This is the third blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2017 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
It is then, perhaps, of little surprise to learn that 2016 was a particularly grim and bloody year for suicide bombings. Between January and November, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity that records the harm wrought by explosive violence (and one that I head up), listed 236 suicide attacks globally, as reported in English-language media. This data has yet to be formally published in our annual review, because at the time of writing there remains December to include, but terror strikes so far this year have resulted in 11,621 deaths and injuries, a 19% increase on the same period in the year before. 78% (9,020) of the total harmed so far this year have been civilians.
Suicide attacks have, it seems, firmly shifted from being an exceptional weapon of war – used rarely – to one that has been almost normalised in some conflict zones. This year, 21 countries saw at least one suicide attack at the time of writing. Of these, five countries saw civilians account for 84% of the deaths and injuries from attacks: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.
But is there a chance that, with 2016 almost behind us, 2017 might offer some respite: a hope of less, not more, deaths from suicide attacks? Sadly, I fear not. If there is a dark prediction to be made for the next calendar year, it is that there will be more, and deadlier, suicide bombs than ever before.
Of course, it is important to note that suicide bombings, over the past six years, have not fluctuated dramatically on the global stage. Between 2011 and 2016 – the period that AOAV’s data stretches over - the year with the highest amount of suicide attacks, 2013, had 270 attacks. In comparison, the year with the lowest, 2011, had 205. Not that major a difference.
What is concerning, though, is that suicide attacks are – it seems – becoming more expertly targeted and, in turn, deadlier. By mid-December, 2016, the average number of civilian casualties per attack stands at 38. This compares to 24 in 2014.
The very fact that the armed group Islamic State (IS) is losing territory, is also likely to cause an increase next year in suicide attacks - with large numbers of civilian casualties following. Such attacks have already taken place from Paris to Jakarta, and are both a result of top-down decision-making by IS leaders, as well as a desire among IS supporters to “avenge” the Caliphate.
In 2016 alone, IS has claimed more than 1,000 “martyrdom operations.” Such figures are difficult to verify and are probably overstated, but the group has certainly increased suicide operations, both as a result of lost territory, and also through their defense of Mosul. There is no reason to think 2017 will be any less. IS boasts a long list of willing martyrs for the cause.
In addition, in Syria both IS and other groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have, throughout the conflict, gradually shifted their suicide attacks from predominantly targeting armed actors to targeting civilians. It is likely that populated areas lived in by people perceived as supporters of the Syrian regime will continue to be targeted in 2017.
Iraq may also see a bleak 2017. Admittedly, although Iraq is the one country in the world that has been most heavily affected by suicide bombings, levels of attacks there today are lower than they were between 2005 and 2007. However, in 2016, suicide bombings in Iraq increased for the first time since 2013; compared to last year civilian casualties of suicide bombings were up by 118%. Although much of this is due to the Mosul operation, it is likely that Iraq will see more suicide attacks in 2017. The country is still IS’ home-base, and is also the country where the group has traditionally committed its most lethal suicide bombings, such as the Khan Bani Saad suicide bombing in July 2015 and the Baghdad bombing in July 2016.
The arrival of IS into Afghanistan may also mean more large-scale suicide bombings in urban centers there, both as reactionary attacks but also as a result of rivalry with the Taliban. While, more broadly, Afghanistan has so far been relatively spared from sectarian violence, IS suicide attacks there appear to have been increasingly conducted along sectarian lines. If this trend continues, it does not bode well.
Libya could also have a worse year for suicide attacks. The ongoing civil war, along with the fact that IS has lost important territory in country (and as such might resort to defensive suicide bombing methods), combined with the presence of ever-fresh jihadi recruits from next-door Tunisia, means that it is likely to continue to see suicide bombings in 2017.
Turkey has already seen several high profile suicide bombings by both IS and Kurdish separatists, both of which the country is now fighting in Syria. As a result of this intervention, Turkey is likely to continue to see suicide bombings in 2017.
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 there in 2017.
Finally, there is the ever-present threat of suicide attacks in Western Europe. IS will “likely” carry out new terror attacks across Europe, including suicide bombings - a fear expressed by the EU-wide law enforcement agency, Europol. Intelligence services estimate that dozens of jihadis under IS’ 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 in the global community to address the rising use of suicide bombings. The use of aerial explosive weaponry to target insurgents has, repeatedly, been shown to act as a strong recruitment driver for terrorist groups. As AOAV regularly records, almost 90% of those killed or injured in air strikes in populated areas are civilians, and their surviving relatives are all too often radicalised following the explosive blast.
Suicidal violence is not, though, guaranteed. But it requires dynamic action to prevent future rivers of blood.
Far more needs to be done in recording the impact of suicide strikes; more needs to be done in 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 networks 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 has given us so far.
Iain Overton is Executive Director at Action on Armed Violence