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Average civilian casualties per suicide bombing globally rose 56% in 2021 compared to 2020, AOAV finds

In 2021, Action on Armed Violence recorded 1,797 deaths and injuries from suicide bombings, across 61 recorded incidents of suicide attacks involving explosive weapons. Of these casualties, 80% (1,442) were civilians, marking a 7% rise in the number of civilians killed or injured in suicide bombings compared to 2020, when 1,350 civilian casualties from such incidents were recorded.

Of note, the average number of civilian casualties per suicide bombing last year was substantially higher than the previous year, with 25 civilians killed or injured in each attack. In 2020, there were nine fewer civilians killed or injured in each suicide attack, as an average of 16 civilian casualties were recorded across 82 incidents of suicide bombings. This amounts to a 56% rise in the average number of civilian casualties per incident last year compared to the year before.

Crowds of civilians went to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in the hopes of boarding an evacuation flight, as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. An Islamic State suicide bombing at a central gate to the airport caused at least 395 casualties on 26 August 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla)

Populated Areas

Due to the higher degree of control that suicide bombers have over their location and the precise moment at which they detonate an explosive, suicide attacks are an exceptionally harmful form of explosive violence for civilians. In total, over 99% of the civilian casualties from suicide attacks – 1,436 of 1,442 – occurred in populated areas, across 47 incidents. Suicide attacks in populated areas caused an average of 31 civilian deaths and injuries per incident. Thirteen incidents were in a location of unknown population density and one incident took place in a non-populated area.

Weapon-types

The weapon-type used in 95% (58) of suicide bombings recorded in 2021 was Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The remaining 5% involved multiple explosive weapon types (2 incidents, 44 casualties) and ground-launched weapons, specifically a grenade (1 incident, 2 casualties).

Although suicide bombings represented only 6% of all IED incidents recorded, they accounted for 30% (1,422) of all civilian deaths and injuries from IED attacks (4,726). 36 of the 61 suicide bombings reported were recorded as non-specific IEDs, which, in the case of suicide bombings, largely refers to suicide vests. 22 of the 61 incidents were recorded as car bombs. Non-specific suicide IED attacks caused an average of 33 deaths and injuries per incident, including 27 civilians, whilst suicide car bombs caused an average of 26, including 20 civilians.

Targeting and Locations

In 2021, 13 suicide attacks explicitly targeted civilians, while 17 targeted armed state actors, four targeted unarmed state actors, and the target of 24 suicide attacks was not reported.

Eleven suicide attacks targeted armed bases, the highest incident count of any other recorded location for suicide attacks. This was followed by urban residential areas (7 incidents) and police stations (6). However, it was attacks on areas like transport-related infrastructure, places of worship and urban residential areas that resulted in the highest levels of civilian harm; with these locations seeing 338, 316 and 160 civilian casualties from suicide attacks respectively.

LocationNumber of suicide bombingsCivilian casualtiesTotal casualties
Transport related infrastructure3338401
Place of worship3316320
Urban residential7160168
Police station6119153
Market3114117
Multiple (urban)5104113
Entertainment4102110
Commercial premises24852
public building43447
Village32934
Hotel22633
School12526
Hospital21629
Road3517
Armed base114172
No information123
Encampment102
Total6114421797

Countries

AOAV recorded suicide attacks in 16 countries. The countries worst affected by suicide bombings last year were Afghanistan (927 civilian deaths and injuries), Somalia (258), Iraq (95), and Uganda (40).

Last year, civilian casualties from suicide attacks in Afghanistan rose, despite two previous consecutive years of decreasing numbers of civilian casualties from suicide attacks. Afghanistan continued to be the country worst impacted by suicide attacks: 65% of all civilian casualties globally from suicide attacks occurred in Afghanistan.

CountryNumber of suicide bombingsCivilian casualtiesTotal casualtiesAverage number of civilian casualties per suicide bombing
Afghanistan179271,10255
Somalia2027835614
Iraq39510032
Uganda2404420
DRC2232512
Cameroon1212221
Indonesia1202220
Pakistan313374
Syria410253
China19109
Kenya1343
Tunisia1232
United Kingdom1121
Colombia1010
Mali20360
Libya1080

The highest-casualty incident recorded in 2021 was a suicide attack in Afghanistan, carried out by members of the Islamic State at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, while thousands of Afghans crowded the airport attempting to board evacuation flights as the Taliban took control of the country. The suicide bombing claimed the lives of at least 149 civilians and injured 185 more. A total of 395 people (including armed-actors) were killed or injured in that attack. Yet, to put this within the context of a decade of data that AOAV has gathered on explosive weapons and suicide bombings, this attack ranks fifteenth in the highest civilian casualty suicide attacks recorded in since 2011. 

