect to which they belong. This had led to many Alawites – despite representing around just ten percent of Syria’s population – ending up holding prominent governmental and military positions.

Although the Assads also relied on vital support from parts of the Sunni community, the largest sect in Syria, the regime’s perceived favouritism towards minorities is often used in the Syrian jihadi narrative. The fact that the Assads have a long history of targeting Sunni Islamist organisations has further exacerbated such sentiments. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was particularly targeted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After a failed assassination attempt against Hafez al-Assad in 1980 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian Defence Brigades killed more than 1,000 Islamist prisoners in the infamous Tadmor prison as punishment.

After the Muslim Brotherhood continued to commit a string of attacks against regime officials, the Syrian army in 1982 commenced a 27-day long assault on the organisation’s stronghold Hama. During this assault, it is believed that between 5,000-10,000 (some even citing 40,000) people were killed, the vast majority being civilians. This Hama massacre has, in recent years, served as a source of grievance for both Islamists and other opposition forces. Furthermore, many of those who survived later relocated to northern Lebanon, which is partly a reason why so many foreign fighters from Lebanon’s north has joined jihadi organisations opposed to today’s Assad regime.

Although massacres of similar proportions did not occur, the Syrian regime continuously committed severe human rights abuses. When the Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011, the Syrian regime carried out abuses amounting to crimes against humanity from the first few months of the uprising, as documented by international human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Some of the crimes involved torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, as well as rape campaigns directed at the families of those associated with opposition groups.

In a cynical move, the regime also released at least 260 political prisoners in 2011. Many of those released were jihadis with a track-record of engaging in militant organisations, and were – it is believed – to have been released as an attempt to radicalise the Syrian opposition which would allow for harsher tactics against them. The basis of many of Syria’s most prominent jihadi organisations can be found among those released in 2011. Two of the most important individuals released were Jabhat al-Nusra’s founder and leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, as well as one of the organisation’s spiritual mentors, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (also known as Abu Musab al-Suri).

Syrian man passes house damaged by suicide bomber in Daraa. Freedom House, 2012.

Another freed prisoner was al-Qaeda veteran Abu Khaled al-Suri, a man who was instrumental in founding Ahrar al-Sham. Several other Ahrar al-Sham figures were also released, such as Hassan Aboud, Mahmoud Teeba Abu Abdelmalek, Abdelnasser al-Yasseen, Hashem al-Sheikh, and Hussein Abdelsalam. Abu Atheer al-Absi, who was released in 2011 before joining Jabhat al-Nusra and later IS, supposedly acted as the teacher to Brussels’ infamous suicide bomber Najim Laachraoui. Another prominent jihadi, Zahran Alloush, was also released in 2011. After this he went on to form the organisation that later evolved into Jaish al-Islam.

Inevitably, with more jihadi elements in the opposition, suicide bombings became a more frequently used tactic in the Syrian War. Moreover, the sectarian turn that the war has taken has in many ways benefitted jihadi organisations and increased suicide bombings. Although the Syrian Civil War is not sectarian in essence, and despite the fact that the various religious communities in Syria have co-existed peacefully for most of the country’s history, it is by various actors being portrayed as a religious war. This is partly due to the vested interest that the Middle East’s main powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have in the conflict, with Saudi supporting hard-line Sunni rebels and Iran backing Assad’s government. The presence of Iranian military personnel and Shia groups like Hezbollah in Syria has further played into the jihadi narrative of a Shia conspiracy against Syria’s Sunni population, which is part of the explanation behind the several suicide bombings carried out against Shia and Alawite areas in Syria.

Bombers and tactics

29 of the SIED attacks recorded in Syria in the past five years were attributed to IS, whereas 16 of them were attributed to Jabhat al-Nusra. It should be mentioned that at least 56 attacks were not attributed to any group, but it is very likely that a substantial part of them were perpetrated by either IS or Jabhat al-Nusra. One attack was attributed to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and one was attributed to Kurdish YPG fighters.

