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.
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.
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.
|Location||Number of suicide bombings||Civilian casualties||Total casualties|
|Transport related infrastructure||3||338||401|
|Place of worship||3||316||320|
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.
|Country||Number of suicide bombings||Civilian casualties||Total casualties||Average number of civilian casualties per suicide bombing|
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.
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
|Location||Description||Civilian casualties||Total casualties||Date|
|Kabul, Afghanistan||Islamic State (ISIS-K) suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport||334 (149 killed, 185 injured)||395||26 Aug 2021|
|Kunduz, Afghanistan||Islamic State suicide bombing at Said Abad mosque (Shia)||150 (50 killed, 100 injured)||151||9 Oct 2021|
|Kandahar, Afghanistan||Islamic State suicide attack at mosque||146 (63 killed, 83 injured)||147||15 Oct 2021|
|Logar, Afghanistan||Suicide car bomb attack in urban residential area||134(27 killed, 107 injured)||134||30 April 2021|
|Baghdad, Iraq||Islamic State suidide blast in crowded market on eve of religious festival (Eid al-Adha)||95 (35 killed, 60 injured)||96||19 July 2021|
|Balkh, Afghanistan||Suicide car bomb explosion outside police station||71 (2 killed, 69 injured)||89||6 June 2021|
|Mogadishu, Somalia||Suicide car bomb detonated outside entertainment venue by al-Shabaab||50 (20 killed, 30 injured)||51||5 March 2021|
|Kampala, Uganda||Twin suicide bombings with IEDs by ISIS affiliate Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)||36 (3 killed, 33 injured)||39||16 Nov 2021|
|Mogadishu, Somalia||al-Shabaab suicide bombing (IED) on commercial premises||32 (10 killed, 22 injured)||32||2 July 2021|
|Kabul, Afghanistan||Suicide car bomb detonated by Taliban near Defence Minister’s home in Kabul||28 (8 killed, 20 injured)||31||3 August 2021|
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:
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