Perpetrators

Suicide attacks are not always claimed by the perpetrating groups, and in the case of 27 incidents and 302 civilian casualties, the perpetrator of the suicide bombing was unknown.

However, where the perpetrator group behind a suicide attack was identified, al-Shabaab was responsible for 14 suicide attacks, resulting in 283 deaths and injuries, including those of 220 civilians. The Taliban was responsible for four suicide attacks, resulting in at least 151 casualties, including 99 civilians, whilst Islamic State groups claimed responsibility for 868 casualties from 11 suicide attacks, 90% (781) of whom were civilians. This is significantly higher than the causality numbers from Islamic State suicide attacks in 2020, which claimed the lives of 192 people across seven incidents, 93% (179) of whom were civilians. This is due to a rise in claimed and high casualty attacks in Afghanistan.

Ten highest civilian casualty suicide attacks in 2021

LocationDescriptionCivilian casualtiesTotal casualtiesDate
Kabul, AfghanistanIslamic State (ISIS-K) suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport334 (149 killed, 185 injured)39526 Aug 2021
Kunduz, AfghanistanIslamic State suicide bombing at Said Abad mosque (Shia)150 (50 killed, 100 injured)1519 Oct 2021
Kandahar, AfghanistanIslamic State suicide attack at mosque 146 (63 killed, 83 injured)14715 Oct 2021
Logar, AfghanistanSuicide car bomb attack in urban residential area134(27 killed, 107 injured)13430 April 2021
Baghdad, IraqIslamic State suidide blast in crowded market on eve of religious festival (Eid al-Adha)95 (35 killed, 60 injured)9619 July 2021
Balkh, AfghanistanSuicide car bomb explosion outside police station71 (2 killed, 69 injured)896 June 2021
Mogadishu, SomaliaSuicide car bomb detonated outside entertainment venue by al-Shabaab50 (20 killed, 30 injured)515 March 2021
Kampala, UgandaTwin suicide bombings with IEDs by ISIS affiliate Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) 36 (3 killed, 33 injured)3916 Nov 2021
Mogadishu, Somaliaal-Shabaab suicide bombing (IED) on commercial premises32 (10 killed, 22 injured)322 July 2021
Kabul, AfghanistanSuicide car bomb detonated by Taliban near Defence Minister’s home in Kabul28 (8 killed, 20 injured)313 August 2021

Decade Overview

Since 2011, AOAV has recorded 2,279 suicide bombings, causing 84,422 casualties, 79% (67,094) of whom were civilians.

On average, 29 civilians were killed and injured by each suicide bombing. Although suicide bombings represented only 17% of all IED incidents recorded, they accounted for 46% of all civilian deaths and injuries from IED attacks.

56% (1,280 incidents) of the suicide bombings reported were recorded as non-specific IEDs, which, in the case of suicide bombings, largely refers to suicide vests. 38% (860 incidents) were recorded as car bombs. Non-specific suicide IED attacks caused an average of 34 deaths and injuries per incident, including 28 civilians. Suicide car bombs caused an average of 39, including 28 civilians.

AOAV has recorded suicide attacks in 49 countries since 2011. The countries worst affected by suicide bombings in the last decade were Iraq (16377 civilian deaths and injuries), Afghanistan (15394), Pakistan (7292), Nigeria (6,702), Syria (6,564) and Somalia (4,310).

Suicide attacks and their casualties were generally on the rise when AOAV started recorded explosive violence data (2011) but in the last few years this trend has started to shift with decreasing attacks since 2017. Afghanistan appears to be the current hotspot for this kind of violence, overtaking Iraq in 2017.

As with other explosive weapon types, when suicide bombings were used in populated areas, they inflicted much higher levels of civilian harm. 72% of recorded incidents took place in populated areas. In these attacks, around 89% of those killed and injured were civilians. This compares to 23% in other areas. In total, 96% of the civilian casualties from suicide attacks occurred in populated areas. Suicide attacks in populated areas caused an average of 39 civilian deaths and injuries per incident.

It can be estimated there have been 13,652 recorded suicide explosive attacks in history: four suicide attacks recorded in Tsarist Russia, 7 in China pre-WWII, 7,465 by Japan during WWII, 5,430 between 1974 and 2016 (Chicago Suicide Attack Database), and 746 between 2017 and 2021, according to AOAV data.

More AOAV research on suicide bombings:

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

A short history of suicide bombing

Suicide Terrorism in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009)

The Islamic State’s Suicide Industry

Examining the portrayal of female suicide bombers in the media