IS in Syria
As mentioned above, it has been suggested that Syrian jihadis have been wary of creating a backlash within the Sunni community in Syria, and have therefore attempted to minimise SIED attacks against Sunni areas. With many of its top commanders experiencing the aforementioned Sunni tribal uprising in Iraq first hand, this suggestion is in part true of IS. Only three SIED attacks seem to have taken place in areas which can be described as majority Sunni. However, there are still several similarities between IS in Iraq and IS in Syria. For example, most of the group’s SIED attacks seem to be motivated by sectarianism, with IS targeting religious and ethnic minorities. They do so under the pretense that such groups are pro-regime supporters. 41% of IS suicide bombings, in this way, targeted religious or ethnic minorities, with a substantial part being attacks against Kurdish villages in northern Syria. 20% of IS’ suicide bombings targeted Syrian regime forces.

On the other hand, 24% of attacks were directed at rival jihadi organisations, with Ahrar al-Sham being the target of at least three suicide bombings. For example, on 23 February 2014, an IS suicide bombing in Aleppo targeted and killed Abu Khaled al-Suri, a Syrian Jihadist militant who was often affiliated with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Syrian Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham.

Twin-Explosion in Kobane, October 2014, Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

A little less than half (44%) of the group’s total attacks in Syria were suicide VBIEDs. When compared to similar IS attacks in Iraq, a larger proportion in Syria was directed at civilian areas. At least five attacks targeted Kurdish locations in Kurdish villages, whereas two suicide VBIED attacks targeted the area around the Shia mosque Sayyida Zaynab, considered one of the most important Shia sites in the world.

IS has also used suicide bombings as part of complex attacks, in some instances employing suicide VBIEDs, Inghimasi fighters and more traditional suicide vest-bombers in one single assault. In Syria, such tactics have been used successfully by the group in both Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zour.

In Syria, many of IS’ suicide bombers have been foreign fighters. According to the leaked IS registration files, which registered people entering the ‘caliphate’, of the 121 people listed as having signed up as suicide bombers, 32 were Saudis, 25 were Tunisians and 18 were Moroccans. That these nationalities are well-represented is not particularly surprising judging from both IS and local news reporting on suicide bombings in Syria. In fact, more than 6,000 Tunisians are believed to have joined IS, whereas it is estimated that around 2,500 Saudis have also joined their ranks.

Furthermore, Arabic sources have reported that as many as 1,500 Moroccans have joined the organization. More than 5,000 recruits have also arrived from the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, as well as more than 5,000 from Western Europe (discussed further below). Some of the motivations for foreign fighters to travel to Syria shall be discussed later in the report.

IS has on several occasions sent suicide bombers from Syria to attack targets in the centre of Europe. The suicide bombers involved in the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the Brussels attacks of March 2016 had all travelled to Syria to join IS before going back West, likely with orders to carry out the attacks. The same is true for the suicide bombing IS carried out in Istanbul airport in 2016, where the suicide bombers are believed to have travelled directly from IS’ Syrian stronghold in Raqqa and had help planning the strike from top IS commanders. This effectively means that IS’ Syrian branch has functioned as an exporter of suicide bombings in a way that does not seem to have occurred in Iraq, where foreign fighters seem to mainly carry out suicide bombings against local targets.

More recently, IS has reported a much larger number of Syrian suicide bombers in Syria, possibly in an attempt to counter accusations that they are a foreign force imposing their will on Syrians from the outside. For example, out of 50 suicide bombers named in IS reporting for January 2016, 28 had nisbas suggesting that they were Syrian. Some had regional epithets, such as al-Homsi or al-Idlibi, whereas some went by the name al-Shami, denoting the historical Greater Syria region.

