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AOAV submits evidence to Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry: The UK’s international counter-terrorism policy

Executive summary

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) monitors and records casualty-causing incidents of explosive weapons use around the world, as reported in reliable English-language media sources. Data analysed includes the type of weapon, the location of the attack, the reported user, and the reported target.

Between 2013 and 2022, AOAV’s data and analysis of explosive weapon use by non-state armed actors, specifically in relation to UK security, has revealed the following:

  • Four incidents of non-state explosive weapon use on UK soil
  • Islamic State (IS) is the most prolific known non-state user of explosive weapons, and caused the vast majority of civilian casualties in the UK. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Yemen are the five worst impacted countries for IS attacks.
  • Five countries in which UK troops are operating or have operated are among the 20 worst impacted by non-state use of explosive weapons: Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya.
  • Incidents of explosive weapon use by non-state actors have been decreasing since 2019, and reported Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks have been decreasing since 2018
  • Possible impact of COVID-19 and restrictions
  • Roads, urban residential areas, villages, armed bases, and markets have been the five most targeted locations in non-state explosive attacks
  • Recorded attacks on armed bases have been increasing relatively steadily from 2013 to 2019, before decreasing in 2020 and 2021 and beginning to rise again in 2022

Action on Armed Violence

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) is a London-based charity which records, investigates, and disseminates evidence of armed violence against civilians worldwide. Specifically, AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor, which began in 2010, surveys English-language media reports of explosive weapons incidents in which at least one casualty was recorded. The monitor was developed to help address the gap in systematic data collection of casualties caused by the use of explosive weapons, as a contribution towards broader measuring and monitoring of all forms of armed violence. Data on the context of the incident and details of the resulting harm is logged and analysed on an ongoing basis, including civilian and combatant casualties, the type of explosive weapon used, the means of deployment, the user of the weapon, and the location of the incident.

AOAV is the only global monitor of casualty-causing incidents of explosive weapon use, and as such bears witness to evolving trends and patterns in the field. Over the decades, AOAV has played a leading role among civil society organisations in promoting and securing international agreements related to disarmament, including the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty (1997), Protocol V (2003), the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development (2006), the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008), the Oslo Commitments on Armed Violence (2010), the Arms Trade Treaty (2014), the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, and the Dublin Conference to Adopt the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons (2022).

Evidence:

Which overseas terror groups or organisations most directly threaten UK interests?

Over the past decade (2013-2022), AOAV has recorded six incidents of non-state explosive weapon use on UK soil. Islamic State (IS) perpetrated two of those attacks, and caused the vast majority of civilian harm from non-state explosive violence in the UK (Fig.1)

24/02/2013Woman injured in Loyalist Volunteer Force IED attack at her home in BelfastThe Guardian
22/05/201722 killed, 200 injured in ISIS suicide bombing at Ariana Grande concert in ManchesterBBC
15/09/201751 injured in attempted ISIS bombing of Westbound District line train in LondonBBC
23/09/2019Boy injured in IED explosion at his house in Plymouth; 2 males arrested for making and storing explosive weaponsPlymouth Herald
01/12/2020Man injured while building pipe bomb in Craigavon, Northern IrelandBelfast Live
14/11/2021Bomber killed, man injured in attempted suicide bombing outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital; unaffiliated attackBBC
Figure 1: incidents of non-state explosive weapon use in the UK, 2013-2022

IS and IS-affiliated groups have also been the most prolific non-state users of explosive weapons recorded by AOAV globally.

AOAV has recorded IS attacks in 33 countries over the past decade, including the afore-mentioned two on UK soil, with Iraq and Syria bearing the brunt of IS explosive weapon use. Iraq is also one of the countries in which UK troops have operated. Figure 2 shows the countries in which IS and their affiliates have perpetrated the most attacks, and Figure 3 shows the yearly breakdown of explosive weapon use attributed to IS over the past decade. Recorded IS attacks over the past decade peaked in 2017, when 261 were recorded. Numbers have been lower between 2020 and 2022, with 97 ISIS attacks recorded last year. However, 83 IS attacks have already been recorded in 2023 (up to end of April), suggesting that the trend is towards rising numbers of attacks.

Citing a report which AOAV presented at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) 2022 Amended Protocol II Group of Experts meeting, in Geneva (20-21 July 2022), “pro-ISIS groups adapted their efforts to disseminate propaganda material specifically in the English language” during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns (2020-2021), suggesting that the threat IS represents in terms of reaching out to and radicalising UK citizens was exacerbated by their adaptation to the restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital space is an increasingly significant dimension in counter-terrorism, and non-state groups, in particular IS, have been effective in mobilising their resources to make that space work for them.

Iraq564
Syria522
Afghanistan106
Egypt48
Yemen36
Libya28
Pakistan17
Turkey13
Nigeria10
Philippines7
Figure 2: Countries impacted by IS attacks, 2013-2022

201351
201452
2015130
2016208
2017261
2018196
2019207
202094
2021117
202297
Figure 3: yearly breakdown of IS explosive weapon use, 2013-2022

In which regions and countries overseas is the terrorist threat to the UK acute or developing?

AOAV data on Afghanistan suggests that the presence of UK and international troops is associated with higher levels of explosive weapon use by non-state actors (Fig. 4). It is likely that the terrorist threat to the UK and to the local population will be most acute in those regions where the UK is or has operated.

201355
2014 (Dec: UK combat operations end)56
201543
201690
2017 (April: US re-deployment to Helmand; ongoing combat missions)143
2018234
2019350
2020533
2021 (Aug: UK Operation PITTING concludes)334
202277
Figure 4: recorded incidents of non-state explosive weapon use in Afghanistan, 2013-2022

Currently, UK troops are operating or have operated in the Baltics, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, the Falklands, Germany, Gibraltar, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan (https://www.army.mod.uk/deployments/).

