Analysis: Islamic State claims historically high number of suicide attacks in 2016

17-01-01-is-claims-107-martyrdom-operations-in-iraq-and-syria-in-dec-2016-768x545Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, January 3, 2017:

The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency claims that the so-called caliphate carried out at least 1,141 “martyrdom operations” (suicide attacks) in Iraq, Syria and Libya in 2016. The overwhelming majority of these, 1,112 in all, were launched in Iraq and Syria.

On Jan. 1, Amaq posted an infographic (seen on the right) summarizing 107 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria for the month of Dec. 2016. As The Long War Journal repeatedly documented last year, Amaq produces a similar image each month. The total for all twelve months of 2016 is 1,141 suicide bombings, including 29 in Libya.

If Amaq’s figures are accurate, then the Islamic State set a new record high for suicide attacks in 2016. Indeed, the scale of such operations is incredible, even by the standards of modern jihadist organizations. For example, the Taliban claims that its members were responsible for just 32 “martyrdom” attacks during the same time frame.

17-01-03-1112-martyrdom-operations-carried-out-by-fighters-of-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-syria-in-2016-768x432Earlier today, Amaq also published an infographic (seen on the right) summarizing the group’s 1,112 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria. The majority of these, 761 (or 68 percent), were aimed at Iraqi government forces or Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. The infographics do not separately list those bombings that targeted Iranian-backed Shiite militias that fight alongside the Iraqi government.

Kurdish fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), were the second most frequent target of the Islamic State’s “martyrs.” According to Amaq, 135 such operations targeted the PKK/YPG. Most of these took place in northern Syria, where the two sides have been engaged in heavy fighting. The PKK is a US-designated terrorist organization. The YPG has helped deliver some of the Islamic State’s biggest losses since 2014, including in Kobane.

Another 133 suicide bombers struck fighters loyal to Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. The two sides frequently clash in the Homs and Deir Ezzor provinces. The Islamic State also carried out high-profile “martyrdom” operations against the Syrian regime elsewhere in 2016 as well.

The remaining 83 “martyrs” were deployed against Turkey’s armed forces and allied rebel organizations in northern Syria. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August and quickly claimed territory from the so-called caliphate along the border. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists have been trying to stymie the Turkish-led offensive on Al Bab, a town in the northern part of Syria’s Aleppo province, and some of the bombings took place in the neighboring villages.

The Islamic State has become particularly adept at using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). According to Amaq, 797 of the 1,112 suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria in 2016 relied on VBIEDs. Another 18 were dual operations involving vehicles. Therefore, fully 73 percent of the bombings used VBIEDs. The remaining suicide operations used explosive belts (214), bomb vests (82), or a motor bike (1).

The Long War Journal has noticed a small discrepancy in Amaq’s reporting. The Islamic State’s propaganda arm listed suicide attacks in Libya on several of its monthly infographics in 2016, but stopped doing so in the latter third of the year. For instance, Amaq separately reported that tanks and various other vehicles belonging to General Khalifa Haftar’s men were destroyed in “a martyrdom operation in the customs zone west of Benghazi” on Dec. 18. However, this bombing is not listed on Amaq’s infographic for December (seen above). This means that some suicide attacks reported by Amaq in Libya, as well as elsewhere, are not included in the organization’s tallies. The infographic tallying 1,112 suicide attacks in 2016 excludes Libya entirely.

The battle for Mosul

In October, the US military, Iraqi government, Kurdish forces, Iranian-backed militias and others began an offensive to retake Mosul, which is located in Nineveh province. Mosul is one of the Islamic State’s two de facto capitals, so it is unsurprising that the group has dispatched an incredible number of suicide bombers in its defense of the city.

In fact, according to Amaq, 220 “martyrdom operations” were carried out during the first ten weeks of the battle for Mosul. The bombings during this ten week period, which began in mid-October and ended on Dec. 26, account for nearly 20 percent of the claimed suicide attacks in 2016 across Iraq and Syria combined.

The figure for the battle of Mosul is based on separate infographics produced by Amaq specifically for the fight in and around the city. The infographics for the first seven weeks of the battle for Mosul were previously reproduced by FDD’s Long War Journal. [See: “Islamic State defends Mosul with dozens of suicide bombers” and “Islamic State has claimed more than 1,000 suicide attacks thus far in 2016.”] The infographics for weeks eight through ten of the battle can be seen below.

