MS Risk Blog

IS Suicide Attacks on the Rise

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A report by the Hague’s International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) has revealed the extent of suicide attack tactics by IS. The report concluded IS is carrying out more suicide bombings than ever before as “utterly brainwashed” militants continue to battle in Iraq and Syria.

Charlie Winter, the author of the report, said that while al-Qaeda’s suicide attacks were mainly carried out by foreigners on civilians, IS mainly sends local operatives against military forces. “This reflects a new phase of operationalisation for suicide warfare; a tactical shift with strategic implications that will change the insurgent and terrorist landscape for years to come,” he said. “The suicide attack, that most shocking tactic of terrorists and insurgents, has never been more commonplace than it is today.” He found at least 923 suicide operations were carried out by IS in the 12 months from December 2015 to November last year and predicted that number would continue to increase. Around 84 per cent were military operations, while 16 per cent targeted civilians. Most of the attacks use vehicles packed with explosives, sometimes with the addition of guns, and others used fighters wearing vests or carrying guns and belts to detonate during combat. IS has long used suicide bombings as a military tactic to kill and intimidate enemy fighters, but the number of such attacks has rocketed as it continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, more than doubling from 61 operations in December 2015 to 132 in November.

Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, said the trend was a sign of “military weakness”. “Suicide bombers are individuals who can be deployed using the minimum available explosives, whereas anything larger scale would require more sophisticated weaponry,” she said. “The fact they are increasingly relying on suicide bombers means they do not have the kind of military capacity they used to have to enable them to use heavy weapons.” Khatib believes the group’s supply of weaponry and ammunition seized from overrun Iraqi and Syrian government forces and opposition fighters is drying up, as its supply lines are closed off by tightening border controls and enemy advances. Khatib also discussed how IS’ use of suicide bombers was initially offensive, with the group deploying them in a similar way to how a conventional army would use artillery in ground assaults on a military target, but the tactic has now become a last line of defence. This does not mean, however, that the tactic is unsuccessful. “It has managed to intimidate their targets,” Khatib said. “IS continues to use them knowing that targets are unlikely to use the same tactic.”

IS propaganda claims 90 suicide bombings were carried out by the group in January alone, mainly in areas of Iraq where the group is under attack. Winter said that although the bombings occur most frequently where IS is under military pressure, they are used tactically and the group does not waste fighters on cities like Fallujah that it considers a lost cause. “It is apparent from the scale of IS’ suicide industry that there exists a dedicated infrastructure for manufacturing would-be martyrs and it is only increasing in efficiency,” he warned. “IS’ suicide tacticians have perfected their art, not only developing explosives that are more powerful and reliable than ever, but creating what appears to be a sustainable stream of utterly brainwashed would-be suicide fighters.”