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

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.

The vast majority of suicide attacks take place in three major geographical hotspots crossing national borders: Iraq-Syria, Nigeria and Afghanistan-Pakistan. These hotspots are associated with specific conflicts and groups which operate in several countries at once. Some of these groups – in particular al-Qaeda offshoots in Iraq and Syria, foremost among them IS – have proven themselves to have the ambition and the resources to carry out attacks as far afield as Europe.

Together, attacks in these three areas caused 7853 civilian deaths and injuries in 2015 – 86% of civilian deaths and injuries from suicide bombings worldwide. In the same year Yemen – which lies outside these three hotspots – accounted for another 7% (644 civilian deaths and injuries). No other country saw more than 200 civilian deaths and injuries or more than a handful of incidents.


Suicide bombings in Iraq between 2011-2015

Iraq has between 2011 and 2015 seen 382 SIED attacks, as reported in English language media sources. These attacks have claimed a reported 13,736 casualties (killed or injured), 76% of whom were civilians. Suicide bombings in the country reached their peak in 2013, but decreased in 2014 and 2015. However, 2016 has witnessed more SIED attacks than 2015, suggesting that suicide bombings do not show any signs of disappearing from Iraq.

One reason behind the 2016 increase in SIED attacks was that IS carried out reactionary attacks, partly as a response to lost territory. The battle for Mosul, for instance, where the Iraqi government and allied forces are (at the time of writing) attempting to retake the city from IS, has seen IS use suicide bombings as a line of defence against the charging Iraqi and Peshmerga forces. IS is the only group credited for a suicide bombing in Iraq within the past five years.

Despite the high civilian toll of suicide bombings in Iraq, armed bases and police stations are the most common targets for suicide bombings. Together they account for 37% of all attacks. Nevertheless, populated locations such as commercial premises (9%), public buildings (8%), public gatherings (8%), roads (6%), urban residential areas (6%), and markets (5%) are also targeted and such targeting inevitably results in a disproportionally high number of civilian casualties.

Of those recorded, AOAV’s data shows that 52% of the total amount of SIED attacks carried out in Iraq between 2011 and 2015 were from suicide VBIED attacks. This correlates with tactics – where locations such as armed bases and police stations are common targets, as groups in general and IS in particular, often use suicide VBIEDs to break through security barriers. Another reason behind the amount of suicide VBIED attacks is that IS has incorporated such attacks into their everyday military strategy. In fact, the exact same proportion (52%) of IS’ suicide bombings are suicide VBIEDs.

IS itself seems to be keen on marketing this type of attack. As many as two thirds of the suicide bombers eulogised by IS in their propaganda perpetrated suicide VBIED attacks. It is unclear if this is just a reality of the sheer number of suicide VBIED attacks, or whether it serves a propaganda purpose. According to the eulogies, IS has started to use several suicide VBIEDs simultaneously for the same operation, partly as a result of the Iraqi army having become better at coping with this strategy.[i]

The geographical spread of suicide bombings in Iraq reinforces the idea that suicide bombings are used predominantly in military battles, or at least in areas in the vicinity of them. For example, governorates where IS have historically been strong and engaged in battles have all seen more SIED attacks, such as Anbar (73), Salahuddin (70), Diyala (43) and Nineveh (37). The Baghdad governorate is however the far worst affected region in Iraq, and is proof that suicide bombings are also used for fear-spreading urban terror campaigns. The capital has seen as many as 124 SIED attacks in the last five years, which have killed or injured as many as 5,066 people. Reciprocally, areas which have generally been spared by both IS and conflict in general have seen significantly fewer suicide bombings. This applies to provinces such as Dhi Qar (2), Muthanna (1), Basra (4), Wasit (2), Babil (5) and Karbala (3). However, there are exceptions to this trend. The Erbil and Kirkuk governorates have, considering their vicinity to IS activity, seen remarkably few attacks, with Erbil seeing only two and Kirkuk seeing 16.

