Number of Suicide Attacks Around the World Continues to Decline, Study Finds

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Suicide bombing in Pakistan, February 2020.
Suicide bombing in Pakistan, February 2020.Credit: Arshad Butt / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The number of suicide attacks around the world continued to decline in 2020, falling by 14.5 percent compared to 2019. Last year also saw a sharp drop in the number of dead and wounded in suicide attacks, according to an annual study by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.

In 2020, there were 127 suicide attacks, committed by 177 assailants, compared to 149 carried out by 236 attackers in 2019. The number of suicide attackers declined by 25 percent. (Some attacks were committed by cells or by several assailants).

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Three countries saw the bulk of the attacks – Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. The vast majority continued to be carried out by Sunni Muslim groups identified with the extremist salafi jihadist movement.

Suicide attacks in 2020 claimed the lives of about 765 victims, less than half of 2019’s 1,855 fatalities. The same pattern goes for the injured, which numbered 1,925 people, compared to 3,663 the year before. Researchers Yoram Schweitzer, Aviad Mendelboim and Arella Hendler-Bloom, who produced the survey, say this follows similar decline between 2018 and 2019.

The coronavirus pandemic had a relatively minor impact on the nature of the attacks, Schweitzer told Haaretz. “For a short period, jihadists were ordered to take cover from the pandemic and to exercise caution. During that period, there were few suicide attacks. As the year progressed... dozens of attacks of all kinds were carried out, including suicide bombings in particular,” Schweitzer said.

The scene of a terrorist attack in Afghanistan, October 2020.Credit: Wali Sabawoon / AP

“In the West, targets ‘disappeared’ from the streets and from entertainment areas, which could explain in part the relatively low number of attacks. Ultimately, if it had an impact, it disappeared into the annual average figure. The reason for the decline is not related to the pandemic,” he explained.

The authors of the study, which is conducted under the auspices of the institute’s program on terrorism and low-intensity conflict, said groups identified with salafi jihadism were responsible for about 95 percent of all suicide attacks.

“In the coming decade, it will become clear whether the decline... is an indication that they have exhausted the advantages [that they derived from the attacks] or whether it is the result of the circumstances of the organizations and an improved ability of the affected countries to foil them,” Schweitzer explained.

Nevertheless, he added, suicide terrorism will remain a threat in the coming years, because of its symbolic importance and due to the value placed on self-sacrifice by salafi jihadist groups, Schweitzer said.

Over the past year, there was also a decline in the number of countries targeted by suicide terrorism – 17 compared to 24 in 2019. For the third year running, Asia was the worst-hit continent, particularly Afghanistan, where there were 57 suicide attacks in 2020 – or 45 percent of all such attacks anywhere in the world. Most of the attacks in Afghanistan were committed by members of the Taliban and mainly targeted the country’s security forces.

There were 37 suicide attacks in Africa in 2020, about 29 percent of the global total, most of them in Somalia. The main perpetrators were the Somali Al-Shabab movement, an Al Qaida partner, and Boko Haram, which is active in West Africa and is ideologically linked to the Islamic State. The region actually saw a small increase in the number of suicide attacks.

In the Middle East, which, until a few years ago, was the region most plagued by suicide attacks, there were 33 attacks in 2020, about 26 percent of the global total, two-thirds of them in Syria. There has been a marked decline in the Islamic State’s involvement in suicide attacks; it only carried out eight attacks in Iraq last year.

Overall, more attacks were committed in 2020 by groups affiliated with Al Qaida than Islamic State. By the authors’ count, 52 percent of all the suicide attacks anywhere in the world last year were carried out by Al Qaida and its affiliates, compared to 28 percent by the Islamic State and its proxies. The INSS survey files the Afghan Taliban in Al Qaida’s camp, with of the networks’ members based in the Central Asian country.

The scene of a terrorist attack in Afghanistan, in 2019.Credit: Rahmat Gul / AP

There were less women among suicide attackers, nine as opposed to 14 in 2019. Most were linked to Boko Haram.

Over the past decade, more than 3,000 suicide attacks have been committed in 45 countries, killing more than 31,000 people and injuring another 57,000. The countries worst hit over this period were Iraq (where about 800 attacks took place), Afghanistan (with roughly 650), Syria (about 320), Nigeria (about 300), Pakistan (approximately 220), Somalia (about 200) and Yemen (about 130).

Both 2011, which opened the decade, and 2020, which closes it out, were marked by a relatively low incidence of suicide attacks. In contrast, between 2014 and 2016, when the Islamic State was at its height and controlled wide areas of Iraq and Syria, the number of suicide attacks ranged between 450 and 590 a year. The period of the decline of ISIS, which led to its collapse in 2019, also witnessed a substantial drop in suicide attacks.

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