Claiming suicide bombings at a historically high rate

As The Long War Journal has previously reported, the Islamic State claims to have carried out suicide bombings at a historically high rate in 2016.

Amaq’s infographics indicate that the group launched an average of 93 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria per month throughout the year. This figure does not include the suicide bombings in Libya and elsewhere, which would only make the average even higher.

According to open source data compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), all terrorist organizations around the globe carried out 906 (76 per month) suicide attacks in 2015 and 739 (62 per month) in 2014. The year 2015 was the previous high water mark for suicide bombings. Many of those attacks in 2014 and 2015 were orchestrated by the Islamic State, but other organizations’ “martyrs” are included in the totals as well.

Therefore, the Islamic State’s figures suggest that the organization set a new record for suicide bombings in 2016 all by itself.

However, there are important caveats to keep in mind when assessing Amaq’s claims.

First, it is not possible to validate the total figures provided by Amaq. The Islamic State propaganda arm does post individual claims for many of the “martyrdom operations” tallied on its infographics. These statements indicate a location and target for each “martyr,” but this is not independent verification as it comes from the same source (Amaq). Furthermore, while open source reporting corroborates many such operations, it is unlikely that all of the suicide attacks are tracked in publicly-available sources. The fog of war often makes it difficult to document the precise details of bombings in chaotic war zones.

The identities of many of these attackers are not known. The Islamic State has used children or adolescents in at least some of its “martyrdom operations.” Such young people cannot be truly considered willing “martyrs.”

Some suicide bombers fail to reach their intended targets, but are probably included in Amaq’s totals anyway. Press reports have detailed how many Islamic State operatives fail to hit their mark prior to blowing themselves up. The US and its allies often destroy VBIEDs before they can do any damage.

It is also possible that Amaq exaggerates the efficacy of the group’s “martyrdom operations” by overstating the casualties caused and the total number of targets destroyed (including enemy vehicles) in the resulting explosions.

Most of the Islamic State’s suicide bombings are now defensive in nature, meaning that a large number of “martyrs” are being deployed as the caliphate’s grip on territory loosens. This can be seen in and around Mosul, north of Raqqa, Syria as well as in Sirte, Libya. All three cities are considered key to the Islamic State’s caliphate claim. As the group’s hold on Sirte began to slip during the summer of 2016, for example, the jihadists used a number of suicide bombers to slow their enemies’ approach. Eventually, Sirte fell to local Libyan forces backed by the US and its Western allies anyway. The same methods are being employed around Mosul and north of Raqqa.

It is also important to remember that suicide attacks are just one of the many tactics employed by the Islamic State.

Still, there is no question that Baghdadi’s men are relying on suicide bombers at a remarkable pace.

If Amaq’s data are accurate, the two months that witnessed the most suicide bombings by Baghdadi’s operation were October (120) and November (132). September saw the fewest suicide attacks with 53, according to Amaq.

Amaq News Agency’s infographics for weeks eight through ten of the battle for Mosul:

16-12-13-8b-eigth-week-of-the-battle-of-mosul-arabic-1-1024x576

16-12-21-9b-ninth-week-of-the-battle-of-mosul-1024x576

16-12-28-10b-the-tenth-week-of-the-battle-of-mosul-arabic-1024x576

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Islamic State claims more than 700 suicide attacks since beginning of the year

isis-propLong War Journal, BY | September 6, 2016 | tjoscelyn@gmail.com | @thomasjoscelyn

The Islamic State claims to have executed 729 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq, Syria and Libya during the first eight months of 2016. The figure comes from monthly data published by Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the so-called “caliphate” that releases infographics summarizing the group’s suicide attacks.

Amaq’s most recent infographic (seen on the right) [above] was released on Sept. 5. It indicates that the jihadists carried out 81 “martyrdom operations” in the month of August alone.

Most of the Islamic State’s suicide bombings, 431 of the 729 claimed (59 percent) since the beginning of the year, have been launched inside Iraq. Approximately 40 percent of these (174 of 431) have occurred in Anbar province, where the jihadists were engaged in fierce battles with Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias during much of the year. Salahuddin (101 suicide attacks), Nineveh (71), Baghdad (47), and Kirkuk (18) are the next most frequently targeted areas.

