As the new year dawns, there is some final bad news from 2016. Figures collected by Action on Armed Violence () and due to be published shortly show that 2016 was a particularly grim year for suicide bombings.
Between January and November this year we noted 236 suicide attacks globally, as reported in reputable English-language media. Such terror strikes resulted in 11,621 deaths and injuries, a 19% increase on the same period the year before, and 78% (9,020) of the total harmed have been civilians.
Suicide attacks are becoming more expertly targeted and, in turn, deadlier
Suicide bombs have, it seems, shifted from being an exceptional weapon of war – used rarely – to one almost normalised. This year, 21 countries saw at least one suicide attack.
Will 2017 offer some respite from suicide attacks? Sadly, it is not likely. If there is a dark prediction to be made, it is that more harm will come from suicide bombs than ever before.
It is important to note that the annual number of suicide bombings globally, over the past six years (the time that AOAV has been running its global monitor of explosive violence), has not dramatically fluctuated. The year with the highest number of suicide attacks – 2013 – saw 270 strikes. The year with the lowest – 2011 – saw 205. Not that major a difference.
What concerns, though, is that suicide attacks are becoming more expertly targeted and, in turn, deadlier. By the end of November 2016, the average number of civilian casualties per attack this year stands at 38. This compares to 24 in 2014.
Furthermore, the fact that the armed group is losing territory indicates a possible future rise in suicide attacks. Such attacks have already taken place from Paris to Jakarta, and are a result of tactical decisions made by Isis leaders, as well as a desire among Isis supporters to “avenge” the caliphate. In 2016, Isis claimed more than 1,000 “martyrdom” operations. Such figures are difficult to verify, but the group has certainly increased its suicide operations and Isis boasts a long list of willing martyrs.
Put simply, when Isis is pushed into a corner, zealots among their ranks turn to the suicide belt or car.
This year, Syria saw a sharp increase in suicide strikes, with a 630% rise in deaths and injuries to November, compared to the same period last year. In addition, in both Isis and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have recently shifted from predominantly targeting armed actors to civilians. It is likely that areas filled with people supportive of the Syrian regime will continue to be attacked in 2017.
Iraq may also see a bleak 2017. Up to November 2016, civilian casualties from suicide attacks increased by 118% compared to 2015. The country is still the home base for Isis, and also where the group has traditionally committed its most lethal suicide attacks, such as the bombing of (at least 260 killed and injured), and the (at least 566 killed and injured).
The arrival of Isis in Afghanistan may also mean more suicide bombings in urban centres there, partly as a result of rivalry with the Taliban. While Afghanistan has, so far, been relatively spared from sectarian violence, Isis suicide attacks there appear increasingly to be along . If this trend continues, it does not bode well.
Turkey has already seen several high profile suicide bombings by both Isis and Kurdish separatists, both of which the country is now fighting in Syria. AOAV’s figures show that has seen a 15% increase this year in deaths and injuries caused by suicide bombings, compared to the same period in 2015 and it is likely this trend will continue.
Pakistan’s future is also uncertain. Despite successes in combatting terrorist groups in the country in recent years, there was a 114% increase in civilian casualties of suicide bombings in 2016, compared to the same period in the year before. It is likely that, as certain groups in Pakistan continue to be pushed back, more retaliatory suicide attacks may occur. Suicide bombings by the offshoot, , were responsible for 76% of all the civilian deaths and injuries caused by suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2016.
Finally, there is the ever-present threat of suicide attacks in western Europe. Isis will likely carry out new terror attacks across Europe, including suicide bombings, . Intelligence services estimate that dozens of jihadis under Isis’ direction are already in Europe alongside other lone wolf terrorists who have no direct contact with the group. While this might be scare tactics designed to bolster national security funding, if the recent past is anything to go by, suicide bombings will likely remain part of Europe’s future.
Yet, despite these dire predictions, there is a frustrating lack of focused, constructive energy to address the rising use of suicide bombings.
Some toxic commentators say we need to hit Isis harder from the air and that “” in doing so. But the use of aerial-dropped bombs to target insurgents has been shown to act as a strong recruitment driver for terrorist groups. As AOAV , almost 90% of those killed or injured in airstrikes in populated areas are civilians – a grossly disproportionate figure – and their surviving relatives are all too often radicalised following the explosive blast.
We must commemorate the victims of terrorism with love and hope
Far more, instead, needs to be done understanding how to prevent would-be bombers getting their hands on pre-cursor materials; Islamic scholars and imams, as well as politicians and diplomats, need to be more vocal in their condemnation of the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons against civilians; and funding needs to be found to ensure that civil society, businesses, trade officials, police units, UN agencies, militaries and any other key component of the counter-IED network come together to respond imaginatively and creatively to this terrible weapon.
Failing to do so will result in 2017 being as terrible a year as 2016.