Iraqi suicide bombings: a new and old phenomenon

Iraq is in many ways the cradle of the modern Salafi-Jihadi mass suicide bombings that have become so commonplace. According to most official accounts, the first suicide bombing in the country occurred a few weeks before the US invasion in March 2003. During the same year, there were a total of 35 suicide bombings, and the tactic drastically increased in the following years. In 2005 and 2007, there were as many as 304 and 291 SIED attacks respectively. Although Iraq is still the country worst affected by suicide bombings, it is worth remembering that it has seen 382 attacks in the past five years combined, meaning that examined over a longer period of time, the problem has been mitigated, at least comparatively, in recent years..

Although Iraq became the epicentre for suicide attacks after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s former dictator is not completely innocent of having contributed to this phenomenon. For example, it is believed that the regime-founded paramilitary group Fedayeen Saddam carried out a suicide bombing against Kurdish opposition parties in 2000s, and there have also been reports of Baathists organising suicide brigades as a defence against invading US forces.[ii] Saddam also introduced Islamisation policies, leading to the prohibition of both alcohol consumption and gambling, whilst also imposing the strict Sharia punishment of amputation for theft. Moreover, new mosques and Islamic universities teaching ultra-conservative versions of Islam were opened. For example, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi graduated from Saddam University for Islamic Studies with a PhD in 2007. Saddam’s so called “Faith Campaign” has been attributed as partly responsible for making many former Baath commanders susceptible for extremist religious ideas after losing their employment due to the US de-Baathification policy introduced shortly after the invasion.

IS’ predecessor organisation al-Qaeda in Iraq was the most prolific perpetrator of SIED attacks in Iraq in the years following the US invasion. Its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, introduced the tactic after having been reportedly convinced of its usefulness by Egyptian jihadi scholar Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, whom he had met in Afghanistan. According to Muhajir, ends justify the means. If a suicide bombing was carried out for the advancement of Islam, it did not matter that suicide is forbidden according to Islamic scripture. Although Muhajir is not as well-known as other jihadi theorists, his influence on IS in Iraq is still visible. For example, his book Issues in the Jurisprudence of Jihad, which sets out much of IS brutal military strategy, has been found in IS classrooms in Nineveh province.

ISI (Islamic State in Iraq), the organisation that sprung out of al-Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi’s death in 2006, and would later evolve into present-day IS, from the very beginning deployed suicide bombings to achieve important strategic aims. For example, in 2013, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign, aimed at freeing several jihadi prisoners. As part of this campaign, ISI conducted several suicide attacks on prisons in Iraq.  One of the most notable examples was the attack on the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, which led to the release to several former jihadi fighters that would later make up some of the core structure of IS.

Having previously noted how both imprisonment and humiliation, whether real or perceived, can be drivers of suicide bombings, it is significant that these two factors are highly present among the top cadres of IS’ Iraqi leadership. Indeed, many of these leaders were imprisoned in jails that conducted well-known humiliating practices, such as Abu Ghraib. Responses to abuses – real or perceived – in prison are likely feed the vengeance narrative that many IS suicide bombers propagate before their operations.

Furthermore, there appears to be repetition in the way that IS and its predecessor organisations operated in Iraq. Zarqawi quickly realised that sectarian attacks against Iraq’s Shia population could provoke them into engaging in sectarian warfare, which in turn could help mobilise Sunni support. This is very similar to tactics that IS has employed in recent years. The basis for both has been the sentiment of Sunni disenfranchisement, something which has appeared at various stages in Iraq’s recent history. It is a reality that, in part, shows how both IS and its predecessors have been able to benefit from poor decision-making in the country.

Terror groups in Iraq also gained many new recruits following the implementation of the de-Baathification policy, a flawed policy that left untold Sunni Iraqis unemployed. Similarly, the more recent failure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to integrate the so-called Sahwa forces, an alliance of armed Sunni tribes instrumental in reducing al-Qaeda in Iraq’s strength, into the armed forces, once again left many Sunni Iraqis disenfranchised.

