2017 Saw Fewer Suicide Attacks Worldwide, but More Women Bombers

A record-high 137 women carried out suicide bombings in a year in which 4,310 people died in such attacks, according to a Tel Aviv University report

People standing near flower tributes for the 22 people killed in a suicide bombing in Manchester, Britain on May 26.
Rui Vieira/AP

Last year saw fewer suicide bombings worldwide than any of the three preceding years.

Nevertheless, terrorist organizations continued to make widespread use of suicide bombers against both military and civilian targets, and the year was particularly noteworthy for an increase in the use of women and girls as suicide bombers, according to Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, which has tracked suicide bombings for years.

The report for 2017, written by Aviad Mendelboim and Yoram Schweitzer, said the leading perpetrators of suicide terror were the Islamic State, various offshoots of Al-Qaida and other organizations that identify with Salafi-jihadi Islam. It predicted that suicide terror would remain common in 2018, “due to the advantages of this modus operandi in building an image of strength and the deterrent capability of its operators.”

The report included only suicide bombings that could be verified. The researchers said they were unable to verify some of the suicide attacks reported by Islamic State, because verification is difficult in areas where intensive fighting is taking place, like northern Iraq and eastern Syria. But they suspect the organization many have inflated its statistics.

For terrorist organizations, suicide attacks remain one of the most effective ways of achieving their goals, the report said, both because of the high number of casualties they cause and because, given the difficulty of deterring someone bent on dying during an attack, they make the targeted population feel powerless. Such attacks therefore help organizations “make themselves look much stronger than their actual strength.”

The scene of a suicide bombing at the entrance of a wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 9 people on November 16.
Rahmut Gul/AP

The 2017 report covers 348 suicide attacks in 23 countries perpetrated by 623 people. Of the attackers, 137 were women, the highest number yet recorded. In 2016, there were 77 female suicide bombers, and in 2015, there were 118. The rise in the number of female attackers is due mainly to Boko Haram, a west African organization affiliated with Islamic State.

Last year’s suicide attacks killed some 4,310 people and wounded about 6,700.

Islamic State remained the leading perpetrator of suicide attacks, either directly or via its local affiliates. Together, the group and its affiliates committed some 220 attacks last year, or 63 percent of the total. But that is down from 322 attacks, or 70 percent of the total, in 2016.

Together with Al-Qaida and its offshoots, Islamic State and its affiliates accounted for almost 90 percent of last year’s suicide bombings. No organization claimed responsibility for most of the rest, but the researchers believe most were probably carried out by Salafi groups.

Although most suicide attacks last year took place in the Middle East, the number of suicide bombings committed in the region declined by over 50 percent. In contrast, Africa and south Asia both saw sharp increases in the number of suicide attacks, of 30 and 21.5 percent, respectively.

Iraq saw the most suicide attacks last year (64), followed by Syria (40). But in both countries, the number of suicide bombings fell by about 50 percent compared to 2016, and the same was true for Libya. Yemen suffered 11 suicide bombings and Egypt 10; Lebanon and Saudi Arabia saw two each and Turkey one.

13 attempted suicide bombings foiled in West Bank

The Gaza Strip also experienced one suicide bombing, by a member of a Salafi group who blew himself up when Hamas forces tried to arrest him. In contrast, there were no suicide bombings against Israeli targets, though the Shin Bet security service says this was not for lack of effort by Hamas cells in the West Bank. The agency says it foiled 13 attempted suicide bombings last year.

Asia suffered 101 suicide bombings last year, or 29 percent of the total, up from 83 in 2016 (17.5 percent of the total). Much of the increase occurred in Afghanistan.

Africa saw 112 suicide bombings (32 percent of the total), up from 86 (18 percent) in 2016. The increase was due mainly to increased activity by local affiliates of Islamic State. Nigeria suffered the most suicide attacks (57), followed by Somalia (26) and Cameroon (25). But in Somalia, unlike in the other two, Al-Qaida affiliates were the main perpetrators rather than Islamic State.