Five of these fourteen countries are among the 20 countries most impacted by non-state explosive weapon use over the past decade: Iraq ranks third (1,700 attacks), Somalia seventh (560), Nigeria twelfth (224), Mali sixteenth (109), and Kenya nineteenth (78). Figure 5 shows the 20 most impacted countries for non-state explosive weapon use, and Figure 6 shows the yearly breakdown of recorded attacks in those countries where UK troops are present. Across these theatres, non-state explosive attacks increase from 2016 onwards, with most trending upwards at the close of 2022. In Mali, 2022 was the year with the most recorded explosive weapon use by non-state actors.

Syria2460
Afghanistan1915
Iraq (UK troops)1700
Pakistan725
Ukraine680
India643
Somalia (UK troops)560
Yemen441
Myanmar375
Libya246
Philippines229
Nigeria (UK troops)224
Turkey214
Egypt177
Thailand167
Mali (UK troops)109
Saudi Arabia105
Israel91
Kenya (UK troops)78
Cameroon50
Figure 5: countries impacted by non-state explosive weapon use, 2013-2022

YearIraqSomaliaNigeriaMaliKenya
20135011263
201447141402
201560252425
2016221572749
20173016944816
201839189391411
20191606916199
20201288014163
202119773131810
202214573312210
Figure 6: Non-state explosive weapon use in countries where UK troops operate, 2013-2022

As mentioned, IS remains the most prolific known non-state user of explosive weapons, and has perpetrated the most injurious attacks on UK soil. The threat of IS is still very much alive in Syria and Iraq, and their affiliate in Afghanistan has carried out many mass-casualty attacks targeting civilians, predominantly Shia Muslims, and Taliban members – despite the Taliban’s assurances that they would minimise the threat posed by IS and their “worldwide caliphate” ambitions. As such, these theatres are likely to bear witness to both an existing and developing threat to the UK.

What factors and trends can be identified in the global terror picture?

Overall, recorded explosive attacks by non-state actors have been decreasing since 2019. Levels peaked in 2018 and 2019, when 1,644 and 1,771 attacks were recorded respectively, before decreasing significantly in 2021 and 2022, with 13,70 and 1,334 recorded attacks (Fig. 7).

Again, citing the report which AOAV presented at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) 2022 Amended Protocol II Group of Experts meeting, regarding Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks specifically, “data collected by AOAV from 2011 to 2021 suggests that certain elements of the virus, the pandemic, and the response to the pandemic, seem to have had tangible impacts on extremist groups’ use of IEDs. In particular, there is a notable decrease in the global number of IED attacks in that time, and a proportional decrease in attacks in populated areas, as well as a significant decrease in suicide IED attacks.”

Reported IED attacks (the explosive weapon predominantly used by non-state actors) have been diminishing gradually since 2018, after a steep rise from the lower levels recorded in 2015 and 2016 (Fig. 8). IED attacks decreased by 7% in 2019, dropping from 1,329 recorded attacks to 1,230, and by a further 4% in 2020, from 1,230 to 1,176. However, in 2021 AOAV recorded a 12% decrease in incidents of IED attacks, from the 1,176 recorded incidents in 2020 to 1,033 in 2021, and a further 13% decrease to 895 attacks in 2022.

2013350
2014447
2015667
20161209
20171377
20181644
20191771
20201615
20211370
20221334
Figure 7: recorded incidents of explosive weapon use by non-state actors, 2013-2022

20131461
20141100
2015907
2016904
20171058
20181329
20191230
20201176
20211033
2022895
Figure 8: recorded IED attacks, 2013-2022

IEDs are by far the explosive weapons most used by non-state actors (Fig. 9), with 8,252 incidents of non-state actors using IEDs recorded over the past decade compared to 2,998 incidents using ground-launched weapons. When non-state actors have used ground-launched weapons, non-specific shelling (1,029 attacks), mortar shelling (646), grenades (528), and rockets (404) are the most used (Fig.10). This raises the question of the role of weapons leakage and trade in global terrorism, as manufactured weapons are clearly a significant element in the arsenal of non-state groups. Further, the backing of certain non-state groups by state actors impacts their access to manufactured weapons.

IED8252
Ground-launched2998
Mine346
Air-launched87
Multiple types75
Unclear26
Figure 9: weapon types used by non-state actors, 2013-2022

Shelling1029
Mortar646
Grenade528
Rocket404
Missile134
Artillery shell117
Rocket-propelled grenade76
Multiple explosive weapons63
Tank shell1
Figure 10: ground-launched weapons used by non-state actors, 2013-2022

Over the past decade, roads, urban residential areas, villages, armed bases, and markets have been the five most targeted locations in non-state explosive attacks (Fig. 11). 2,516 attacks were recorded on roads, 1,741 in urban residential areas, and 1,135 in villages. Of note, recorded attacks on armed bases have been increasing relatively steadily from 2013 to 2019 (Fig.12), before decreasing in 2020 and 2021 and beginning to rise again in 2022. 2016 was the year in which AOAV recorded the highest level of attacks on armed bases, 110, and 91 attacks on armed bases were recorded last year.

Road2516
Urban residential1741
Village1135
Armed base749
Market436
Commercial premises393
Multiple (urban)371
public building286
Police station272
Place of worship237
Entertainment188
School164
Other151
Town centre133
Transport related infrastructure131
Public transport124
Public gathering123
Agricultural land110
Hospital80
Encampment72
Hotel54
Humanitarian infrastructure13
Figure 11: locations targeted by non-state explosive weapon use, 2013-2022

201340
201440
201562
2016110
201782
201886
2019103
202077
202158
202291
Figure 12: recorded attacks on armed bases, 2013-2022