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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

This article introduces 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 sharp rise in the number of suicide bombings over the last few years is incontestable. 1982 – the year of the Hezbollah attack on the Tyre headquarters of the Israeli army – is often cited as the beginning of the ‘modern age’ of suicide bombings, but the relatively limited activities of the 80s and 90s cannot compare with the current scope of the problem. Before 2000, no year saw more than 22 suicide attacks worldwide. In 2015, there were at least 600.

Over the last five years of AOAV’s Explosive Weapons Monitoring Project (EWMP), which records data on explosive weapon usage worldwide according to English-language news sources, suicide bombings have consistently caused high levels of civilian harm.

In total, 1,191 incidents were recorded across the 2011-2015 period, resulting in 31,589 civilian deaths and injuries. This is an average of 27 civilians killed or injured per incident.

Of the ten worst incidents recorded by AOAV over the five-year period, five were suicide bombings – a figure only matched by airstrikes.

In the same period, AOAV also recorded a worrisome overall trend of rising civilian deaths and injuries from suicide bombings, as well as ever-greater numbers of countries affected.

In 2015, for example, suicide bombings were recorded in 21 countries – the highest number ever recorded by AOAV or by other datasets.

Indeed, both 2015 and 2016 saw a considerable uptick in the overall lethality of suicide bombings. This was in spite of similar incident numbers to previous years.

Suicide strikes in 2015 resulted in an average of 36 civilian deaths and injuries per incident, markedly higher than the five-year average of 28. In 2016 that figure has risen to 38. This rise can largely be attributed to an intensification of high-profile suicide bombings launched by Boko Haram and IS, but also by other armed groups involved in conflicts in Syria and Yemen, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP).

In spite of the clear differences in scale and objectives between the 1980s and the post-9/11 world, this is largely not reflected in modern scholarship.  Most studies on suicide bombings – even those emerging after the 11 September 2001 attacks and the Iraqi insurgency of the mid-2000s – focus on the relatively small-scale nationalist campaigns of the 80s and 90s. This is probably largely because of the comparatively large amounts of available data on these campaigns (such as the relatively comprehensive information on Palestinian suicide bombings, for example).

Much of this scholarship into the drivers of suicide attacks has also focused at the individual level, ambitiously, searching for the magical last piece of the puzzle that will explain ‘what makes a suicide bomber’.

The overwhelming majority suicide bombers in recent years are, with a few exceptions, internationalist Islamists of a Salafi-Jihadist persuasion (or, more accurately, those who carry out bombings on behalf of such organisations).

This should not be taken to mean that suicide bombing is a problem somehow ‘stemming from Islam’, unique to Islamists, or even particularly characteristic of Islamist political movements as a whole. What it does mean, is that these groups – rather than nationalist movements – should be the centre of current research, as well as policy and military discussions on reducing the current impact of suicide bombing.

Another concern regarding recent scholarship is that most has focused on finding a single underlying cause for all uses of suicide bombing worldwide. Suicide bombing is a tactic that can be used in many different ways and for many different strategic objectives. It obviously emerges under specific conditions – but this does not mean its use will be limited to those conditions. The suicide bombing that killed Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 shares no more with a huge market truck bombing in 2015 Baghdad than the means of activation method.

This report sets out to address the main factors that contribute significantly in creating the cult of suicide bombers in armed Salafi-Jihadi groups.

Our research found that suicide bombers of Salafi-Jihadi groups blow themselves up for a combination of reasons.

Firstly, the concept of martyrdom propagated by Salafi-Jihadi groups seems to appeal to many who have personal and individual desires pertaining to elevation of status. Such desires are often rooted in a sense of inferiority, whether it is socio-economic or social, and is often caused by (perceived or real) discrimination. The act is often justified as a defence of Islam, which gives the bomber both a sense of fulfilling a purpose and hero status among their peers. Religion often serves as the binding force, and usually becomes a factor towards the end of an individual’s radicalisation process. These more ‘ideological’ motivations are, in general, most predominantly found in foreign fighter suicide bombers.