Al-Maliki, a Shia, has added fuel to the fire by also structuring his cabinet along sectarian lines, removing several influential Sunnis from top positions. In addition, sectarian grievances were deepened when Shia militias, sponsored by Iran, massacred Sunni with seeming impunity, attacks that were partially motivated by vengeance for the sectarian attacks carried out by IS’ predecessor organisations.[iii] These killings, and the impunity that surrounded them, not only caused fear among many Sunnis, but also has been reported to have steered an army of new recruits into the arms the Islamic State in Iraq. To this day, IS still uses such sentiments to rally support for suicide bombings and mass violence in Iraq, a call to arms that is further encouraged by an increased Iranian influence in the beleaguered country.

Bombers and tactics

A confluence of these influences has meant that IS evolved. Today it almost has a quasi-industrialised production of suicide bombers. As revealed by both fighters and leaked documents, there is a waiting list within the organisation of people wanting to become suicide bombers, and there are scant signs of the organisation’s supply of suicide bombers waning. There are even reports of centres where new recruits, eager to become suicide bombers or Inghimasi fighters, are divided into groups of nationality and age.[iv]

Of note in this recruitment process is the attraction of foreign fighters, men who are disproportionally used as suicide bombers in Iraq. For example, Saudi-owned news outlet al-Hayat has reported that Saudi nationals make up an astonishing 60% of suicide bombers in Iraq. Some of these foreigners carry out attacks within Iraq, like the British jihadi Kabir Ahmed, who blew himself up on 7 November, 2014 in Baji in Iraq, killing eight Iraqi policemen in the process.

Others are trained to be dispatched back to Europe. However, the attackers of the most notorious suicide attacks on European soil, such as the Brussels and Paris attacks, seem to have been trained in Syria.

In terms of age profile, the vast majority of IS suicide bombers in Iraq are young men. According to the leaked IS registration files (see appendix), 69% of new suicide bombing recruits were below the age of 30. There have been instances of IS using children and teenagers for suicide attacks as well. The 25 March 2016 SIED attack in the Iskandariya neighbourhood of Baghdad, which killed 29 civilians, was carried out a 16-year old IS bomber. Similarly, security forces in Kirkuk thwarted an attempted suicide bombing by a 13-year old member of IS youth force Ashbal al-Khilafa (Cubs of the Caliphate). Moreover, a Diyala Province official said in June 2016 that half of the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Diyala were Iraqi teenagers, many below 18, recruited by IS. Children are reportedly also instructed to wear suicide vests whilst conducting non-suicide missions, such as guarding or patrolling, and told to detonate their vests if necessary.

In terms of the sex of the bombers, as elsewhere the majority are men.  However, there have also been increasing reports of IS sending women to the frontline as suicide bombers. Although female suicide bombers trigger less suspicion and therefore have a tactical advantage, deploying female suicide bombers has, among groups like the Taliban, been seen as a sign of a deficit of male fighters. Given that IS has not traditionally been known for using female suicide bombers, this shift in strategy could be a sign of increasing desperate tactics, or an indication of the spread of the allure of the suicide bomber to a wider audience.

IS’ most commonly used suicide attack, as mentioned above, is the suicide VBIED. The fact that IS has captured such large swathes of territory has allowed them to develop massive car bombs at remote and secure manufacturing sites. These car bombs are most commonly directed at armed forces and checkpoints, and have been incorporated into IS military strategy in an unprecedented manner. Disturbingly, it appears that the majority of targets from such car bombs reside in populated areas. According to AOAV’s data, 79% of the attacks that IS has carried out on markets, commercial premises and urban residential areas have been perpetrated in majority Shia areas.

Such attacks include two of the largest suicide bombings in Iraqi history; the attacks on a market in Khan Bani Saad in July 2015, killing 121 people, and the attack on a market in Karrada in Baghdad, which killed 325 people.

According to IS propaganda channels, the group launched as many as 431 ‘martyrdom operations’ within Iraq between January and September 2016. Such numbers are difficult to verify, likely overstated, and may include attacks which do not involve explosives. It is, however, certain that IS in Iraq has increased their use of suicide attacks as a response to loss of territory in the country, as well as during the ongoing battle for Mosul.

