The worldwide incidence of suicide bombings nearly doubled last year, driven largely by worsening conflict in Iraq, according to a new Israeli study. Most were carried out by Sunni Muslim militants in the Middle East, but researchers also found a significant uptick in other parts of the Muslim world, including Nigeria.
The rise in attacks was driven chiefly by non-state organizations, particularly the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, amid a backdrop of weakening government and increasingly religious overtones in both fresh and ongoing conflicts.
There were a total of 592 attacks last year, a 94 percent increase over 2013, according to Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Those attacks killed about 4,400 people, compared with 3,200 the year before.
“IS conquests in Iraq and Syria, followed by the mid-2014 declaration of the Islamic caliphate by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, led to an escalation in violence, including the widespread use of suicide attacks by the group,” concluded the report.
Indeed, attacks in Iraq accounted for nearly three-quarters of all those carried out in the Middle East – the worst year for such attacks in Iraq since 2008. The number of attacks in Syria remained steady at 41, of which IS claimed responsibility for one quarter. As the Syrian war increasingly spilled over into Lebanon, suicide bombings there quadrupled to 13. And Libya, torn by rival armed factions, saw 11 such attacks.
While self-annihilation as a tactic of war has a long history, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers is credited with refining its modern form, including the use of suicide vests and female bombers to assassinate leaders and sow sectarian fear among civilians. The group was defeated in 2009 by Sri Lanka’s military.
Today the tactic is more readily associated with militancy in the Middle East and other non-Arab Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Nigeria. The INSS study identified a doubling in such attacks in Afghanistan and a tenfold spike in Nigeria, which saw 32 attacks. The number of suicide bombings perpetrated by women tripled to 15, all but one of which were carried out in Africa.
The study said no confirmed suicide bombings were carried out during last summer’s conflict in Gaza, contrary to Israeli media reports. A 2014 Pew study found that Palestinians in Gaza were the most supportive among more than a dozen countries or territories surveyed of suicide attacks in the name of Islam. According to the Pew study, nearly two-thirds of respondents in Gaza agreed that suicide bombings could often or sometimes be “justified against civilian targets in order to defend Islam from its enemies.”
The INSS study notes that the perpetrators of suicide attacks, praised by many Muslims as martyrs and resistance heroes, rarely succeed in killing foreign occupiers: only 3 percent of such attacks in 2014 targeted foreign forces. Indeed, the vast majority of victims were Muslims, many of them members of security forces.
Some academics, including University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, have argued that the tactic has become popular over the past decade or more among militant groups because of its effectiveness against foreign militaries and elected governments.
Of the 188 suicide attacks carried out by 1980 and 2001, Prof. Pape found that all but nine occurred within the context of a campaign to secure political or territorial concessions. He links these suicide bombings with the withdrawal of French and American troops from Lebanon in the 1980s, the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon, Gaza, and parts of the West Bank, and the release of a jailed Kurdish leader in Turkey, among other successes.