Secondly, some bombers are merely motivated by the logic of the battlefield or by personal experience. For example, many Syrian suicide bombers have spent time as political prisoners or witnessed deaths caused by airstrikes, which may give them enough grievances to exert revenge. Suicide bombings might also be motivated by more pragmatic reasons, for example as a means to protect one’s home community.

Thirdly, the deterioration of conflict in Syria and Iraq, as well as the sectarian climate that has been developed as a result of these conflicts, has polarised the Muslim population and has undoubtedly eradicated some of the neutral positions in each conflict. This has paved the ground for more suicide attacks in the short run but also for jihadi sympathisation in the long run.

Fourthly, it is impossible to draw conclusions of why someone becomes a suicide bomber that are relevant and accurate for each case. Although the above mentioned sentiments can be nurtured in a collective environment and framed in the collective practice of religion, every bomber bases their decision on a range of personal experiences. Some of those experiences are, as will become apparent in this report, shared, but ultimately there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem that the cult of the suicide bomber represents.

1.1 Definition of SIED

In The World Technical Intelligence (WTI) Improvised Explosive Device (IED) lexicon, defines an IED as a ‘A device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass or distract. It may incorporate military stores, but is normally devised from non-military components. Refers to a type of IED incident that involves a complete functioning device.’

An SIED (Suicide Improvised Explosive Device) is defined as ‘an IED initiated by the attacker at the time of their choosing in which they intentionally kill themselves as part of the attack, or possibly to deny capture’.

1.2 Notes on methodology

The data in this report is based on AOAV’s Explosive Weapons Monitor Project (EWMP), and examines suicide bombings between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2015. Analysis of suicide bombings in this report will therefore be based on events that occurred and were recorded by the EWMP within this timeframe, with the exception of Chapter 10. However, in order to provide a comprehensive view of the networks behind IED attacks, the report has not limited itself to this timeframe whilst discussing the general workings suicide bomber phenomenon. Therefore, certain SIED attacks that occurred outside of this timeframe will be mentioned, although the vast majority of data examined in the report concerns the period between 2011 and 2015.

In Chapter 10, which discusses potential future suicide bombing trends, AOAV has opted to examine data from 2016 in order to provide the most updated risk assessment possible. Although this means moving away from the main timeframe, AOAV sees it as necessary in order to contribute to make the most informed contribution possible to the debate on SIED prevention.

A full methodology on the EWMP can be found on AOAV’s website. However, some notes should be made in regards to its use in this report.

The EWMP collects data on global explosive violence from English language sources. Sources are collected through an amalgamation of alerts set up for certain words pertaining to explosive violence being used in news stories. Examples of such words include ‘explosion’, ‘rocket’, and ‘IED’. Only attacks that have rendered casualties (killed and/or injured) are taken into account. Incidents are classified according to what type of launch method was used. For this report, the part of the EWMP analysed is therefore the one that has been classified as ‘Launch method: IED’ and ‘Activation method: suicide attack’. Furthermore, the EWMP records the location, time, target and perpetrator (if known) of IED attacks.

Responsibility for attacks in this report is distributed according to two variables. Firstly, if a group claims responsibility for the attack, and secondly, if a group is clearly named as the perpetrator in the source. As groups have carried different names throughout the timeframe examined, the total number of attacks attributed to these various names has been merged.

For example, that means that the Islamic State in Iraq’s (ISI) attacks have been merged with the Islamic State’s (IS) attacks to create a total quantity. It should be noted that since many attacks are never attributed to a specific perpetrator, this inevitably means that numbers of a certain perpetrator’s attacks may in some cases be higher than what is reflected in this report.

Groups will also carry one name throughout this report, regardless if they have been known by another name during the timeframe examined. For example, this means that Islamic State (IS) will be called IS throughout the report, despite carrying other names between 2011 and 2016. Reciprocally, the group currently known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be called Jabhat al-Nusra since the group carried this name during the period that the IED data used in this report was collected.

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