IS’ recent increase in their use of suicide bombings in Iraq appears to have been conducted with the aim to both instigate political divisions in Iraqi society, as well as to give the impression that the Iraqi government cannot protect its own citizens. In the theatre of sectarian warfare in Iraq, where IS predominantly targets Shia areas, and where the Iran-sponsored Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) have been accused of committing massacres in Sunni villages, increased mass violence could be a way of forcing fence-sitters into joining the IS camp.

Such sentiments are apparent in the video-recorded wills of Iraqi suicide bombers that AOAV has analysed (see appendix). A majority of Iraqi suicide bombers examined in this report talk about defending the Sunni community from infidels, as well as suggesting that those not partaking in the jihad against them are as guilty as the perpetrators.

IS makes a significant rhetoric effort to make it appear that suicide bombers blow themselves up for the advancement of Islam alone, and not for any sort of strategic or pragmatic purposes. Such ambitions are outlined in a piece of IS-affiliated literature entitled al-Sa’ada fi Nil al-Shuhada (Happiness in Pursuit of Martyrdom), written by a relatively unknown scholar known as Abu Qadama al-Muhajir. It is a paper that is said to have influenced many suicide bombers in Iraq

The Battle of Mosul: suicide bombings as a defensive strategy
Despite such external pressures, it must be remembered that suicide bombings are, of course, also used in a very pragmatic tactical and strategic manner. Whereas much has been made of IS’ use of suicide bombings as an offensive strategy, the ongoing operation to retake Mosul from IS control, initiated on 17 October 2016, serves as a good case study in how IS uses suicide bombings as a defensive strategy.

According to US officials, the allied forces have, as of 30 November 2016, retaken 25% of the territory which has been controlled by IS since the summer of 2014. Given that Peshmerga forces estimated then that the operation to liberate Mosul would take just two months, it is clear that IS has so far managed to prevent significant advances in to the city. Certainly, there have been reports of suicide bombings slowing down liberation forces.

According to IS’ news agency Amaq, 171 ‘martyrdom operations’ have been carried out, as of 29 November 2016, against advancing forces. That would mean that, on average, IS carries out almost six martyrdom attacks per day in Mosul alone. Again, these numbers are difficult to confirm, but various testimonies from Peshmerga and Iraqi army forces suggest a radical increase in the number of suicide attacks. And it looks like such a reality is not to change any time soon. While it is unclear how many suicide bombers are in Mosul, sources put the number of suicide bombers and Inghimasi fighters at 30% of IS forces in Mosul.

Several lines of defence

IS’ defence of Mosul consists of several defensive lines. The first line is that of landmines surrounding the city. The second line is comprised of about 300 snipers and 500 suicide bombers. The third line of defence is made up of ‘jonoud al-khilafa’ (Soldiers of the Caliphate) who are described as the essence of the IS fighting units. If all these lines of defence crumble, the fourth line of defence is made up of Inghimasi fighters who are expected to engage with the enemy in direct urban warfare, during which suicide bombings will be used by either detonating vests or cars filled with explosives.

Reports from both IS and other sources on the ground make it clear that at least the second line has, as of late November 2016, been engaged, and many Iraqi army officers have admitted the impact of suicide bombings on the exhaustion and fear of their soldiers. IS has also used tunnels to enable suicide bomber to surprise their targets by emerging near them. Tunnels were also used during the Kurdish Peshmerga offensive that began on 23 October 2016, to evict IS from the town of Bashiqa, north of Mosul. The Peshmerga then were faced with a barrage of suicide attacks, buildings filled with homemade bombs, and IS fighters using tunnels to reappear in areas that were supposedly “cleared areas.”

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

[i] Intervew with Charlie Winter.

[ii] Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide bombers in Iraq: Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, United States institute of Peace, 2007.

[iii] Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger, ISIS: the state of terror, William Collins, 2015.

[iv] Personal interview with Charlie Winter.