There were fewer suicide attacks worldwide in 2015 than 2014, “only” 452 as compared with 592, according to a new report by an Israeli research team.
But drawing conclusions from a mere comparison of the overall figures is “not smart,” cautions Yoram Schweitzer, the head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. For one thing, the 2014 figure was strikingly high (2013 saw a markedly lower 382 suicide attacks), so nobody should start feeling encouraged. For another, Schweitzer and his team — project coordinator Daria Schitrit and team members Smadar Shaul and Einav Yogev — employ a sophisticated methodology to keep track of suicide terrorism statistics that goes well beyond simple totals.
And so, before we get to the conclusions of his latest report, some methodology and context.
As he explained this week to The Times of Israel, “We do not count every claim of a suicide attack. In other words, it’s not enough if Islamic State claims a certain number of suicide attacks. Quite a few groups like to claim that they carried out suicide attacks to make themselves look more important and powerful. We always rely on at least two sources to determine that a suicide attack really did take place. Even then, every determination we make is always qualified because we can never be exact about the percentages, and certainly not in places like Syria.
“Then we come to another issue,” Schweitzer elaborated: “Which terror attacks we define as suicide attacks and which we do not. My own definition includes all terror attacks that were perpetrated by a suicide bomber who carried explosive material on his person or on a mobile platform. They are planted inside or sent to the targets, and their certain deaths define them as suicides. In other words, the definition does not include ‘sacrifice’ attacks of various kinds, or people wielding knives or scissors.”
Unlike other researchers, Schweitzer does not believe suicide attacks in the Middle East began in 1983, when Hezbollah operatives attacked the American Embassy and the Marines headquarters in Beirut, but two years earlier — with an attack perpetrated by a suicide terrorist sent, evidently by the Iranians, to the Iraqi Embassy in Lebanon.
“Another important point that we need to understand here is that we do not count suicide attacks according to the number of suicide attackers. In other words, we consider the terror attack that took place in Paris two months ago as a single attack, even though there were seven suicide terrorists.”
And now for the 2015 conclusions.
“Unlike what people usually think, last year was not exceptionally ‘wild’ as regards suicide attacks. There were far fewer attacks than in 2014, although the number of fatalities remained almost the same — 4,370 people killed in 2015 as compared with 4,400 people the year before.”
Which means, “to put it another way, the terror attacks are more deadly.”
Schweitzer elaborates: “As far as the number of suicide attackers, there were roughly 735 in 2015 as compared with 937 the previous year. As regards the ratio of suicide attackers to terror attacks, there were almost two suicide attackers per terror attack in 2014, and the statistic for 2015 is not too far from that either.”
The Middle East continues to lead the list in the number of terror attacks, just as it did in 2014. But there is a highly significant decrease here: 207 terror attacks in the Middle East in 2015 as opposed to 370 in 2014 — a decline of 44 percent. The decrease in the number of terror attacks is attributed mainly to the dramatic reduction in the number of attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had topped the list in recent years.
According to Schweitzer, 115 terror attacks took place in Iraq in 2015 as opposed to 271 in 2014, perhaps because of the relative stability in regions that were formerly part of Iraq (some of them under Islamic State’s domination, others ruled by the Iraqi government, and the third an autonomous Kurdish region).
In Afghanistan, 69 terror attacks took place in 2015, as compared with 124 in 2014. The number of terror attacks decreased in Lebanon as well (three in 2015, as compared with 13 in 2014), and in Yemen (13 in 2015, as compared with 29 in 2014, although a particularly deadly terror attack took place there in March, killing 137 people). In 2015, 24 terror attacks by the Pakistani Taliban took place in Pakistan (as opposed to 36 in 2014), and one terror attack took place in Tunisia.
The number of suicide attacks in Syria remained about the same, with 39 in 2015, as compared with 41 in 2014. Egypt experienced an increase, with 12 attacks in 2015, as compared with four in 2014 (most of them in Sinai). The number went up slightly in Libya, from 11 in 2014 to 13 in 2015. Five suicide attacks took place in Saudi Arabia in 2015, compared to only one suicide attack there in 2014.
The rising ‘stars’: Africa — and women
“The largest increase for the year was in Africa,” Schweitzer says, “with 122 suicide attacks in 2015 as compared with 32 terror attacks in 2014. The responsible party is Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya, the Islamic State’s West African group, formerly known as Boko Haram and Ansaru, which joined IS last March. In 2015, 96 suicide attacks took place in Nigeria, 13 in Cameroon, eight in Chad and five in Niger.
“The attacks began spreading beyond Nigeria’s borders only in 2015, after Boko Haram and Ansaru affiliated themselves with the Islamic State,” he notes. “These new countries where suicide attacks were carried out had been part of a coalition that worked against Boko Haram. In other words, the attacks had two factors in common. One was Islamic State’s desire to spread, ideologically and physically, throughout the region as much as possible. The other was its desire to hurt those who had attacked it.”
He continues, “The second motif that appears to be on the increase is the number of terror attacks carried out by women. This is an important point. In 2015, 66 terror attacks were carried out solely by women, out of a total of 70 terror attacks in which women were involved, as compared with only 13 in 2014. In 2015, 124 women took part in suicide attacks, as compared with 19 in 2014. Almost all of them — 120 out of 124 — were dispatched by Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya. So, in fact, the number of women suicide attackers increased in only one region: Africa. The other four female suicide attackers were from Somalia, Afghanistan, Turkey and India. Of the 120 women attackers from Africa, 35 were teenagers and children aged eight to 18.”
(It is not clear whether these terror attacks have any connection with the kidnapping of hundreds of teenage girls from the school in the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014. The exact number of kidnap victims remains unknown. The suicide attacks perpetrated by women in Africa began two months later.)
The new arena that was added to the list of suicide-attack venues in 2015 is central Europe, with the bloodbath two months ago in Paris. Five suicide attacks were carried out in Turkey, too — one by the Kurdish underground; one by a left-wing group; and three by the Islamic State.
The familiar ‘star’: Islamic State and radical Islam
Not surprisingly, the Islamic State continues to play a leading role in Schweitzer’s study this year as well, with 174 of 2015’s 452 suicide attacks attributed to it. The Islamic State took responsibility for 75 of them; 74 are attributed to Islamic State in Iraq and another 25 in Syria (without direct responsibility). This number does not include the terror attacks that were carried out by “the auxiliaries” of IS — including 134 suicide attacks that were carried out by members of Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya and Wilayat Sinai. Just for the sake of comparison, al-Nusra Front took responsibility for only four suicide attacks. The participation of al-Qaeda, with its many affiliated groups the world over, in suicide attacks grew weaker this year, continuing a trend that was noticed in 2014.
Of course, we cannot avoid mentioning the religious element as the most significant factor that motivates the suicide terrorists throughout the world. Here’s the most dramatic statistic: 450 of 452 suicide terror attacks in 2015 were perpetrated by Muslim extremists. One of the remaining two attacks was carried out by the Kurdish underground. The other was perpetrated by a woman supporter of a leftist group in Turkey.
No suicide attacks were carried out in the Palestinian arena in 2015. Schweitzer offers no comfort. “None came to fruition, but there were plans and attempts,” he notes.