Many of the local recruits often join the organisation out of either pragmatism, choosing to align with a specific group for protection or out of vengeance. Motivations are however often framed in sectarian and hostile language, and several Syrian IS suicide bombers have showcased sectarian rhetoric in their video-recorded wills. Whether this is pure IS propaganda or their own articulated personal beliefs is of course difficult to say, but it is certain that sectarianism has become an integral part of the Syrian war. The aforementioned Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an IS suicide bomber who carried out his attack on the predominantly Alawite neighbourhood of Zahra in Homs on 28 December 2015, showed no signs of sectarian hostilities before the war, but saw the Syrian government’s siege on his hometown Homs as a crime that all Alawites should be punished for. A detailed description of al-Homsi is provided in the appendix.
Jabhat al-Nusra
Jabhat al-Nusra has displayed some differences compared to IS in terms of their usage of suicide bombings. Firstly, 56% of Nusra’s SIED attacks have been perpetrated against Syrian regime forces. Secondly, about 30% of Nusra’s attacks targeted general civilian areas, whereas only one attack could be considered as explicitly sectarian. These figures should nevertheless not overshadow certain key characteristics in Nusra. The organisation has, like groups that are considered to be more extreme, committed massacres against religious minorities in Syria. They have also reportedly forcibly converted hundreds of Druze people in addition to destroying several Druze shrines in Idlib province.

Conversely, the group has developed a governance model which is based on gaining the support of the local population, which is partly why they have not become known for atrocities against (Sunni) civilians in ways that IS has. Jabhat al-Nusra has also made an effort to portray itself as primarily Syrian, and does not express any regional ambitions publicly. Although the group has foreign fighters within its ranks, it has strived to keep Syrians in both high-ranking and visible positions (such as public administration in the areas they control), which has helped the group attain local support.

Nusra has also successfully managed to integrate itself into Syrian revolutionary dynamics, which has, to some extent, given them the appearance of a legitimate anti-regime opposition group rather than the violent Salafi-Jihadi group that it is.

This tactic has also spread to the group’s usage of suicide bombings, as Jabhat al-Nusra seems to be one of the few groups that have ‘leased’ suicide bombers to assist other groups with which they cooperate. Jabhat al-Nusra could therefore be described as a ‘force multiplier’. The group’s aid to rebel forces along the M5 highway outside Hama in 2014 is a good example of this. During the offensive on the regime-held towns of Morek and Khan al-Shaykhun, Jabhat al-Nusra deployed several suicide bombers there.  This allowed for other rebel groups to take advantage of the government forces subsequently weakened defences. Nusra’s willingness and expertise in suicide bombings – neither of which exist in several of the groups they have cooperated with – provides an asymmetric aspect to an otherwise conventional (and often inferior) armed operation.

The above example is demonstrative of Jabhat al-Nusra’s SIED tactics in general. Although suicide bombings is one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s preferred attack methods, SIED attacks are often used as part of a complex attack, with SIEDs weakening the defences of the enemy or to create confusion allowing ground forces to move into an area. AOAV’s data shows that 69% of Nusra’s suicide attacks are suicide VBIEDs, the vast majority of which targeting regime forces, which further suggests that the group mainly uses suicide bombings as a military tactic.

Despite a primarily Syrian outlook, foreign fighters do carry out suicide bombings for the group. Judging from the nisbas of suicide bombers that Jabhat al-Nusra uses, Saudis seem to be the best represented nationality among the group’s non-Syrian suicide bombers. Saudi suicide bombers include Abu Osama al-Jazrawi, who detonated himself in Aleppo in July 2015 and killed more than 26 Syrian soldiers, and Abu Muthanna al-Muduni, who killed more than 17 troops in December 2015.

A 2016 documentary film called Dugma: the Button, which followed several conscripted Nusra suicide bombers, showed the vastly different reasons to why foreigners join Jabhat al-Nusra. Saudi national Abu Qaswara al-Maki stated that he left a comfortable life with a wife, family and a job because he felt guilty for living such a privileged life when Muslims were suffering in Syria. British recruit Lucas Kinney expressed anger over Western foreign policy. The Syrian fighters interviewed in the film all said that the Syrian government’s violent repression of the peaceful uprising made them turn to armed opposition. The same sentiments have been identified with the Syrian Nusra suicide bombers that AOAV has examined (see appendix). This again suggests that the decision to become a jihadi and a suicide bomber seems to be more ideological for foreign fighters, whereas it is often a reaction to personal experience for locals.

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