The Islamic State launched 268 suicide attacks in Syria (37 percent of the total) during the first eight months of the year. Aleppo province (106) was hit most frequently, followed by Hasakah (40), Deir Ezzor (34), Homs (27) and Raqqa (25) provinces.

The remaining 29 “martyrdom operations” took place in Libya, with 26 of these occurring in Sirte, the Islamic State’s base of operations in North Africa. The data demonstrate how the battle for Libya has evolved since the beginning of the year. Amaq claimed only one suicide attack in Libya from January through April. But the infographics show that the pace picked up beginning in May, with nine such bombings in Sirte that month. The uptick reflects the fact that Libyan militias loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) began their offensive on the city that same month. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists have lost significant ground since then.

The Islamic State’s fighters executed 12 suicide attacks in Sirte in August, according to the most recent infographic. US airstrikes have repeatedly targeted vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in the city since Aug. 1, meaning the figure would likely be higher if the Americans weren’t providing air support to Libyan fighters.

Iraqi forces are the most frequent target of the Islamic State’s “martyrdom operations,” as they were hit 406 times (56 percent of the total) from January through August. Bashar al Assad’s regime is the second most frequent target, with the Islamic State’s suicide bombers striking the Syrian government’s forces on 116 occasions. The remaining bombings struck the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Peshmerga (136 times combined), the “Syrian opposition” (42), Fajr Libya and militiamen loyal to UN-backed GNA (27) and General Khalifa Haftar’s fighters in Benghazi (2 times).

VBIEDs are used more often than individual bombers strapped with explosives, according to Amaq. The infographics count 492 VBIEDs used in suicide attacks (67 percent of the total) as compared to 224 bombings with explosive belts, jackets and vests. The remaining 13 are listed as “dual operations.”

If Amaq’s figures are accurate, then the Islamic State is launching suicide bombings at a historically high rate.

In June, the State Department reported that there were 726 “suicide attacks” executed by all perpetrators around the globe in 2015. Foggy Bottom relied on figures reported by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which maintains an “unclassified event database compiled from information in open-source reports of terrorist attacks.”

All terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, carried out an average of 61 suicide bombings per month in 2015.

According to Amaq’s statistics, the Islamic State has surpassed this estimate all by itself in just three countries (Iraq, Syria and Libya) during the first eight months of 2016, tallying 729 suicide attacks for an average of 91 per month. As The Long War Journal reported, 2015 was the previous high-water mark for suicide attacks.

Both July and August were below the monthly average for all of 2016. In July, Amaq reported 59 suicide attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Thus far, the high for the year occurred in May, with a purported 119 suicide bombings.

The fog of war makes it difficult to independently verify Amaq’s statistics. However, the figures are reasonable given the scale of the Islamic State’s fighting. Baghdadi’s men routinely claim credit for simultaneous suicide attacks. While suicide bombings are just one of the types of operations conducted by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, casualty figures suggest they are an especially effective tactic. For instance, the State Department noted in June that “[o]n average, suicide attacks in 2015 were 4.6 times as lethal as non-suicide attacks.” This makes “martyrdom operations” crucially important for the so-called “caliphate” as it wages war against multiple adversaries in each country where it operates.

[For more on the Islamic State’s claimed suicide operations, see LWJ reports: The Islamic State’s prolific ‘martyrdom’ machine and Islamic State claims nearly 600 suicide attacks in first six months of 2016.]

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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The Islamic State’s prolific ‘martyrdom’ machine

isis suicide attacksLONG WAR JOURNAL, BY | June 8, 2016:

The Islamic State claims to have executed 489 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq, Syria and Libya during the first five months of 2016. The figure comes from monthly data published by Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the so-called caliphate that releases infographics summarizing the group’s suicide attacks.

Amaq’s most recent infographic (seen on the right) indicates that the jihadists executed 119 “martyrdom operations” in the month of May alone. If Amaq’s figures are accurate, then the Islamic State is launching suicide attacks at a historically high rate.

Earlier this month, for example, the State Department reported that there were 726 “suicide attacks” executed by all perpetrators around the globe in 2015. Therefore, all terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, carried out an average of 61 suicide bombings per month in 2015. The Islamic State nearly doubled that rate in May and has exceeded it by more than 20 attacks each month this year, according to Amaq’s infographics.

The data referenced by Foggy Bottom is compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which maintains an “unclassified event database compiled from information in open-source reports of terrorist attacks.”

According to START’s data, 2015 witnessed a record number of suicide bombings. But 2016 is currently on pace to eclipse that high-water mark.

While Amaq’s claims are difficult to independently verify, the statistics are reasonable given the scale of the Islamic State’s fighting. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men routinely claim credit for simultaneous suicide bombings. The organization is taking on multiple adversaries in every country where it operates, making the use of suicide bombings (one of the jihadists’ most effective tactics) an especially important tool. For instance, the State Department noted that “[o]n average, suicide attacks in 2015 were 4.6 times as lethal as non-suicide attacks.”

A recent video from Al Hayat, another one of the Islamic State’s mouthpieces, trumpeted this “caliphate vs. the world” mentality. In “The Religion of Kufr Is One,” Al Hayat made it clear that Baghdadi’s enterprise is at war with virtually everyone else. The subtitle of the video, “The Islamic State and its methodology dealing with all apostate parties and nations of disbelief,” underscored the degree to which this is the group’s deliberate strategy.

The Islamic State’s prolific use of “martyrs” probably highlights both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, there are likely more people, predominately young men, willing to die for the jihadists’ cause today than ever. (It should also be noted that adolescents and even children have been used in suicide attacks.) On the other hand, most of the organization’s suicide attackers are being dispatched in areas where the “caliphate” is being challenged, including locations that were once under its control.

The Long War Journal assesses that Islamic State is being forced to deploy many of its “martyrs” because its territorial claims are being rolled back in Iraq, Syria and even Libya.

The Long War Journal has tallied the figures provided on Amaq’s infographics from January through May of 2016. The English-language versions of these infographics can be seen below.

The following observations have been culled from Amaq’s statistics.

Most of the Islamic State’s “martyrdom operations,” 303 of the 489 claimed (62 percent), have been carried out inside Iraq. Approximately half of these (152 of 303) have been launched in Anbar province, where the jihadists are engaged in fierce battles with Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias for months. Salahuddin (52 suicide attacks), Nineveh (40), Baghdad (32), and Kirkuk (17) are the next most frequently targeted areas.

The Islamic State launched 175 suicide attacks in Syria (36 percent of the total) during the first five months of the year. Aleppo province (59) was hit most frequently, followed by Hasakah (33), Deir Ezzor (25), Homs (20) and Raqqa (14) provinces. Raqqa is, of course, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. Amaq’s data indicate that 12 of the 14 suicide attacks there this year were carried out in February.

The remaining 11 “martyrdom operations” took place in Libya. Interestingly, Amaq claimed only one suicide attack in Libya from January through April. But the infographic for May shows 10 such bombings. Nine of the 10 have been executed in and around Sirte, the group’s central base of operations in Libya. The Islamic State’s presence in Sirte has been under assault from multiple directions for weeks, with the jihadists losing their grip on some of the neighboring towns and key facilities. Thus, the group is likely attempting to stymie its rivals’ advances with the deployment of its suicide bombers.

Iraqi forces are the most frequent target of the Islamic State’s “martyrdom operations,” as they were hit 279 times from January through May. Bashar al Assad’s regime is the second most frequent target, with the Islamic State’s suicide bombers striking the Syrian government’s forces on 89 occasions. The remaining bombings struck “Kurdish units” (54), the “Syrian opposition” (31 times), the Peshmerga (25), Fajr Libya (10) and General Khalifa Haftar’s fighters in Libya (1).

Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) are used more often than individual bombers strapped with explosives, according to Amaq. The infographics count 301 VBIEDs used in suicide attacks (62 percent of the total) as compared to 184 bombings using explosive belts, jackets and vests. The remaining four are listed as “dual operations.”

Assuming Amaq’s data are accurate, then the Islamic State’s “martyrdom” machine is setting a record pace for suicide operations.

See more

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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